I first entered the world of Orange County, California when I was in eighth grade. Brilliant blue waters, expanses of smooth sand, and elaborate mansions with infinity pools—all of it dazzled and allured me. Even more enticing than the scenery was Orange County’s fascinating cast of characters, from snobby rich girls to troubled teens to virtuous fathers, and the possibilities of excitement and adventure they brought with them. Life in Orange County was gripping; there were unfolding love triangles, nasty cat fights, car thefts, and wild parties, all of which kept me glued to my basement couch that first fateful night during eight straight episodes of The O.C.
While the glamour and drama of The O.C. are what initially kept me mesmerized on the couch, I soon became deeply involved in the characters and relationships on the show. The show centered around “the core four,” consisting of the popular but troubled Marissa; her fiery best friend Summer; the awkward and endearing Seth; and Ryan, a troubled teen from the “bad” neighborhood who was later adopted by Seth’s family. The characters became real people to me, and, returning to them week after week, I began to think of them as friends.
As foreign and intriguing as the world of Orange County was, I could relate to the characters and relationships, and I think that’s why I committed to this show in particular. Just like my friends in real life, the characters had their own quirks and mannerisms, which soon became familiar to me—I began to understand Ryan’s reserved character as a consequence of his unhappy childhood, and Seth’s quick sarcasm could make me laugh on my worst days. The characters had their own inner demons and troubles to deal with, ranging from Seth’s insecurity to Ryan’s savior complex, and this made them all the more real to me. Love, friendship, stress, heartbreak, schoolwork, fights with parents—I recognized the complexity of my life reflected in their fabricated world. Watching them deal with their own fears and doubts helped me gain the strength to face mine.
As I grew closer to the characters, I also became more deeply involved in their relationships. Of course, I was invested in their romances—I longed for Marissa and Ryan to work out their differences, and I was confident that Summer and Seth could make it through even the roughest of rough patches—but I was also absorbed by their friendships and familial relationships because the characters and their bonds seemed so sincere. I was emotionally invested in their lives; I hoped for things to work out for them and empathized when they did not. I think this was because I recognized the complexities and intimacies of my own relationships in those featured on the show.
This sort of identification led me to regard these TV relationships as examples to be learned from. When my high school boyfriend and I broke up before college, I looked to Marissa and Ryan for inspiration. As much as I had longed for them to get back together, Marissa and Ryan recognized the futility of this option and the potential damage it could cause them, and they found ways to move on. In my own life, I desperately wished that my relationship could last as my boyfriend and I started new lives nine hours away from each other. However, I knew that trying to maintain our relationship with such distance between us would create on-going stress in my life rather than perpetuating the joy we’d shared in the past. I realized, just as Marissa and Ryan did, that sometimes it’s better to accept that something good existed and has ended rather than to try to force it to continue past its time.
I also learned to better appreciate the relationships in my own life by watching those featured on The O.C. Watching Marissa and Summer joke around, look out for and support each other, I recalled moments like these with my own best friends: times when I called crying at two o’clock in the morning, knowing they’d answer no matter the time; times when we lounged on the floor, sharing junk food and funny stories for hours on end. As Sandy and Kirsten (Seth’s biological and Ryan’s adopted parents) struggled to make moral decisions in their careers and private lives and to provide support for their kids, I was reminded how hard my own parents worked to give me the same guidance. I realized that perhaps one of the reasons my dad, one of the most dedicated people I know, worked so hard was to show me that persistence pays off. The O.C. constantly reminded me that the genuine, intense, and complex relationships we engage in are what truly give value to our lives.
As the core four experienced loss, heartbreak, love, and friendship, I experienced it right alongside them. During the season three finale, I cried most not after the death of one of the main characters (as heartbreaking as it was), but as Ryan, Marissa, Seth, and Summer graduated high school. As they accepted their diplomas, as their parents cheered, as they exchanged hugs, nostalgia filled my mind and tears streamed down my cheeks as I thought forward to my own graduation. It seemed impossible to believe that my friends and I were ending the important chapter of our lives that was high school and were preparing to start new journeys. I couldn’t believe we were old enough, ready enough. When we go about our daily lives, or watch TV characters go about theirs, change happens so gradually that we hardly notice it—as I watched the season three finale, I felt as though my friends and I were the same as we’d been years ago, when we’d started our journey together. But rewatching episodes from the first season, the characters of The O.C. seemed starkly more inexperienced, younger, more naïve, and it dawned on me just how much we’d all grown up over the course of those three seasons. Looking back three years in my own life, I also had so much to discover and learn, so much development to undergo. My friends in Orange County had faced and overcome so many challenges, maturing and evolving as they went. And hadn’t I faced every challenge with them and learned right along side them? They’d encountered devastating fights with friends and parents, painful breakups, moments of self-doubt and confusion; they’d also experienced so much joy: picturesque days lounging on the beach, laughter-filled parties, first loves. I’d experienced all of this despair and happiness alongside them, both in their world and in my real life, and just as the characters evolved immensely as they went through these events, so did I. Without noticing it, I’d grown and evolved just as much as they had.
I’m not alone in my dedication to a TV show. Nearly every show out there, from Game of Thrones to The Bachelor has avid followers who anxiously await new episodes week after week. Many people say that watching TV is an entertaining way to escape reality, and the glamour and troubles and trials of Orange County life certainly seem to be exactly that. However, The O.C. was much more than an escape; it was a world I became involved in. Following a TV show is about much more than simply watching for entertainment, which implies a sort of passiveness. My engagement with The O.C. and many others’ engagements with various other TV shows—from Homeland to Breaking Bad to True Blood—are very active experiences. We don’t watch passively; we are engaged. We hope. We encourage. We empathize. The characters and their world become real to us, and they become parts of our lives.
We’re able to get so involved in these shows because they become familiar to us and because we recognize elements of our own lives reflected in them. As unfamiliar as a show’s setting might be—from the imaginary world of Game of Thrones to the foreign sands of Orange County, where I’ve never actually set foot—we’re able to ground ourselves in the reality reflected in the characters and their relationships, and in doing so, these TV worlds become parts of our real world.
The O.C. became an extension of my life, but a part that was always reliable and enjoyable. No matter what had gone wrong in my life—an extremely difficult test, a fight with a friend, a particularly stressful day—my friends in Orange County were always waiting for me, ready to cheer me up. I could count on the characters as constants in my life, and this familiarity was a comfort to me. I remember a particularly unpleasant Wednesday afternoon in 10th grade, when I was ill and tired and overwhelmed with homework to do, and to top it all off, I had Hebrew school that night. The promise of watching The O.C., shining like a light at the end of a dark, gloomy tunnel, got me through that long day. I raced through my homework, knowing that when it was all done I could fall with a relieved sigh into the arms of my Californian friends. Watching the episode didn’t make my work or exhaustion or illness disappear, and it didn’t excuse me from my obligation to attend Hebrew school that night, but it acted as a close friend wrapping me in a comfortable hug, reminding me to stay positive and that everything would be okay.
The familiarity of The O.C. is still a comfort to me, and as I prepared for college this summer, the 1st season of the show on DVD was an integral addition to the contents of my overflowing duffle bags. I’m sure that someday in the future, when midterms and extracurricular activities and grade deflation all seem like too much, or when I’m just feeling homesick and longing for some comfort, I’ll pull out my collection of DVDs and meet up with my friends in Orange County, the people I grew up with and learned from. I know that they’ll always be there waiting to welcome me back with open arms.