Things You Only Notice In The O.C. As An Adult

It's not really an exaggeration to say that The O.C. is one of the most beloved TV series of all time, and not just because it gave us a new national holiday. Despite airing in 2003 and catering to an audience of then-teens, so much of Josh Schwartz's seminal show remains super relevant today, which means revisiting our pals in Orange County always guarantees a good time. 

Yet, it's not just getting back into the Cali groove that keeps us coming back for more. No, it's also that The O.C. is the kind of gift that keeps on giving — especially when re-watching as an adult. You see, the show is sprinkled with in-jokes, references and celebrity cameos that we probably all missed the first time around. Luckily, you have us to guide you through some of the best (and some of the more questionable) bits from that show we all still adore. 

All together now: Californiaaaaa, Californiaaaaa, here we coooome...

The ultimate bromance

Throughout The O.C.'s four season run, turbulent teenage relationships started and ended like the turning of tides. From Ryan and Marissa, and Seth and Summer, to Lindsey, Sadie, Anna, Zach, Olivia, DJ, Luke, Oliver, Theresa  — *breathe* — and everyone in between. It's no question that these Orange County kids led active romantic lives. Yet, when you re-watch this show as an adult, you'll realize that there's one romance — potentially the most obvious one — we failed to ship as kids: Ryan and Seth.

All the way through the show, Ryan and Seth totally nail the traits most of us strive for in an enviously wonderful relationship. They're there for each other through thick and thin, they have each other's back and stand up for one another, and can communicate without using words. And, perhaps most importantly, they accepted each other's flaws and never tried to force change. 

We're not saying that Seth and Ryan were ever (or ever hinted at becoming) romantically involved, and, of course, as soon as the potential for sex gets involved relationships are suddenly never that simple... but we're pretty sure that if this show was airing now rather back in 2003, these two lovely dudes would be at the top of everyone's "to ship" list. 

Sandy & Kirsten forever

If there was ever one couple in The O.C. to truly show everyone else how it's done, it was Sandy and Kirsten Cohen. Wow, did these guys ever deliver a masterclass on tackling and overcoming relationship turmoil — but, of course, back then we were too busy trying to get Seth and Summer back together (sorry, Zach) to pay close attention to these golden life lessons. Go figure.

After watching Sandy and Kirsten find each other time and time again, you emerge from that intense roller coaster ride enlightened and ready to take on all the fugitive, death hoax-ridden former flames life can throw at you. Because seriously, what curve balls didn't this couple dodge? There was the aforementioned ex-lover-cum-stowaway who took up camp in Sandy's office; Kirsten's affair with booze, and her emotional affair with colleague Carter; there was a difference of political stances and numerous battles with the in-laws (who would want to spend time with Caleb Cohen, though, tbh?) and — most pertinent to the show's plot — taking a juvenile delinquent into their home, and all the intense baggage that came with him. And that's only in four years!

There were times when it felt like they were so on the rocks there was no coming back, but Sandy and Kirsten always managed to clamber back from the edge.

Working class criminals

When watching The O.C. in your early teen years, did you notice how poorly the show represents its working class characters? Like okay, obviously Ryan is from the "wrong side of the tracks" and is thus "saved" by the Cohens who generously open their huge home to him, (which is all quite Disney fairytale if you think about it with your now older, more cynical soul). But his behavior and appearance paints a pretty stereotypical picture — one that might not have been as painfully obvious to you back then as it is now. 

For starters, Ryan moves into the Cohen's luxurious pool house, yet, despite the overwhelming influence this family has on him over the years, he continues to don a white, wife beater-esque tank and leather choker. In Orange County, he may as well have been wearing a sandwich board with "I don't belong here" plastered all over it. Differentiating Ryan's character through his clothing in such a stereotypical way was a little lazy of the show.

He also spends many, many episodes defending Marissa's honor with his rage explosions — violent behavior constantly bubbles under the surface. Ever notice that that's a personality trait only reflected in the other working class characters? See Volchok, Trey, Eddie and Donnie. You can take the boys out of Chino...

It's also worth noting that Sandy Cohen and Julie Cooper are also from working class backgrounds, and maybe this is the reason that they never truly fit in.

Gay to Z

If this enlightenment about wealth representation in The O.C. has you feeling pretty weird, wait until you start diving into the portrayal of people of color and LGBTQ.

In the book The O.C.: A Critical Understanding, theorists Lori Bindig and Andrea M. Bergstrom give an eye-opening analysis of how many of the worst traits associated with the show's working-class characters are "reserved for people of color." They write that "all of these traits are embodied by a single character, Z, who appears in episode three of the first season." Z — who you'd be forgiven for forgetting, considering his appearance is minimal — is one guy in a "crowd of young men of color" within a detention center. He's vulgar, violent and totally irrational, implying that young POC's are "predominantly responsible for criminal behavior."

And then you get to the show's LGBTQ representation. While we can all admit that watching Mischa Barton making out with Olivia Wilde was pretty damn hot, their relationship was just another phase in the Marissa Cooper saga, and ended as soon as she realized she still had all the feels for Ryan. Plus — spoiler alert — she died, which doesn't really do much for the "bury your gays" trope. The only other gay character was Luke's dad, Carson; his coming out pulled their family apart, then he moved to Portland and that was the end of that.

Wait, did Seth Cohen normalize nerd culture?

If you were an indie kid with a pulse in the early '00s, chances are you were either madly in love with Seth Cohen or you wanted a little bit of his cheeky je ne sais quoi. Yet, did you ever really think about how uncommon it was then to be totally enamored by a dude who spent his days playing with a toy horse called Captain Oats and drawing comic book characters? Because it was. Think about it, in 2003 comic books were not cool, they were something read by "weirdos" who wore thick rimmed glasses and were into fantasy epics like Game of Thrones. But did Cohen help to change that?

Let's start with the obvious: Adam Brody is a very attractive human, which helps the nerd cause considerably — especially in a Fox show aimed at teenagers. But Seth wore band T-Shirts, spent his time alone (or with his parents), listened to alternative music, and never really tried to fit into the jock culture most students in The O.C. seemed to aspire to. And he still got the girl — hell, she even dressed up as Wonder Woman for him, gave him a Spider-Man kiss, and helped him develop his own graphic novel. That, friends, is what they call in the nerd-biz, a level up.

Summer Roberts isn't your regular Valley Girl

Speaking of cool characters that help to reshuffle stereotypes in the ol' collective consciousness, Rachel Bilson's Summer Roberts did quite a bit towards championing the idea that popular, attractive, rich, white girls aren't just like, totally vapid, or whatever. In the space of four seasons, Summer went from being all "Chino, EW" to becoming one of the show's smartest, more dynamic characters. 

The show-runners included one clever reference to Summer's surface identity, and it probably went totally over your head — like it did ours — until re-watching The O.C. as an adult. They literally named Summer's favorite showThe Valley, after the TV trope her character is subverting: the Valley Girl. Right?! 

You see, she does ostensibly embody some of these traits; she's from California, is very fashion conscious, and (in the first season, at least) mingles with folks who talk like they're Clueless extras. Yet, similar to how Seth brought comic book cool to the mainstream, Summer's character develops to demonstrate immense depth, illustrating that liking reality TV doesn't necessarily mean you're a "bimbo" — you can be a Valley Girl and still get into Brown University.

Get it, gurl!

Sandy Cohen is the definition of woke

Let's be real — while Sandy Cohen was the kind of dad we truly adored when we watched The O.C. back in the early '00s, he also made us cringe so hard. Like that time he talked to Seth about the Cohen clan being "sexual beings," or the time he told Kirsten not to "salt [Seth's] game." He tried so hard to adopt a down-with-the-kids-esque lingo that we couldn't help but be reminded of our own facepalm-inducing parents, and thus truly sympathize with Seth's reactions.

However, when you delve back into The O.C., you'll notice that Sandy Cohen is much more than an embarrassing dad. He reels off sage advice on the daily, and, as the most socially conscious member of the clan, he's also extremely woke.

Like that time he acknowledged the way The O.C. villainizes minorities — "Well. I should be off. Gotta find the next kid to jeapordize the community. Maybe a black kid. Or an Asian kid." Or when he called out the true meaning of Thanksgiving: "So Anna, what's the deal? You're parents don't believe in celebrating the genocide of the American Indian?"

I mean, really, we should've all been referring to Sandy Cohen as His Wokeness from the beginning. (Especially considering those eyebrows are so ahead of their time!)

All the celebrity cameos!

As that saying goes, hindsight is a wonderful thing. When it comes to re-watching The O.C., you'll be able to use the true gift of time to spot all the now-extremely-famous Hollywood starlets that once creeped about in Orange County. And there are so many of them! If you turn the clock back all the way to the show's pilot episode, you'll spot a very young Shailene Woodley — who you'll know from HBO's award-winning series Big Little Lies — portraying Marissa's younger sister, Kaitlyn. Woodley only appeared in six episodes before being replaced with another actress, and her most memorable storyline involved her alopecia-ridden pony

In Season 2, a teenage Amber Heard appears briefly as a store assistant, while Olivia Wilde's reoccurring character Alex was busy running the Bait Shop and making out with both Seth and Marissa (separately). Skip forward to the next season and we're introduced to Cam Gigandet's Volchock and Nikki Reed's Sadie, who also worked together in Twilight a few years later. In this season you'll also find an adorable Bella Thorne masquerading as mini Taylor Townsend. 

In the fourth season, we're treated to a hippy Chris Pratt who plays Summer's hippy university buddy, Che, and New Girl's Schmidt aka Max Greenfield as a young Sandy Cohen (could that casting be any more perfect?!). And so, so many more. Honestly, The O.C. cameo alumni list is nothing short of ridiculous, and makes revisiting this series all the more fun.  

So. Many. Meta. Moments

Ok, so telling any fan of The O.C. that the show contained nods to other pop culture zeitgeists of the early '00s is kind of like pointing out that Marissa Cooper had a drinking problem. It's not new information, and it's also pretty blatant; like when Seth asks, "How much vomit? Like the girl in The Sixth Sense or the guy in Monty Python?" for example.

However, there were many self-referential winks in the mix, too, which you probably missed on your first watch. For instance, remember when Donnie told Ryan that Luke's an "Abercrombie & Fitch, water polo-playing b*tch"? Well that was actually kind of true: Chris Carmack (Luke) was an A&F model before The O.C. aired! 

There's that time Summer went to prom with a musician from the band Big Korea, which is almost definitely a reference to Adam Brody's then band, Big Japan. Or when she was caught kissing an actor from fictitious show The Valley by his on-screen and IRL girlfriend, and Summer says: "You two are dating? Don't you think that's a bad idea? What if things don't work out? Isn't that bad for the show?" Call me suspicious, but considering Bilson and Brody dated for basically the duration of The O.C.'s run, that 'aint just a throwaway line — no sir!