The Roman emperor Heliogabalus relied on a series of unusual devices to inscribe himself in the portions of popular history devoted to eccentrics, serial killers, and the sexually voracious. At times he fit into each of these categories, frequently all three. He most famously designed a hollow bronze bull in which he roasted criminals or political opponents. The Roman public did not condemn this. Instead they focused their ire on a decidedly less sanguinary device: a series of cunningly constructed mirrors that Heliogabalus had caused to be hung in his bedroom. The mirrors were arranged so that the Emperor could watch himself in his various sexual entanglements, most especially with his male slaves. The Roman public objected to this device because it used magnifying mirrors.
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Spring has arrived at Princeton late for the meeting and without its briefcase – disordered, manic, and entirely colder than it should be. Nonetheless it manages to improvise a few fine days and some delicate evenings perfect for a cashmere sweater and some room-temperature scotch. At the Terrace Club no one seems to care. We have shut ourselves into a room the size and temperature of Heliogabalus’ bull and we are watching The O.C..
At Terrace The O.C. takes place between cocktail hour and the bacchanals of the evening. I can say without fear of hyperbole that it is a major social event. About thirty people perch on the TV room banquettes like rooks on a ledge; more occupy the scabrous, foul-smelling couches on the floor. You would have to press your nose into a couch to detect its trademark odor since everyone smokes constantly and the air turns the color of skim milk in a cheap plastic glass. Heat and alcohol spice the air further into an exotic soup found only here and downstairs in the taproom.
The fact that the cocktail bar has been open for two hours is probably the only way that the audience can stand to be here; actually, calling it cocktails on this particular day is rather generous. The theme this week (cocktails are held every Thursday at 5:45PM) is fraternities, and Elizabeth and Catie, the cocktails chairs, have been handing out Pabst Blue Ribbon in cans and Jungle Juice in grubby disposable cups. Local knowledge holds that Jungle Juice, a tasteless and odorless mélange of Kool-Aid and Everclear grain alcohol, is the frat boy’s favorite tool of sexual coercion, since it drinks like water but has vastly more alcohol per volume than vodka.
Terrace is not, despite its rustic furnishings, a fraternity, but the Jungle Juice proves popular nonetheless and probably does much to contribute to the intensity of television watching. The crowd watching The O.C. is not simply a bunch of individuals watching a television show. It’s an Audience. It has its own rules, which it inflicts mercilessly on outsiders wandering in – the first, or golden, rule is to be quiet while the show is on. The audience enforces this rule with outraged shouting – “SHUT UP!” delivered humorlessly is the preferred phrasing, though Sara and Elizabeth (who seem to be the designated enforcers today) occasionally introduce something more creative – “Be quiet, Wastoids(1)!” or “Shut the fuck up or I will fucking kick you in the face!” Woe betide the neophyte who blurts out, “Who’s that?” during a critical scene, or the amiable drunk who wanders in to see what all the hush is about.
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The characters on The O.C. love to watch themselves, or at least thinly fictionalized versions of themselves. Ryan, Marisa, Seth and Summer enjoy The Valley, a popular television show which is The O.C.’s avatar within itself. Seth, Summer, and the unlikable dullard Zach have also collaborated on a series of superhero comics, lovingly drawn pulps in which the characters appear as (scarcely) exaggerated versions of themselves. Seth Cohen’s alter ego (my personal favorite) is The Ironist.
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The characters’ haircuts open windows into their psyches.
Ryan: A sheepdog-like bowl cut, dirty blonde. Simple, thrifty, but also the shape of an ideal battering ram.
Marissa: Limp and sappy, like the last inane drizzle of honey from a depleted plastic bear.
Seth: Seth’s hair reclines atop his head, like a soused Impressionist painter on a chaise-longe, readying his cognac and bon mots. In this case the painter turns out to be Toulouse-Lautrec.
Summer: Summer is a brunette, so that the viewers will know that she has hidden depths.
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I am standing at the bottom of Terrace’s blue-carpeted stairs talking with Kean, who is welcome at The O.C. but is not a devoted fan. It is about eight fifteen, just after the beginning of the show, and I am about to slink off because I have a cold and can’t take the atmosphere. Elizabeth, the sharp-tongued arbiter of order, charges in to the club, tossing off her customary greeting (“Bitches!” delivered with a buzzing Z at the end) as she stomps into the kitchen.
She emerges with a paper cup of tea and heads up the stairs, asking “What did I miss?”
“They’re all at the Death Cab show,” I tell her. Marisa and Ryan had a smoldering confrontation about this concert in front of their lockers (Their school consists entirely of lockers). “I love Death Cab!” Elizabeth responds. We say the next part together: “They’re so indie!” She continues her ascent in the grim manner of Edmund Hillary, never looking back.
Death Cab for Cutie, the band which we have just judged and sentenced, exists in the real world. The Fox network has made much of their appearance on The O.C. Many of my friends listen to Death Cab (they generally call it Death Cab, something that Marissa seems to have picked up on). Death Cab performs a song called “The Sound of Settling” that most people would probably recognize even if they could not name it. I guess now that they have been on The O.C. they are not indie anymore, even for people who love The O.C.
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At lunch with Julia and Jacob we begin casting famous figures of social thought as characters in The O.C.. “Sandy Cohen is obviously Walter Benjamin,” I contribute.
“Yes!” Jacob cries, “I can picture him walking in to the breakfast table with Seth and Ryan and throwing down a copy of the first season on DVD – ‘Look! They have us!’”
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A typical episode – this is what things are like in the second season of The O.C.. Seth and Ryan, in their roles as dutiful Cohen children (Ryan, not a Cohen by blood, has learned to play this part through the trials of the first season) help prepare for the Orange County Charity Yard Sale by photographing and cataloguing the unwanted treasures of the local nobility. The (literal?) jewel in the crown of these goods is an enormous crystal egg, prominently featured in the movie Risky Business. Trey, Ryan’s rough-hewn brother from Chino, casts an avaricious eye on said egg. In The O.C.’s cosmology Chino fills the role of the Wild West, or possibly Gehenna, producing amoral thugs who must grind away the sharp points of their rage and violence in the wealthy rock-tumbler that is Newport Beach – Ryan came originally from Chino.
The auction begins and Ryan, prowling the back rooms, notices that someone has purloined the crystal egg (a $10,000 value); he suspects Trey, who needs money for a deposit on his new apartment (Trey also lives with the Cohens). Under very light interrogation Trey confesses to having pawned the egg, since none of the obscenely wealthy people of Orange County would miss it. Ryan and Seth set out for Chino in one of the Cohen family’s stable of luxury SUVs (Ryan knows the pawn shop that Trey used). Seth’s guile and Ryan’s ability to punch people win through and they retrieve the egg just in time for Mr. Cohen to auction it
Subplots frequently interrupt this master narrative: Ryan and Marissa rekindle their romance during nightly meetings at the refrigerator (Marissa also lives in the Cohen’s tasteful mansion during this episode), Sandy Cohen butts heads with Kirsten Cohen’s extramarital love interest from work, and Seth and Zach negotiate with another of Orange County’s apparently limitless number of high-profile comic book publishers.
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Just as the British colonial Raj took their gin with tonic and quinine, so does the Terrace O.C. community take its entertainment with a cool wash of irony. Roman writers, usually cultural elites themselves, frequently complained about the perversion of their emperors: Nero, for instance (if I remember correctly), ate only seafood when he was inland and only grains and beef when he was on the shore; he commanded boats to sail on oceans of wine in the arena and disported himself in animal skins. He reversed everything.
So too, perhaps, does the audience at Terrace. The O.C. is in many ways a truly stupid show; its plots consist of endless iterations of the same set of relationships (Seth-Summer and Ryan-Marissa), its characters generally possess at most two dimensions, and its conflicts are either annoying social maneuverings among the adults or a rehash of the essential inability of people from Chino to adjust to Orange County life (Ryan for the first season, and his clone Trey for the second). Yet the dialogue is charming and often witty (something that I have not captured in this review), the characters are extremely attractive, and the show bears an indefinable aura of smartness that is entirely separate from any part of its content.
Much like our frat-boy cocktails, the show exerts a charm that has nothing to do with its substance or form (no one would order Jungle Juice at any kind of restaurant, no matter how seedy) and everything to do with the capacity to enjoy things precisely because they should not be enjoyable. Who would really wish to watch the petty, picayune stratagems of the wealthy and stupid? Who could possibly care about the fate of an intensely ugly crystal egg whose only value comes from its attachment to a movie which, though culturally visible, can hardly be considered important? Who cares if Ryan, whose acting range consists of several subtle shadings of sulk, gets back together with Marissa, whose acting seems to rest upon whatever alchemy allows her to talk and move about without ever eating anything?
Apparently we all would – the Roman nobility may have criticized Nero and Caius Caligula and Heliogabalus, but most records show that the public adored these memorably perverted emperors. Lovers of orchids go to the hothouse, and lovers of irony watch The O.C. – and aren’t we more engaged, doing all this work to like the unlikable, than we would be watching something of legitimate value?
(1) A Wastoid is something like a bon vivant or libertine, one who drinks frequently, sociably, and spectacularly; at least this is its sense among friends – when hurled in abuse it means an annoying drunk.