by Álvaro André Zeini Cruz
The outsider’s presence is assiduous in teenage films written or directed by John Hughes: in Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, Sixteen Candles and Weird Science, they are the protagonists marginalized by a tyrannical and voracious system that spreads like a weed at this locus called “school”. In The Breakfast Club, the most striking teen chronicle signed by Hughes, such presence is even more significant: the outsider is the catalyst that deconstructs the other stereotypes – the nerd, the athlete, preppy girl and the freak – imprisoned in that microcosm, bringing to light the core of those surfaces.
Closing the synopsis in the back of the box of the third season of The O.C., the passage of a review points out: “The O.C. can be compared to the films of John Hughes, but in the 21st century”. The comparison, at first, may seem odd, since, even though the series created by Josh Schwartz also takes place in the adolescent universe, there is a clear cut difference: while Hughes pored over adolescence in the middle-class suburbs and public schools, Schwartz’s plot takes place in one of the richest counties in California. However, something goes through these two American adolescences – distant at first sight – and brings them together: the foundation on stereotypes and the figure of the outsider as an essential engine in the problematization of this universe.
Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) is the outsider who appears to deconstruct Orange County’s world of appearances. His composition is emblematic: white tank top, threadbare jeans, leather jacket and a choker close in his neck – that is, he presents a series of external marks that make him recognizable in his stereotype of a bad boy misfit. After the unsuccessful robbery of a car (a crime led by his brother) and maternal abandonment, Ryan is adopted by Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), the public defender who takes care of his case, a fact which confronts him with a new way of life, represented by the other characters: Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), the matriarch created in the image and likeness of the community in which she lives; Seth (Adam Brody), the nerd who (as usual) is avoided by everyone (and who is in love with Summer – Rachel Bison –, the typical mindless preppy girl initially); and Marissa (Mischa Barton), the spoiled and troubled little princess, daughter of the corrupt Jimmy Cooper (Tate Donovan) and Julie Cooper (Melinda Clarke), the incarnation of the rich shrew.
The dynamics of the entire first season balance between the melodrama and the comic: Ryan and Marissa star in the melodramatic storylines (in which the other characters interact as supporting actors); Seth and Summer, the humorous stories; and Sandy and Kirsten oscillate between the two strands, generally in plots that occupy a smaller portion of the episodes. The plot’s tone is similar to Hughes’ films, especially Breakfast Club and Some Kind of Special. However, as a showrunner, Schwartz has the essential understanding that, in the serial narrative, the audience’s involvement is, before, with the character more than with the plot itself. Characters are who make the audience return to the series every week. Unlike the characters of classic cinema, who go through a process of change during the plot, they must be peeled off, exposing their facets little by little, keeping coherence. Ryan, the protagonist, obeys this rule throughout the series: whenever he is close to ceasing to be an outsider, the plot makes him come to Marissa’s defence, a movement that reminds him he is a strange body in that location. As in Breakfast Club, this misfit will unveil the most serious maladjustments in that universe.
A collection of recurring conflicts in the teen series appears: love triangles (and unrequited love), paternal divorces, unwanted pregnancies, overdose in Tijuana (okay, this one is exclusive to the series). The issue in The O.C. is not in the beaten plots but the potentization of their stereotypes and universe. If Hughes started from the surface through the teenage caricature within a more everyday space (the suburban school), Schwartz embraces the same premise, only displaced to where the surfaces will get gigantic. Everything starts from the shallow caricature – from the characters-templates to the sets with an IKEA showcase appearance and the beach in chroma key in the background – to come down, episode by episode, after the arrival of the outsider, until the end of the series, when everything literally falls apart.
This understanding of the characters as the foundation of the serial narrative was lost and became a crucial mistake in the second and third seasons – to privilege the conflicts and the soap narrative based on cliffhangers, Schwartz altered the dynamics between characters/stereotypes, immersing everyone under the weight of melodrama. The “Hughesian” tone faded to return only in the fourth and final season, when the show was already warned about the cancellation, especially after the poor reception of the death of Marissa, the problematic protagonist played (according to the press) by a hard actress.
Mischa Barton’s firing, however, contributed to the series’ return to its original formula: Marissa’s memory, on the one hand, continued to pull Ryan toward his original form. However, with the series moving towards an ending, a new character (introduced as a recurring in season three) grabbed the other end of the rope to initiate the protagonist’s move toward change: the rambunctious Taylor Townsend (Autumn Reeser) didn’t just steer Ryan to his conclusion, but brought back to The O.C. a lightness that, at first, was provided by the characters of Brody and Bilson (something that, to some extent, had been lost).
An earthquake hits Orange County in the penultimate episode and brings down the Cohen’s sophisticated – and “plastic” – mansion; after four seasons undermining that community of appearances, it finally comes crashing down. As in Hughes’ films, morality rises among the rubble: behind a world of surfaces, there is always a truth that needs to be rescued from the depths. The family is this value regained throughout the series, which survives amidst the wreckage, something that only happens because their connections are no longer superficial; they become real. In the end, change is necessary so that the showcase community, now shattered, is left behind. Showcase because this has always been Ryan’s relationship with the place: on his arrival, in the pilot episode, the paradisiacal beaches, before being filmed in an eye-line match, were volatile reflections on the car window, in which, on the other side, was Ryan, watching everything like in an aquarium. In the series finale, another representative shot: Ryan’s subjective through the car’s rear windshield, seeing a beautiful, sad, empty Marissa Cooper being left behind. Marissa’s death may not have pleased fans, but it did away with inconsistency: her fate was similar to that of Orange County, a space that, more than any other character, she personified. On the other hand, Ryan Atwood returned to the world no longer alone because, just like in Hughes’ films, his misfit revealed a basic but essential truth: deep down, we are all outsiders.
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