When The O.C. premiered in August of 2003, there was little to suggest it would grow into the pop culture phenomenon that it became during its first season. Summer shows were considered little more than schedule-filler. Series creator Josh Schwartz was only 26—the youngest showrunner in network television at the time—and had never produced a TV show. The cast was filled largely with unknowns, and whatever momentum the show did generate in the early going would be stymied by the Fox network’s baseball-playoff schedule. an unavoidable hiatus for baseball playoffs. Suffice it to say, the deck was not stacked in The O.C.‘s favor.
Once the pilot aired, however, Schwartz and Fox managed to turn those disadvantages to the show’s favor. The summer start-date enabled Fox to air the now-infamous pilot three times while growing a devoted audience. Schwartz’s inexperience and youthful energy proved invaluable in creating a teen drama that represented a departure from predecessors like Beverly Hills 90210 and Dawson’s Creek. And the cast—well, it wasn’t filled with unknowns for very long as they weren’t unknown for very long: stars Ben McKenzie, Mischa Barton, Adam Brody and Rachel Bilson quickly became some of the most recognizable young actors on television.
But then, turning bad situations into moments of unexpected triumph would become an underlying theme of The O.C. Abandoned by his mother, troubled teen Ryan Atwood (McKenzie) is taken in by the Cohens, a loving family living in the affluent community of Newport Beach, California. Seth Cohen (Brody) transitions from friendless high-school outcast to dating the girl of his dreams. Even an unfortunate encounter with a menacing Las Vegas pimp could have a happy ending.
And Schwartz—who has since gone on to co-create and/or produce shows like Gossip Girl, Chuck, and The Carrie Diaries—was at the center of it all. Here’s what we learned from speaking with him just days before The O.C.‘s 10th anniversary:
Though he has since become the king of teen dramas, Schwartz was a neophyte in the genre 10 years ago.
Josh Schwartz: “I’d never really watched—and this kind of ironic now—a lot of teen dramas myself. I was worried about that and how to deliver that. But Stephanie Savage, who was the producer on the pilot, has seen every episode of 90210, so she was much more certain that we’d figure it out. And I think casting all the parts was tricky.”
The Cohen’s weren’t always the Cohens.
“Everything evolves. I think, at one point, the Cohens were called the Needlemans—they were going to be even more Jewish than they ended up being. But it actually went very quickly. We took the pitch in to Fox on a Saturday, because it was a bit late in the pitching season, and when they heard the pitch, they’d had it in the back of their heads that they wanted to try summer programming for the first time. So when you’re writing this, there’s a version of the pilot that could sort of just go right into the series while we were making the pilot, so we were sort of on an accelerated track if things went well”
And Seth wasn’t always Seth (at least not the way you grew accustomed to seeing him).
“I remember there being some controversy over the character of Seth at first, and the network being concerned that this was a character that might hue too closely to the Freaks & Geeks/Undeclared world of shorter-lived teen soaps, or teen shows. Then Fox had their eye on it, and I was always told, “If Ryan is the Luke Perry, then who is the Jason Priestly?” I was like, “Welp, we’re not doing 90210.” So that went away when we cast Adam Brody, who came in and was really funny and charming, but the network also felt like would be someone who girls would find appealing. But that was a big risk at the time.”
Summer (Rachel Bilson) and Sandy (Peter Gallagher) were cast for very different reasons.
“Rachel got cast off of three words: ‘I gotta pee.’ That was basically the extent of Summer’s character in the pilot. But we’re, like, ‘Love her.’ And then the parents were also going to be really critical, and Peter Gallagher was actually the first person we cast. And we really wanted to cast somebody who was not only a terrific actor but also somebody with a real profile. Who, when you heard they were playing the dad in this show, you realized, ‘Oh, this is not just a show about the kids. It’s also going to be very much about the adults.’ And Peter really lent the gravity to that role, and also the profile to the show.”
Many of the show’s relationships were engineered for maximum emotional engagement
“The Ryan-Sandy relationship, we found was a source of great wish-fulfillment for a lot of people. Stephanie always talked about how we wanted to deliver a Trojan Horse, where you got your beautiful people and your beaches and bonfires and all of that, so the network would have something they could really sell, but that, hopefully, the issues we were tackling and characters and the tone would all feel more surprising. I think for a lot of kids they looked at the Cohens and thought, ‘I wish I had a family like that, I wish I had someone who cared about me as much as they care about Ryan.’ And obviously the Ryan-Seth relationship was a huge cornerstone of the show as well, and that idea that you could be a lonely kid, and all of the sudden you get an instant best friend/bodyguard. I think it was helpful that guys could watch the show and not be completely embarrassed. Hopefully.”
Schwartz wishes Luke had been able to hang around The O.C. a little longer.
“[The evolution of the Luke character] was really a function of wanting to keep Chris Carmack in the show, which, once it felt like Ryan had successfully won Marissa by New Year’s, trying to figure out how would we keep Luke in the show, and wanting to keep Luke in the show. We wanted to give him some issues he was wrestling with and make him a little more complicated. We didn’t want him to be a one-note villain, which he may have appeared to be in that pilot. Like I said, looking back on it, we probably evolved him too quickly. And he also really represented Orange County in a lot of people’s minds. He was sort of the poster boy.”
Schwartz is well-aware of how much you disliked Oliver. He just doesn’t care all that much.
“I’m well aware that there are those who felt like the character of Oliver could have gone on for a much shorter period of time. I will remind people that we did 27 episodes in our first season, with no break, which is basically two season of a cable show, so naturally you’re going to have those stretches where people may not like everything as much.”
Shooting a 27-episode season—nearly unheard of in this era of television—was a challenge
“Yeah, I mean we did 25 in season 3 and Gossip Girl did a 25-episode season, but 27 was pretty unusual. But it was really about the first seven episodes. We were going on in August and we would run basically uninterrupted till baseball playoffs. And then if the show worked, we would come back and if the show didn’t work, we then that could have been it. So those first seven episodes were really, really critical. And we really viewed that as its own kind of movie. Obviously, we ended on a cliffhanger to get people to come back after baseball, but that was really viewed as one chunk. And then we had six more that we knew that we were picked up for—if those would ever air. But then adding another 14 was a bit unusual.”
The show’s self-awareness was born of equal parts attitude and necessity.
“I think the self-referential quality was a little bit of some of our own discomfort, like, ‘Are we doing a teen soap on prime time, or are we trying to do something a little different?” And I think the Valley allowed us a little bit of a Greek chorus to be aware of our own whatever when it started to feel like the show was becoming too soapy. But there was also sort of a fun recklessness about it. In the first season, we covered so much ground and moved so fast, it was so exciting and I think that was really reflective of the experience we were having making the show. It became this rocket ship, this super-exciting journey, and I think that was very much reflected in the pace and the energy in that first season.
Perhaps more than any other show in recent history, The O.C. helped shape its contemporary music scene—and Schwartz knows exactly why.
“The idea behind that was that Orange County sort of had a very distinct musical sound at that time—there was sort of a scene coming out of there. I always viewed it as wanting the music to feel like an extension of the emotional lives of the characters, which I guess sounds kind of pretentious. When I was sitting down to write the pilot, there was this Joseph Arthur song that plays at the end of the pilot, and when I heard that song, it was like, ‘Oh, okay, this is how I want the end of the show to feel.’ That it was less about the place and more about how our characters were feeling. It was a lot of the music that I was listening to, that other writers were listening to, that the actors were listening to. We didn’t have a lot of money for music back then, and it just happened to be indie rock that we were all listening to. It was cheaper to license, so that was a happy accident.
“And we were also lucky in our timing. It feels prehistoric to talk about it, but 10 years ago, MTV was incredibly consolidated, they weren’t really playing music videos anymore. Radio had become conservative, and there wasn’t a lot of different kinds of music being played. There were a lot of bands—playing music we all liked—that may have been wary about being involved in a teen soap on Fox. And I think they felt we were using the music respectfully. So we got a lot of the bands—bands we wouldn’t have expected—to agree to either have their music in the show or appear on the show. When the show started, we were sort of begging and pleading to get songs cleared. And within a year, we premiered the new Beastie Boys song. So it was a pretty amazing, gratifying part of the show.”
Schwartz wasn’t nearly as satisfied—or at least, satisfied nearly as long—as his audience was at the end of the first season.
“That’s a good question. I remember when the season ended, just feeling this combination of a great deal of excitement and satisfaction about how it had gone coupled with a sense of, How will we top this, where will we go from here? And you know that’s something that I’m now well-versed in—in television you give yourself a pat on the back for about two seconds and then you’re immediately looking to the future. I think the satisfaction in TV does not last very long, since you’re already nervous and anxious about what’s to come.”