A Year without Meaning

19 09 2007

The chlorophyll will drain and the decay will resemble speckled fire. Then the leaves will detach from their branches and float, swaying in the breeze, to the ground. The days will shrink. So will the temperatures. We will see summer wage battle against the inevitability of winter, clashing in one brilliant final stand. The nights will grow and we will stare at the sky with our minds ablaze.

But something will be missing. A piece of the past four autumns is no more, and on that, we reflect.

Four falls ago, The OC entered school with my BU Class of 2007, sneaking into the collective campus consciousness through the backdoor. FOX pushed another show that year, if you remember, flooding the ALCS playoffs with a ceaseless chain of advertisements. It was called Skin, and it lasted two episodes. But The OC exploded over the course of its first year, with a 17 percent ratings hike from first to last episodes, and those vapors held an audience while the show declined steadily for the next three years, finally leaving when we did.

And with a post-modern, self-mocking spin on the soap opera, it gave us an aesthetic vision that won over even the most skeptical of viewers (which is, of course, my friend Mike Lipka). It renewed in us a sense of romance, managing to insert humor and some ironic detachment into storylines and moments that would have otherwise been more unforgiveably sentimental than Five for Fighting songs. My two-year roommate Nils once claimed that The OC reminded us of the way we used to dream.

But in the beginning, the show began in the same fashion that Skin did: with some wary, cautious attention. Viewers gave it a chance because, in college, that’s what you do.

“In the beginning, I think it was just fascinating to have a glimpse into this unfathomable (yet awesome) society that most of us have never seen and likely never will,” said Joe Rouse, BU 2006 grad. “But at the same time, it was easy to identify with the characters and their plights.”

Good writing is good writing. But something else jolted The OC to its status as a cultural phenomenon, a force that bound together millions of students, popularized Chrismukkah and almost singlehandedly made indie rock cool. Still today, Mixes from the OC albums always sell very, very well and Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” erupted because it closed off Season Two.

What made The OC so popular, and what exactly pulled in Lipka, who would return to his apartment at night to find his roommates huddled around a laptop screen, watching old episodes?

“It was witty and well-written and there was good character development,” Lipka said. “It wasn’t anything specific, but it was just a well-written show.”

The OC was the American Dream for 50 minutes on Wednesdays, then Thursdays. A bad, down-and-out kid with talent and underlying embers (Ryan) can find redemption and success. A nothing kid (Seth) can land the prettiest girl in school (Summer).

But it also entailed some levelling, the inevitable implosion of the highest percentile. The rich didn’t always get richer. Sure, they exploited people. Caleb played the old robber baron motif well. But they also toppled. See: Cooper family, from Julie to Jimmy to Marissa to Caitlin.

We saw, in one show, the courtly dramas usually assigned to royalty, only Americanized. (Like that Saves the Day song: “Cars and Calories,” this was “the plastic canopy of U.S. royalty”)

“There’s Seth, the dorky guy with the dreamgril that barely knows he exists, to Ryan, the outsider that doesn’t really fit in, to Marissa, the girl who has the perfect world on the outside but is a mess on the inside. Even the parents and their stories were interesting.

“And, keep in mind, this primarily describes Season One. The following season lost sight of where the show came from originally.”

What brought me in for good was their use of ‘The Valley,’ a vapid soap — Summer’s favorite show — that the writers used to cartoon their own show. Seth would make fun of plotlines in ‘The Valley’ that were the same as the ones going on in the show. It was the same as wearing an ‘I’m with Stupid’ t-shirt with the arrow pointing upwards. And for a kid who at that point loved metafiction, this was as perfect massive conduit. Hell, it was what I was learning in class and reading in Eggers’ books.

That outside commentary caught myself and my peers at the perfect time. Our lifes were mediated experiences, viewed from a safe ironic distance, as we saw ourselves and everything else through an external lens. Sarcasm was our crutch. Incongruity and irony were our pedestals, our ways of showing we were above this world of commonplace emotion.

After all, the crux of the show resided in Ryan’s outside perspective. He viewed the Newpsies as a non-initiate. It was when he began to be lose his perspective that the show lost its own, bogging itself down in its characters’ dramas without removal.

“Ryan was no longer an outsider, but had assimilated 100 percent into OC culture and thus lost his individuality,” Rouse said about the seasons after One.

People clung to Season One the same way you’d cling to a relationship that was wilting. Every episode in Season Two had its moments, and it finished with a flair over the final few episodes. But every episode after the first two seemed to offer glimpses into the brilliance and beauty that were the first and part of the second year.

We still crammed around TVs. Production of the Daily Free Press stalled for an hour on Thursday while we all stood completely still in the editor’s office so the FOX signal could travel, uninhibited, to our TV’s antennae. It was collective, it was corny and it was fantastic.  

The writers seemed to lose track of their characters. By trying to develop those characters — which they, of course, had to — they devalued them.

“Part of the appeal in Season One was that things moved so quickly — if you didn’t like a particular storyline, it was over in a couple episodes,” Rouse said. “By the end (even though I did enjoy season 4) the storylines were moving at a snail’s pace (i.e. Seth not getting into Brown).

“Additionally, they robbed the characters of much of what made them unique: Summer was no longer the ditzy girl who said ‘Ew’ in response to everything; she was a token piece of eye candy with a generic personality,” he continued. “Ironically, even Seth, as he became more cool, became much less so.”

Said Lipka: “Once the characters were developed, they just disregarded them.”

What the writers did was make high-schoolers (well, characters who were in high school — Ben MacKenzie was almost 30 when the show was canned) complex, and that may be the problem. High schoolers by nature lack complexity.

I’m not sure we want to see the hot girl become anything but a ditz or the bad kid learn diplomacy. The jocks need to stuff kids in lockers and start fights. The druggies can’t quote Shakespeare, et cetera. Maybe these characters were exception. But I still think that we wanted them to play their Season One roles forever, and so did the writers. Maybe we wanted them to freeze, to always remind us of those days when we were built of dreams.

When things were simple.

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