Growing Up In Orange County With “The OC”


The OC was an ensemble drama that aired on the FOX network from 2003 to 2007. The series had nine principal characters that lived in Newport Beach. Four of the principal cast members – Seth, Summer, Ryan, Marissa – were 16 in 2003 when the series began. They were loaded. Seth and Ryan’s house had a poolhouse with a cliff-style view of the ocean and enough space in the backyard to throw events with 80+ names on the guestlist. Summer lived in a mansion with a grotto and drove a BMW. Her mom had a “pill problem,” though Summer never bat a lash at the presence of Xanax, Percocet, and Klonopin. 99% of the show was shot in Malibu, CA (which is decidedly less gaudy than Newport Beach).

The real Orange County, CA is just south of Los Angeles. The bottom half of the county is the wealthiest – Newport, Corona Del Mar, Laguna, San Clemente. I lived in a cul-de-sac in Huntington Beach (the middle of ‘The OC’). My backyard was small. It had a crippled lemon tree. A small shed with a lock – the key nonexistent. I drove a 1990 VW Passat station wagon for the first half of high school. It would stall in the middle of intersections. Its transmission was replaced at least three times.

My friends and I ‘met’ Seth, Summer, Ryan, and Marissa in 2003. Up until then, we thought no one ever talked about our town; no one had ever heard of it. Seth, Summer, Ryan and Marissa became those friends you only talked about knowing. We wanted to know what they knew about us. We knew it was a soap opera, designed to pull us in and keep us close. We did so, willingly. We not-so-secretly envied Seth and Marissa, even when we yelled at them for making bad decisions. Choices we were unable to make because we didn’t have enough money or the right script.

At our “OC parties,” we laughed at all of Seth’s jokes and winced when he was about to fail with Summer. Said things like “if he actually went to Marina he’d be such a poser.” We hid our smiles when a sarcastic dig at Newpsies was thrown, when they went to Modest Mouse together. We, that group in the corner who’d hear “emo faggots” as the football team walked by, hadn’t even seen Modest Mouse. We wanted to be Seth. He listened to Bright Eyes and Death Cab for Cutie and still dated the untouchable, intimidating girls at his high school. Those kinds who wouldn’t look at us boys with long hair and too-tight jeans, who didn’t play football, who would go ice-blocking or sit outside of Del Taco when there wasn’t anyone around to buy us booze.

Modest Mouse never came to Orange County. Neither did The Killers, or Death Cab for Cutie. Wouldn’t it be awesome if they came here, we asked each other during commercial breaks. Yeah, except they had no where to play.

I had my own Marissa Cooper in high school, except we never hooked up. She went to Sage Hill and was a collagist and a lover of Marc Jacobs. She begrudgingly attended cotillion. We blasted The Smiths and Rilo Kiley while we drove down PCH in the afternoon in her Audi A4, ashing Camels out the window. She hated home. Her mother was a drunk who didn’t know how to love her daughter. Her father was kind, but always on a work trip. So she found solace in her friends, and would have terrifying, truly amazing tantrums when inebriated on alcohol and/or other illicit substances. She is still alive though, and doesn’t get existentially shit on as much anymore. She’s well, according to her Facebook. Last time I saw her was two years ago. She still had her Audi. She’d stopped shaving her arm pits. She wore a Marc Jacobs t-shirt that I remembered from high school, it was peppered with holes.

The OC did come to Huntington Beach once, to film a season one episode on a golf course. This happened at Seacliff Country Club. The girls in our group squealed, planned the day they would meet Seth Cohen. They were going to ditch school and catch them on lunch from filming. Fuck Seth, we said. Us boys wanted to ditch too, maybe catch a glimpse of Anna. I fantasized about charming her over with my varied, expansive taste in music, then going to TK Burger to get shakes and ahi-ahi burgers. We’d get stoned and make out in my Volkswagen, listening to something twee. Later Smashing Pumpkins, maybe.

There’s an episode during Season Two where Sandy Cohen and Jimmy Cooper are having dinner. Jimmy Cooper wants to leave The OC. Sandy encourages him. This place is a vortex, says Sandy, it’ll swallow you up. That part is true. Orange County is full of secrets, and they consume you. Secret joys and tragedies. When you don’t leave that place, anything that isn’t 75 degrees or bikini-clad or wrapped in a corn tortilla is exciting. Like Santa Ana’s rockabilly scene. The mysterious death of a stripper-turned-informant in Orange. Local AA meetings are peppered with old, melted punk rockers.

Things I didn’t find in my OC: The Cohen’s mansion, the trophy wife, the publicized Irvine Group (read: “Newport Group”) scandals, The Bait Shop, Chrismukkah, the comic book kids. As the show entered its third season, when I got a car and my first blow job, when my friends had boyfriends and girlfriends, when Seth started listening to “bad music” (which meant anything after 1996 for us, who listened to Death Cab anymore? We want Fugazi), when Marissa Cooper died, when Ryan got over it, Orange County felt real again. Flat, boring, beautiful, secretive.

Orange County is weird. But it is home. All of my close friends are from there. And as gilded and fake the show made my town out to be – as did the other OC shows that followed – I’ll still love it. The show is ridiculous. But it gave us an excuse to hang out on a school night. And it made our home feel less isolated. Orange County is like LA’s weird second cousin. There is no where else where you can buy weed, drive down PCH to eat a tofu mushroom burger, then walk on the beach in the space of an hour. One thing I would like to clarify: none of us say “shakka” seriously. Stop making fun of us for that. Shakka.

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