Ben McKenzie as Ryan Atwood.
The teen soap The O.C. premiered 10 years ago, and although I was instantly obsessed with it, I remembered few things about the pilot. A muscular young man saying “Welcome to the O.C., bitch” was the most vivid moment, and the rest was a haze of “public defender Sandy Cohen declaiming” and “troubled high schooler Ryan Atwood smoldering.”
I watched it again. Except for the smoldering, my memory was wrong.
The pilot is bookended by two complementary moments: We begin with Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) being coerced into stealing a car by his delinquent brother (“I’m your big brother. If I don’t teach you this, who will?” says Trey, as he leads Ryan toward a car ripe for the jacking); we end with Ryan Atwood being led out of his working-class neighborhood by a wealthy public defender (“Come on. Let’s go,” Sandy Cohen [Peter Gallagher] says as he leads Ryan out of his small Chino home and, we assume, back to Orange County).
Despite the episode’s interest in Ryan’s point of view, he begins and ends submissively, in acquiescence. Ryan is repeatedly used as a staging area for rich people to act out goodness or wickedness. Although he’s ostensibly the protagonist, this show isn’t really about him, which I guess should have been obvious from the title.
As a teenager, I thought Kirsten Cohen (Kelly Rowan), the Cohen most skeptical about taking Ryan in, was by far the most annoying character on the show, but, although the matriarch has her offensive moments, she says the two smartest things in the episode. First, self-righteous Sandy says having a poor kid in the house will be educational for their sheltered son Seth (*shiver*), and he describes Newport as a “bubble,” to which she responds, “You don’t seem to mind living in this bubble.” Right you are, Kirsten, although it wouldn’t have killed you to point out that Ryan is no one’s Etch-A-Sketch. Then, when Kirsten tells Sandy to bring Ryan back to Chino, Sandy says Ryan has no one.
“He has a family, Sandy,” she says. “It’s not up to you to decide whether or not they’re good enough.”
Granted, when Ryan does go back to Chino, his family has up and moved out of the house, leaving only a note. Ryan himself is the one who, after being turned down by several people, finally called Sandy for help at the beginning of the episode. Still, Kirsten is right in this moment; she may get painted as the intolerant snoot, but this shade of noble doesn’t look too good on Sandy.
Later, when Ryan says he’s going back to Chino, Seth (Adam Brody) talks about visiting Ryan. “You can show me your world, your ‘hood,’” Seth says, with air quotes. Because Ryan’s world is located somewhere inferior, Seth promptly gives him a map. A map! He says, “Maybe there’s somewhere you want to go. It’s pretty good for ideas.” Like Ryan needs a blueprint for his dreams.
Everything that is upsetting about this pilot comes to the surface on Ryan’s first night in Newport, when he meets Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), the Cohens’ willowy and troubled neighbor. The first thing she says is “Who are you?” already casting him as the outsider by not introducing herself.
“Whoever you want me to be,” Ryan says.
It seemed like the perfect come-on, but it functions on another level: Ryan really does become whoever they want him to be. He tells her who he really is: “I stole a car…my mom threw me out — she was pissed off, drunk — so Mr. Cohen took me in.”
“You’re their cousin from Boston, right?” she says with a twinkle in her eye, taking him up on his offer. He whispers, “Right.”
Ryan has his assertive moments, though they are few and far between. Upon his arrival at the Newport Beach McMansion, Sandy tells him to wait in the car while he goes inside to talk to his wife. He goes to take the car keys with him, then pauses awkwardly, keys in hand. Ryan makes a face and deadpans, “It’s no fun if the key’s in the car.” I know what you’re thinking, ya jerk.
Out of context, “Welcome to the O.C., bitch” took on a life of its own, but in the pilot, it’s more than a catchphrase. Ryan’s already been outed as a Chino resident at a party, and despite knowing that he is not welcome now that he’s no longer a cousin from Boston, he runs down to the beach to protect Seth from a group of bullies. “Welcome to the O.C., bitch” is what Marissa’s muscular boyfriend Luke (Chris Carmack) says after he tackles Ryan into the sand and, rising out of the tussle, kicks Ryan in the stomach — although it’s unclear whether Luke heard the whispers about Chino, the exchange serves to reinforce Ryan’s outsider status, with the native of Newport and his brawny buddies standing over the beaten new kid.
“This is how it’s done in Orange County,” Luke adds, and the referent of “this” can only be “kicking people in the stomach when they have already been knocked to the ground.” The nonsensical violence serves as nothing but a way to alert the audience that Marissa’s boyfriend is A Bad Person. We’ve already seen Luke about to cheat on Marissa, and we later learn that he leaves her blacked out and alone at the party, but Ryan has to get kicked in the stomach, apparently, to make Luke’s wickedness sufficiently clear. This is how it’s done in The O.C.
I’m sorry, Ryan Atwood. You deserve better than whoever they want you to be.