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Warner Home Video presents
The O.C.: The Complete First Season (2003-2004)

Luke: Maybe I'll just skip it, you know? Just go to the beach and wait 'til this all blows over.
Ryan: Nope, it doesn't work like that. It's been months and I'm still the kid from Chino who burned a house down.
Marissa: And I'm still the girl who tried to kill herself in Mexico.
Seth: And I'm still... Well, I'm still Seth Cohen.

- Chris Carmack, Benjamin McKenzie, Mischa Barton, Adam Brody

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: November 22, 2004

Stars: Peter Gallagher, Kelly Rowan, Benjamin McKenzie, Adam Brody
Other Stars: Mischa Barton, Tate Donovan, Melinda Clarke, Rachel Bilson, Samire Armstrong, Taylor Handley, Chris Carmack, Eric Balfour, Navi Rawat, Amanda Righetti, Alan Dale
Director: Various

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language, sexuality, violence, drug use)
Run Time: 1171 min.
Release Date: October 26, 2004
UPC: 085393968021
Genre: television


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A B+A-B+ B-

DVD Review

When it comes to teen shows, I've always been more of a Freaks & Geeks guy than a Beverly Hills 90210 fan. More Gilmore Girls than One Tree Hill. In short, I tend to favor sharply written dialogue and quirky characters to endless love triangles and melodrama. That's not to say that any of those series does include elements of both, but for the most part they can be pretty clearly defined. So when The O.C. premiered in late summer 2003, I didn't have very high hopes. The promos made it look like 90210-redux: A bunch of wealthy Californians living a life of luxury, as seen through the eyes of an outsider (then, we had Brenda and Dylan Walsh, now it's solemn Ryan Atwood, a misunderstood juvenile delinquent). The awful dialogue also didn't seem too promising: (shot of bully punching Ryan) "Welcome to the O.C., bitch!"

But then I read some critical reviews, and they were good, even glowing. More or less universally, they called it purely enjoyable escapist entertainment, well written and self-aware. So I gave it a try, and, happily, it turned out to be the biggest surprise of the season—the best of both worlds, a fairly consistent combination of both sides of the teen drama genre. Sure, there's the glitzy, exploitative elements (love triangles, abrupt plot twists, glitz, parties, drugs, expensive cars, girls in bikinis), but more often than not, the drama comes from the characters, or the cheesy aspects are softened with a cutting remark from Seth, the resident smartass (sarcastically, upon walking into an out of control party: "Hey, cocaine. Awesome.").

Seth (expertly played by Gilmore Girls alum Adam Brody) proves the key to the series. He's the son of Sandy (Peter Gallagher) and Kirsten Cohen (Kelly Rowan), his dad an idealistic public defender and his mom the daughter of the richest man in town (for whom she works). Sandy is assigned 15-year-old Ryan's (newcomer Benjamin McKenzie, who looked 15 about 10 years ago) case after he's involved in a carjacking, and, seeing some of himself in the boy, he decides to take him home to Newport rather than let him rot in juvenile hall or wind up in foster care. So Ryan comes to Newport, and Seth comes out of his shell. The two quickly form a bond, and their relationship is, perhaps, the most important in the series. They're both outsiders, to an extent (series creator Josh Schwartz describes the geeky Seth as the coolest kid in college, stuck in high school), and through their eyes we see the glamour and absurdity of the titular Newport Beach community.

The seeds that will sprout throughout the series are planted early. Ryan meets girl-next-door (literally) Marissa (Mischa Barton), struggling with depression, alcoholism, her overbearing mother Julie Cooper (Melinda Clarke), and white-collar criminal father Jimmy (Tate Donovan). Seth pines for party-girl Summer (Rachel Bilson), who doesn't even know he exists. Ryan's rivalry with polo-jock Luke (Chris Carmack), Marissa's on-and-off boyfriend. The storylines are all familiar, but they feel fresh, thanks to intelligent writing (someone obviously studied at the Joss Whedon school of dialogue).

Episodes often revel in the wish-fulfillment of wealth or the sordid underbelly of same, but scripts avoid feeling like mere exploitation because we're seeing everything through the eyes of outsider Ryan or Seth, who, as Sandy says, has been "planning his Exodus" from Newport since his eighth birthday. Sandy and Kirsten are also a refreshing TV couple, parents who love each other, argue, make up, have lives, and actually seem to spend time thinking about their children. The writers have had the good sense thus far not to introduce possible love interests that would damage the relationship. The closest thing to even an emotional affair is Kirsten's friendship with former flame Jimmy, Marissa's father, but even that serves more to add layers to both of their roles than manufacture easy melodrama.

In fact, the adult characters all help to balance out the episodes when they threaten to get too "teen." The love-at-first-moody-silence romance between Ryan and Marissa gets a little "Dawson and Joey" at times (Barton's "acting" doesn't help make it any more engaging), but its offset by more mature plots about Kirsten's father Caleb's (Alan Dale) dirty business tactics and Jimmy's bankruptcy and embezzlement problems.

Like most highly serialized dramas, The O.C. plays very well on DVD (with no waiting between episodes, even the aforementioned dull subplots don't distract too much). That's not to say there aren't individual episodes that stand out, however. The pilot is pretty strong, but the series doesn't really click on all fronts (drama, humor, flat-out fun) until episode three, The Gamble, written by Buffy and Gilmore Girls veteran Jane Espenson (sadly, though her style is a perfect fit, she was only a freelancer and did just one episode). In it, Ryan's place in Newport is threatened when his mom (Daphne Ashbrook) shows up looking to reunite the family. Soon enough, though, she loses control of her alcoholism and gambling addictions, and another ritzy party (this one a Vegas-themed fundraiser at the Cohen house) turns ugly. The holiday-themed The Best Chrismukkah Ever (Seth's blend of Christmas and Hanukkah), and The Countdown (set on New Year's Eve, with an ending so good it made me momentarily care about Ryan and Marissa) and The Heartbreak (a Valentine's Day outing), both written by Schwartz, are also standouts. There's even a Passover-centric show, the affecting The Nana, in which Seth's fiery grandmother (guest star Linda Lavin) comes to town determined not to let her life-altering news spoil the family gathering.

The show turned into such a media darling that the writers concocted a spoof toward the end of the season that would feel self-indulgent if it weren't so funny. In The L.A., the characters travel to Hollywood and visit the set of the fictional series The Valley, a thinly veiled parody of The O.C. with Colin Hanks (Tom Hanks' son) as a self-important Seth doppelganger Summer worships (until she meets him, that is). Other highlights include The Strip, in which Ryan's poker skills get Seth out of a jam, and the season closer, The Ties that Bind, which features much drama, including a wedding and a three-way cliffhanger ending.

Unfortunately, it's not all good. The show does occasionally delve a bit too far into 90210 territory, and it becomes obvious that there wasn't always enough story to stretch across an extended 27-episode season (most series produce 22 episodes or fewer every year). The O.C. is at its best when the drama emerges from the characters even in the midst of soapy situations. But midway through the year, the character concoct the oldest plot in the book—Marissa meets a new character, Oliver Trask (Taylor Handley), at her therapy sessions and he quickly integrates himself into the group, using he wealth and apparent freedom from parental supervision to impress Seth and Summer. But Ryan, of course, sees something suspicious in the way Oliver acts around Marissa, and soon it's obvious that he has good reason for concern, even if he's the only one to notice.

It's obvious where the Oliver arc is going from his first or second appearance, and it doesn't help that it is totally out of character for, say, Seth to take the side of a new guy over his best buddy Ryan. It also doesn't help that Oliver is totally unconvincing as a smooth operator (though he does look rather oily... what did his hair do to offend him?), as he spends the majority of the time either leering at Marissa, crying about his bad childhood, or goading Ryan into a fight. Incidentally, the entire storyline is introduced and wrapped up in five episodes (though it felt much longer when they originally aired), the exact number of episodes produced above a typical season order. Were it not for the advancements in the adults' arcs and a few cute scenes with Seth, Summer, and Anna, you could probably snip them right out. Just saying.

The quality of writing is matched, for the most part, by production quality and acting. The Orange County scenery is gorgeous, and the perfect backdrop for such escapist fare. Not content to blanket the show with a soundtrack of pop hits, music supervisors have turned it into the college radio of television. The music works because it is chosen to fit the tone of a scene, not (as is the case with half the shows on the WB) because it's a new release from Warner Records.

The cast has some weak spots (Barton has no range, and it's not the fault of the writing that her character is so dull), but it generally works. McKenzie is a bit rough at first, but settles into Ryan's character fairly quickly. He underplays emotions so much that Ryan's moodiness could sometimes be read as Keanu-like vapidity, but he's likeable. Adam Brody steals every scene he's in as the nebbishe, insecure, fast-talking Seth, and his pining for Summer (the delightful Rachel Bilson, originally intended as a recurring character only) is the high point of the season. Peter Gallagher and Kelly Rowan ground the series, and Melinda Clarke has a lot of fun with the role of resident villain, and manages to avoid coming across as a typical soap opera vixen.

I probably sound like I'm overselling the show, but I don't think television drama has to be The West Wing to be worthy of a bit of praise. The O.C. knows what it wants to be, and does what it should do (namely, entertain without insulting anyone's intelligence) very well. And I guess the actors are all very pretty, too.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: In this day and age, most new television shows come to DVD in widescreen, but everything I've read indicates The O.C. was framed to be shown in full screen and should appear that way on DVD (it airs that way on Fox, at least). For the most part, I found that the program looks fairly decent. The source material looks pretty good, though the image shows some grain at times, particularly in darker scenes. Neither compression artifacts nor edge enhancement are a problem, and colors are nicely saturated.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: A DD 2.0 mix supports the show well enough. The basics are well served—dialogue is clear and natural and effects are presented with decent stereo separation—and the frequent pop songs on the soundtrack sound nice and full. Surround use is minimal, mostly for atmosphere.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 162 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
6 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by series creator Josh Schwartz and supervising producer Stephanie Savage on The Pilot
Packaging: Book Gatefold
Picture Disc
7 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Pop-up music guide for select episodes
  2. Easter eggs—thee additional deleted scenes
Extras Review: As seems to be the case with most TV on DVD releases, extras on The O.C. are fairly sparse, but at least the majority of what is included is worthwhile.

The good stuff includes a commentary on The Pilot from writer/series creator Josh Schwartz and supervising producer Stephanie Savage. They run down the checklist of expected topics—casting, developing the characters, selling the show to Fox—with minimal downtime. They do focus on story points a bit much for my tastes, but they're engaging and funny, and I wouldn't have minded tracks on other key episodes. I also thought it was amusing that, amid all the sucking up to the cast, both were able to restrain themselves from commenting on Mischa Barton's "acting talent." Though Schwartz does point out that she looks like she's 40, though she's the only actual 17-year-old on the show. In a nicer way, of course.

One episode per disc also includes an Onscreen Music Guide, a pop-up subtitle track that lists songs, album titles, and a few useless facts about the artist. Nice idea, since I can rarely watch an episode of The O.C. without asking "What's that song?" but only select tracks are granted pop-ups (and a disproportionately high number of those seem to be songs that wound up on one of the soundtrack albums). Episodes with music guides include The Model Home, The Outsider, The Secret, The Countdown, The Telenovela, and The Goodbye Girl (one on every disc save Disc 7).

The rest of the features can be found on Disc 7. The O.C. Unseen, a collection of deleted scenes from six episodes, offers excised jokes and character bits, with introductions from Josh Schwartz explaining why they were cut. Most interesting are the small trims needed to get past the censors. That is, Summer can goad Seth into sex by saying he doesn't have to do anything, but she can't compare him to a buffet and say she'll serve herself. Incidentally, Schwartz places the blame for the cuts squarely on Janet Jackson's right nipple, the source of so much pain and anguish in these troubled times.

A trio of featurettes is next on the list, but you'll probably want to pretend there are only two, because Inside the Real O.C., in which producer and hyperactive director McG chats from kids from the "real" Orange County for 13 minutes, is a total waste as far as I'm concerned. There's a reason we watch scripted dramas about teenagers, and not the lives of actual teenagers.

But the other two pieces are nice. Casting The O.C. is a 15-minute rundown of the major cast, complete with interviews with all the pertinent parties. Much of this material appeared in a special that aired in September (The O.C.: Obsess Completely), but its still got some interesting comments from the cast. I also really liked the 10-minute The Music of The O.C., with music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas, who talks about how she goes about finding unusual music and matching it perfectly with a particular episode. As the show is basically the college radio of television, I appreciate her efforts, and that I don't have to hear the same four songs they keep recycling over on the WB.

Closing out the set is a "sneak peek" at Season Two, featuring the cast's predictions for the new year. Schwartz discusses the love triangle balancing act, and Adam Brody reveals his hope that Seth will be given both a limp and a moustache. Oh, and there's also an ad for some kind of $25 online fan club, for those of you with way too much money lying around.

If you like easter eggs, Discs 1, 2, and 4 contain hidden scenes for the episodes The Pilot, The Outsider, and The Links (alternate ending with an intro from Schwartz). Just highlight the episode title and press right and enter.

Extras Grade: B-

 

Final Comments

Despite appearances to the contrary—the title, the cast, the sun-drenched locales, and juicy storylines—The O.C. is hardly my idea of a guilty pleasure. Why should anyone feel guilty about watching something so consistently entertaining and smartly written? Season One had its ups and downs, but serialized shows always play better on DVD (no waiting!) and you'll want to be caught up for Season Two, just getting underway (or, of course, for the Season Two DVD set). In the memorable words of one Luke Ward, welcome to the O.C., bit... Well, you know.

 


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