Was it only three years ago that The O.C. premiered and became an instant phenomenon? The country went mad for the sunny teen soap: It was like 90210—but funny! And self-aware! The show launched a catchphrase (“Welcome to the O.C., bitch!”), a holiday (Christmukkah), and a barrage of imitators (The Real Housewives of Orange County and MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County). But now, The O.C. is in real danger of cancellation: In November, its fourth season debuted to its lowest ratings ever—a mere 3.38 million fans, and the numbers haven’t gotten better since.
To understand what went so wrong with the show, we should revisit what it once got so right. For starters, The O.C. had great timing; in 2003, there was a gaping hole in the market for smart teen dramas, as Dawson’s Creek had just gone off the air. The O.C. improved on Dawson’s formula of love-triangle angst set to an indie-band soundtrack, then added a smart mix of sarcasm and pop-culture knowingness that didn’t sound like adults writing for teens. (It helped that the show’s creator, Josh Schwartz, was a mere 26.) Not only was The O.C. the first teen drama that didn’t take itself too seriously, it was the first one that understood its audience had grown up watching soapy teen dramas.
There are concrete reasons for the show’s quick decline: Schwartz became distracted by other projects, and lead-character Marissa (Mischa Barton) was killed off last year. But in hindsight, these seem like symptoms, not the disease. The O.C.’s main problem—what took the show from phenomenon to failure—was that it became too cool too fast. Its hipster audience, initially seduced by the show’s self-referential wittiness, was repelled by its mainstream success. And mainstream fans, drawn in by the soap opera, were turned off by increasingly absurdist plot twists. Ironically, the super-hip O.C. failed where Aaron Spelling’s less-intelligent shows succeeded—it was too ironic to be a soap, but too soapy to be a parody. Take this season’s dismal debut: a clunky, dark hour in which hunky Ryan brooded, fought, and mourned the death of Marissa. He should have mourned instead the loss of the show’s last, best quality—an ability to make fun of itself. More recently, Ryan fell into an It’s a Wonderful Life–like coma, dreaming that his character had never arrived in the O.C. If only such a do-over were possible.