We tune in, week after week, eagerly waiting for a glimpse into the world that is The O.C. Some of us have enthusiastically handed over the Wednesday 9 p.m. time slot, foregoing The Bachelor for this fresher prime time guilty pleasure. Others refuse to admit they are intrigued by the devious plot twists, instead justifying their addiction with the argument that “Mischa Barton is wicked hot.” Whatever the reason, we keep coming back for more, seeking an escape to this lavish world seemingly so different from our own. According to Internet Movie Database, even the show’s tagline – “It’s nothing like where you live. And nothing like what you imagine” – capitalizes on the notion that the lives of these wealthy teens are completely remote to the average viewer.
But are they really? Our lives may seem drab and East Coast, but upon a closer look, Orange County is more like Mercer County than we might like to believe. This world of power hungry social climbers, willing to put down anyone to raise themselves up, living a life of luxury SUVs and hours at the gym, attending ridiculous parties full of scantily clad freshman girls, flowing alcohol, and plenty of coke: is it really so unfamiliar?
To begin with, the Harbor School (where all the O.C. kids study before heading off to Stanford or an East Coast equivalent) and Princeton University are undeniably similar, with their wooden armchairs in trustee-funded libraries, perfectly manicured lawns, and stern female deans, hair in crisp, unmoving bobs. Each provides its students with an obstacle-free path to a prosperous future, be it admission to an Ivy League university (Princeton perhaps?) or an interview with a top i-banking firm. As might be expected, the powers that be at the pristine Harbor School fear the turmoil that outsiders like Ryan Atwood might cause.
The troubled Ryan often feels out of place in extravagant Newport Beach. Hailing from “Chino,” an area with much less money, but much more street cred, he resembles every Jersey Boy here at Princeton who is fiercely proud of his home, but unwilling to actually divulge where home is (lie often heard at Princeton – “Yeah, I’m from New York”). After multiple arrests and too many holidays with his drug-addled family, Ryan has been taken in by the wealthy Cohen family. This is the cause of much ridicule when he returns home for visits (see the renowned Thanksgiving episode). Those Princetonians who attended public high school can relate; every time they return home they are inevitably asked, “Where do you go to school again?”And then they have to answer.
Despite his reliance on the Cohens, Ryan remains fiercely independent. He’s like the Princeton boy whose closest friends are all in TI and Cottage, but who is himself above the whole eating club institution, and so lives in Spelman with three guys he really doesn’t know so well. Ryan’s cool demeanor and infamous sidelong glance, accented by his tough-chic leather wrist cuff and just-tight-enough t-shirts, can make guys skeptical, but make him very popular with the ladies. He gets the girl about eight episodes in, and impresses most of his teachers with his intellect. However, despite having his heart in the right place, he still manages to run into trouble now and again, raising the eyebrows of the adults in Newport Beach.
Since his arrival Ryan has guided his new “brother” and BFF, Seth Cohen, in the arts of social interaction. Formerly a nerdy outcast, Seth now walks a fine line bordering on socially acceptable, with a token friend, plus two girls (one of whom is high-society) vying for his affections. Seth is analogous to Princeton’s random Pike. Boyish and cute, he uses his connections to get in the door, then uses his wit and charm to win everyone over so he can stay. The Seth of Princeton ends up in Ivy or TI. Most question his ascension to the social stratosphere, but as long as he’s there, he’s kept around, because he makes everyone laugh.
Although Marissa Cooper, who has lived next door to the Cohens her entire life, is troubled by her parents’ divorce and keeps mum about her father’s financial woes, she manages to keep up the façade of the put-together socialite daughter. She seemed to be headed directly for the life of a wealthy West Coast wife. Active in school activities, she chaired the social events division of the student government; Nina Langsam would have related well to her, appreciating her work on the fabulous Autumn Carnival. She was respected by adults, but as with the USG, her work was underappreciated by students. Since Ryan showed up, she has taken on the quintessential “girl next door” role, making frequent appearances in the Cohen household, and her world has expanded beyond Chanel and debutante balls.
Marissa’s evolution parallels the path of a deactivated Pi Phi here at Princeton. She still runs with the same in-crowd, eats at the acceptable clubs, and wears Seven jeans, but is simply disillusioned with the whole scene. Maybe it’s something like Marissa’s love of Ryan, or her overdose in Tijuana; whatever the motivating factor, this girl is no longer wrapped up in dirty rush and SAE keg races, and has risen to a more meaningful existence that revolves around her boyfriend and other lower class folk. Marissa realized what’s really important in life just like a Pi Phi sister might after too many early morning walks back from her independent boyfriend’s room in Spelman.
Summer Roberts, Marissa’s best friend, is the girl who desperately wants to be popular, but won’t ever reach the heights she strives for, the ones that Marissa so effortlessly attained. She has ridden Marissa’s social coattails for years and continues to do so even as Marissa’s social life slides downhill. Summer is like the bicker hungry Kappa who is willing to hook up with the not-so-attractive upperclassman TI or Cottage member, hoping it will help her out when discussions roll around. Most likely she’ll end up in Charter.
After years of being pursued by Seth, Summer finally sees the charm in him – too late. Now she has competition: new girl Anna Stern. Anna is Orange County punk-chic; she still buys designer clothes and expensive haircuts, but her wardrobe is slightly funkier and her style has a bit more edge. New to Harbor this year, she has quickly settled in with the rest of the trendy outcasts. Offensively blue eye shadow and uneven haircut aside, her quick banter, long eyelashes, and love for the band Rooney attracted Seth’s affections.
Anna is like the self-respecting Terrace girl who refuses to conform to the standards set by her tennis-playing peers, yet remains equally hip and elitist. Despite all claims to be anti-establishment, this girl parties primarily at Ivy, using Terrace only for meals and Thursday cocktails. In fact, so many people think she’s in Ivy that she has no problem slipping behind the bar to refill her cup on a busy Saturday night.
New on the scene is Oliver Trask, a rich drug addict with serious control issues. Ever since he met Marissa in their therapist’s waiting room, he has since been hanging around her and the rest of the group, slyly wedging himself between her and Ryan. He’s like the mysterious St. A’s member who shows up for bicker after being away for a year or two off. You know he’s going to cause problems, fostering social tension with his condescending manner and use of big words. Curiosity about this enigma quickly turns to irritation when people realize he’s not going to tell them much, especially not the truth.
Luke Ward, once a popular jock with all-American good looks and a hot girlfriend, has seen his social stock plummet after losing Marissa and discovering his father’s affair with another man. His tool-ish personality, hidden for so many years by water polo skills and crude homophobic humor, has come into the open. Let’s face it: Luke represents every Princeton student, because no matter what persona we carefully craft for our peers, it is painfully obvious that we are all nerds underneath.
So lesson learned: social climbers and emo outcasts are social climbers and emo outcasts no matter what coast they live on. Throw exorbitant amounts of money, elitist institutions, and adolescent lust into the mix and it doesn’t matter if it’s Princeton or Newport Beach – we love it. Maybe we turn to The O.C. not to see how the other half lives, but to see ourselves reflected in the mirror of the Pacific Ocean; whatever it is, we obviously can’t get enough.