Ten years ago today, The O.C. debuted on Fox, following an installment of the floundering American Idol spinoff American Juniors. The nearly 7.5 million viewers who tuned in were treated to a new kind of prime-time soap, one that took the Beverly Hills, 90210 formula and infused it with enough pop-culture references and meta-humor to make Kevin Williamson jealous. Creator Josh Schwartz was a day shy of turning 27 when the show’s debut turned him into television’s latest wunderkind virtually overnight and his teen melodrama introduced us to the flashy, materialistic community of Newport Beach when kind-hearted, misunderstood delinquent Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie) arrives to make life a little more interesting for comic-book enthusiast Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), crush-worthy brat Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson), her troubled best friend Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), and Seth’s attendant parents, Sandy and Kirsten (Peter Gallagher and Kelly Rowan, respectively).
After the show went off the air in 2007, Schwartz went on to co-create Chuck and Gossip Girl, the latter with Stephanie Savage (with whom he runs Fake Empire Productions and executive-produces the current CW series The Carrie Diaries and Hart of Dixie). All this week we will be celebrating the tenth anniversary of The O.C., and to kick it off Vulture chatted with Schwartz at great length about the soap’s enduring influence, in the process getting critical details about a possible Bernie Madoff–O.C. connection, Nipplegate’s impact on the show, and the Arrested Development crossover that never was.
McG, one of The O.C.’s executive producers, wanted the series to have a lot of action. How did The O.C. evolve into what you ended up making?
McG and Stephanie Savage were figuring out ways to do something about Orange County. And I think McG’s initial instinct was — this was around the time of extreme sports — to do something in that world. And I said, “This is not my experience with Orange County,” and I talked [to them] about my experience as a Jewish kid from the East Coast coming to USC.
Well, McG did get his wish eventually: Marissa’s death scene came with a huge explosion, and then Ryan became a cage fighter.
That’s true! It all came full circle in the end.
“Welcome to the O.C., bitch!” became the show’s awesome, default catchphrase. What inspired that?
Well, you framed the question in a way that I can only sound self-congratulatory — I did come up with that line. Calling [the series] The O.C. at first was kind of controversial. People from Orange County were like, “No one calls it ‘the O.C.’” When I was in college at USC, there were a lot of kids from Orange County there who would always say, when people asked them where they were from, “The O.C.!” Like, they’d throw a little swagger on it, try to act like it was the LBC [Long Beach City, as referenced in many rap songs] — these Republican kids trying to make themselves seem cool. Obviously, having Luke [Marissa’s ex-boyfriend, played by Chris Carmack] say, “Welcome to the O.C., bitch” — just the absurdity of this water-polo-playing Abercrombie model throwing that line out there — seemed funny.
What did you think about that becoming an ongoing joke on Arrested Development?
Which was … ?
Any time someone referred to it as “the O.C.,” Michael Bluth would say, “Don’t call it that.”
It was funny because both shows launched at the same time on Fox. [Arrested Development creator] Mitch Hurwitz and I actually spoke at some Fox event together and had even talked about how, at one point, he wanted to have some of the O.C. actors on Arrested Development playing themselves as the actors from The O.C.
Why didn’t that happen?
We were too busy being meta-ourselves to feel like we could extend the meta to each other’s shows.
Did you see that video that puts Don Draper in The O.C. title sequence?
I did! There are still videos that I see online cut to the Imogen Heap song “Hide & Seek” [featured in the season-two finale]. Saturday Night Live did a parody of it years later, as well. All that stuff is really cool. I enjoy all of it.
People associate the show — and to a large extent, you — with popularizing emo. How would you defend yourself of such an accusation?
[Laughs] Well, I don’t know. I’m not going to defend myself. For me, it was always about using the music to highlight the emotional state of the characters, and finding that perfect song before writing the script. It feels like we’re talking about prehistoric times now, but when the show was on, it was pre–satellite radio, I believe, pre–Internet radio — certainly, pre-iTunes. Terrestrial radio had become incredibly consolidated. MTV wasn’t playing music videos anymore. Really, the only opportunity to get this music out there was through the show. So we were functioning as a form of radio for those years. I take a lot of pride in helping make listeners aware of that music and, hopefully, helping those bands earn a nice living.
Were they always onboard?
Bands initially felt some slight trepidation at having their music played on what they perceived as being a Fox teen soap. But I think they very quickly saw the way we were using music and the kinds of music we were using. I think they felt really safe having their music on the show. There were multiple examples, from Death Cab to the Killers — those two bands come to mind immediately — of being played on the show and [generating] album sales.
T.I. was possibly the most unlikely musical guest you had on the show. How did he come about?
[Laughs] Yeah. We were creating an episode in Miami. The idea was Seth ends up on some MTV-type spring-break show and gets caught in a very compromising position on TV. By the way, the girl he gets in a compromising position with — Jaime King — now stars in Heart of Dixie. Anyway, those spring-break shows traditionally had more of a hip-hop or pop flavor than we were used to playing on the show. So [music supervisor] Alex Patsavas and I got sent this music of up-and-coming hip-hop artists, and T.I. was brand-new. It was infectious, that song — I’m not even sure if it was on the radio yet. And we asked him if he would do it. And he was great. Right away, you were like, “This guy is going to be a big star.” We also had Chris Brown on the show in season four playing a nerdy band geek who meets Kaitlin Cooper.
You also contributed Chrismukkah to pop culture. Was that a nod to Festivus on Seinfeld?
It was not a veiled reference to Festivus. It was more a reflection of this idea of going to USC and being surrounded by all these kids from Newport Beach who were water-polo players, and these very blonde girls who only wanted to date them. I felt very much like an outsider. Even trying to talk about Hanukkah with some of them was like coming from an alien planet and talking about life there. The show is really about outsiders: Ryan was the most obvious outsider, as was Seth. The idea of a mixed [half-Jewish, half-Christian] family in Newport would also contribute to the Cohen outsider-family status. That part of their identity was always very important. Seth coined a holiday that would both celebrate and underline his outsider status in Newport. That led us to Chrismukkah.
Why do you think so many things were set in Orange County in the first half of the aughts? Arrested Development, MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, even the movie Orange County …
I can tell you that Laguna Beach and The Real Housewives came — and I’ve been told this by the people who worked on those shows — because of The O.C. The Arrested Development thing was just a happy accident — both our shows were developed and on the air at the same time. And it was the mid-aughts. We had kind of new money in that area that really spoke to the America we were living in at the moment.
In a recent interview, Peter Gallagher suggested that, on some level, The O.C. was a reaction to the post-9/11 America.
We did discuss that people were looking a lot for escapism, for an opportunity to be transported to a place that felt fun and glamorous, but at the same time, hopefully, emotionally relatable. There weren’t really any night-time serialized dramas on when the show premiered. In fact, I ran into [creator-producer] Marc Cherry at an event, and he told me that he was able to help sell Desperate Housewives because The O.C. reintroduced the idea of nighttime soaps to prime-time television. There weren’t really any teen dramas on, either. So I think it was fortuitous.
The O.C. is also considered one of the forces responsible for the mainstreaming of nerd culture. But wasn’t Seth originally conceived to be a cooler kid?
There was a period where the character wanted to fit in a little bit more. He was an outsider but tried to act like he knew what was going on, and was constantly having the proverbial door slammed in his face. When we cast Adam Brody, his natural energy and his mien was such that — [Seth] was a guy who was nerdy but sort of upfront with his nerdiness and was okay with it. There was initially a battle over the Seth character with Fox executives. They hadn’t done a show like this since 90210, so the note I was getting a lot in the pilot stage was, “Well, if Ryan Atwood is our Luke Perry, who is our Jason Priestley? It certainly can’t be this nerdy Jewish kid.” And all along, I kept saying we’re not doing 90210. When we cast Adam, he was adorable enough — actually adorkable was coined for him and then Fox repurposed it for The New Girl. He was charismatic and the ladies liked him, so the Fox executives felt like, “Okay, this will still appeal to women, just in a different way.” A lot of [Seth] came from Adam’s natural kind of being.
Clearly guys liked him, too, because season one had a healthy male demographic.
I wasn’t trying to design a teen drama with a lot of male appeal. That was just sort of me being a guy. You had two very strong male relationships at the heart of the show: father-son between Sandy and Ryan, and the brother relationship between Ryan and Seth. It didn’t hurt that there were a lot of, you know, attractive women in bikinis as well. But the relatable male point of view made guys comfortable watching it.
You hit nerd jackpot when you scored a George Lucas appearance on the show.
That was sort of like, [absurdly] “What if we tried to get George Lucas to appear on the show?” It seemed like a real impossible task. But he had a teenage daughter who was a fan of the show. I still have the Storm Trooper helmet that I got as a thank-you gift sitting in my office. That was a huge honor. And I got to go to Skywalker Ranch to a screening of Revenge of the Sith. I got to bring my dad, which was a long overdue thank-you to him for taking me to see Return of the Jedi when I was a little kid.
Fox weighed in a lot on the show, especially around Nipplegate. How on Earth would that impact The O.C.?
There was definitely … [Laughs] That was a period when there was a lot of intense push-back across the board. And Fox felt it particularly. I don’t know why — I think they had to testify for Congress? [Super Bowl XXXVIII aired on CBS.] A lot of broadcast-standard battles raged after that. And it was while we were doing the Marissa-Alex lesbian story line. A lot of that extra scrutiny was being aimed at our show.
So killing that plot was a Fox mandate?
It was a larger set of nervousness about that story line from the network brass. I loved Olivia Wilde [who played Alex, Marissa’s brief girlfriend] — she read for Marissa, initially. We created [this] character for her in season two and would love to have kept her on the show.
Casting Jeri Ryan as Kirsten’s shady friend from rehab was a Fox imperative as well, right?
That’s true. There was a lot of pressure on the show, and they moved us to Thursday nights. Somewhere in season three, it seemed like maybe the ratings were starting to soften. There was a real consensus at the network that to make the show broader and more appealing, we should boost the sort of adult soap part of the show. And Desperate Housewives was constantly being cited. In fact, they kept pitching [to me], “If we could just get [Desperate Housewives actress vixen] Nicollette Sheridan to be on the show … ” Which is ironic, given the conversation I mentioned I’d had with Marc Cherry a couple years ago. It was now coming full circle. We sort of helped create the space for Desperate Housewives, and now it was going to completely bite us in the ass: We would have to change to what they were doing because they were obviously this gigantic, massive hit. And so anyway, all of that to say: The network really wanted us to put a Nicollette Sheridan–type character on the show.
What would you say is your favorite episode?
The pilot will always be the most special experience of my life. I never had a show on the air before. Making the show just felt like everything was coming together. I remember every day of making that pilot and what it felt like, how exciting it was. There is also an episode we did in season two, “The Rainy Day Women,” where we decided we were going to bring rain to Newport Beach — and the catastrophic result that rain would have. We were constantly flooding the sets with water and had Seth hanging upside down wearing a Spider-Man mask, kissing Summer. There was a lot of fun and energy that went into making that episode.
How much did you have to torture Adam to film that upside-down kiss?
I think there were a few times where Adam was being hung upside-down for probably too long. [Laughs] There was a lot of blood rushing to his head and water running up his nose. The mask was sticking to his head. That was probably one of the more challenging episodes we threw his way.
Was it like breaking it to Mischa Barton that you were killing off her character in season three?
That was not a fun conversation to have. It was a difficult time on the show. I think some of the younger actors on the show had other aspirations. The show was at a challenging place and we were under a lot of pressure in terms of ratings and to get the show back for the fourth season and all that. We had to do something pretty dramatic. It always felt like it was in the cards for this character — that she would have a tragic ending. She was a tragic heroine from the very first time we met her. And so I think Mischa understood that it all made sense for Marissa’s character. But obviously, it’s always challenging, hard to leave a show that you’ve been a part of. She gave it her all in that episode. And there were a lot of angry teenage girls blowing up the Internet that night.
Everyone had an opinion, much of it negative. How did you feel about that response?
It freaked me out. You know, you’re making a show that you want people to enjoy, and like, there were a lot of people who were upset in a way that was impactful on me. I know television critics had their issues with that character, but there were a lot of audience members for whom that was their favorite character. And they were upset. Immediately, I was like, “Oh god, I hope I did the right thing.”
Meanwhile, Jimmy Cooper has been frequently cited as one of TV’s worst dads.
Awww. Tate Donovan [who played Jimmy] sent me that [Buzzfeed] article, actually. But I do think there was an article that said Sandy Cohen was the best!
Did you initially envision Jimmy to be the way he turned out?
Well, I think Jimmy was always going to be a flawed father. When we meet him in the pilot, he’s up to no good. He’s Madoff-ing the people of Newport, pre-Madoff. Maybe he gave Bernie Madoff the idea. Maybe that’s where he got his inspiration from — from Jimmy Cooper. Let’s put that out there in the world!
Was Tate ever like, “Dude, what are you doing to my character?”
I’m sure. The thing about Tate is he’s so likeable as an actor that he would be able to make you feel for and root for Jimmy Cooper to get his act together. If Tate ever had any frustrations about that, he kept them to himself and really just did a great job of making that character likeable. I would have loved to have kept Jimmy on the show longer. I felt that way in retrospect about Luke and Anna [Summer’s romantic rival for Seth, played by Samaire Armstrong]. We had some great characters that I wish I’d figure out ways to keep around longer.
What about season-one villain Oliver? He wasn’t a fan favorite, but the show would make references to him every so often. It was like a Waiting for Godot thing.
The show was pretty self-referential. Even by the end of the first season we had kind of deconstructed the show completely, in terms of self-awareness. We were also acutely aware of the fan talk-back on message boards. Luckily it was pre-Twitter, or I probably would never have gotten another episode written. Obviously, Oliver was a very controversial character, so we owned and referenced it.
What was feeling while filming the finale?
We did 27 episodes the first season, which is a ton of storytelling. We constantly joke about it: That’s two seasons of a cable show or the equivalent of four seasons of Downton Abbey… The show had had its ups and downs [in between], but there was a sense by the end of the run that we were making an episode that we were really proud of, of a show we were really proud of. Everybody was on set, and we felt like we were closing the loop on the show.