Lying on the faux-leather couch in my first real world apartment, I suddenly realized I had been there for hours since I got home from work. My plate of cheese and crackers was empty on the coffee table, and Phantom Planet’s “California” was echoing in looped repeat from the television. It had been over six years since the show first aired, and here I was, 23 years old, unable to stop watching.
Now it has been 10 years since The O.C. came to us from the sunny, money-soaked shores of California. The show brought us Chrismukkah, Captain Oates and, of course, the lovable main character, Seth Cohen. For those who didn’t watch the show, its cultural imprint might seem outdated or irrelevant. But for those who did, it makes perfect sense why the show begat Laguna Beach and The Hills, two shows that paved the way for the reality television takeover.
The O.C. was really only strong for its first season (well, it was at its strongest) but its self-awareness and core group of friends and family made it far more meaningful than its sunny beaches and soap opera plot lines would have you believe. Here are six things we can learn from show:
1. Class Warfare is Real, but It Doesn’t Have To Define Us
When the camera stops shaking just enough to show off the mean streets of Chino, Ryan Atwood and his wife beater step into frame, balanced on the pegs of his rough-and-tumble bicycle. For those who are unfamiliar, Ryan Atwood is the rough-around-the-edges kid who gets taken in by the wealthy Cohen family after he finds himself in jail for a couple of days. When Sandy Cohen, Ryan’s public defender, decides to take Ryan into his enormous McMansion, it doesn’t take long for family and “friends” alike to stir up conflict with this little interloper. Even in its most absurd moments, this show tackled the class issue well, reminding us that where we come from doesn’t define us.
2. Your Parents Don’t Have to Be Your Enemies
Watching Sandy Cohen (father, public defender, loving husband) schmear cream cheese on a bagel and talk to the Cohen boys in the kitchen is a reminder to every teenager (and twentysomething) that parents’ sole purpose is not to torment and embarrass their teenage spawn. This show portrays a strong family amidst a mount of families that are crumbling. When Seth, the Cohen’s adorkable, indie-music loving outsider son, runs away to Portland because his best friend has left town, his parents don’t disown him or scream at him—they try to get him to come home. They reminded him that he was loved right where he was.
3. One Friend Is Better Than No Friend At All
During pilot of The O.C., it is made painfully clear that Seth Cohen is a major outsider and actually has pretty much no friends. Even though he’s handsome, his affinity for comic books, video games and Death Cab For Cutie have landed him an outside seat to the goings-on of his rich counterparts in his high school. When Ryan sits down to play video games with him, it is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. For the rest of the series, Ryan is pretty much Seth’s only friend—so much so that when Atwood leaves Newport to go back to Chino, Seth leaves too. It’s an oddball friendship, but one that reminds us how important it is to have people we care about in our lives—even if it’s just one person.
4. Lying Will Get You Nowhere
If you watched the show, you may remember Seth Cohen’s dark rabbit hole of white lies he spun in an attempt to keep his girlfriend, Summer (Rachel Bilson), in the dark for bits of time. As an audience, we hoped everything would brush under the rug for him. And yet, as one might guess, it didn’t. The little half-truths steamrolled into full-fledged monster-lies. Which made for good television, but doesn’t make for good relationships. Many shows today, such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad, thrive on superhuman liars who weave complex alter egos for themselves. The O.C. showed a more realistic, recognizable portrait: someone who can’t keep up the act.
5. People Can (And Do) Change
Any fan of The O.C. will tell you that they hated the character of Summer in the first handful of episodes. In fact, she was more or less intolerable: a snobby, stuck-up rich girl who drank too much and was incessantly rude to anyone outside of her immediate social bubble. And then, over the course of the first season, Summer’s character transforms into the realistic character that has layers beneath her outer skin. She was still sassy, but it functioned as banter with Seth. She was still rich, but she didn’t use her wealth to be a total monster. And she became the kind of lovable character that people want to root for. For a generation that is known for vilifying the rich, Summer was a reminder that people can’t be judged by their tax bracket.
6. Being An Outsider Means Nothing
The O.C. is full of outsiders. Whether it was Seth Cohen’s social status or Ryan’s class status, the show was built around the premise that everyone is trying to get into somebody else’s world. The idea the show built up over time was that being an outsider is merely a perception. The people who truly matter don’t care where you’re from or how many friends you have. They’re not concerned with how rich you are or where you grew up. The people who really matter, as The O.C. shows us, will love you no matter what.
Liz Riggs is a freelance writer and English teacher in Nashville, Tenn. She eats stories like grapes and has a very serious appreciation for macaroni and cheese. Follow her on Twitter at your own risk @riggser.