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'The O.C.,' 10 years later: J.J. Philbin looks back
The 'New Girl' writer was there for Taylor Townsend, Chris Pratt as Ché and much other silliness
By now, you’ve all surely taken large chunks of time today to read both parts of my interview with “The O.C.” creator Josh Schwartz, since tonight is the show’s 10th anniversary. If your appetite for Seth Cohen-related nostalgia hasn’t been sated by now, I also chatted that day with J.J. Philbin, who joined the writing staff midway through season 1 and stuck around all the way to the end, for all the marvelous silliness involving Ryan and Taylor Townsend, Chris Pratt as Ché, “Je Pense,” etc. Philbin’s now a writer on “New Girl,” but she was happy to walk down memory lane towards Newport Beach.
You came on when in season 1?
JJ Philbin: I came on in December so I think we were doing episode 18 or 19 or something like that.
How aware were you of the show before that?
JJ Philbin: I knew it was this big phenomenon and everyone was talking about it. And I think I was kind of jealous because I had been on “Coupling,” and that was supposed to be this huge hit. I had been on all the shows that had gotten canceled right away and so I was like, “I have finally arrived.” And then “Coupling” was an instant disaster. And there was this show “The O.C.” that I'd met on it before season 1 and then went on “Coupling” instead. I hadn't been watching it but when I got the meeting with Stephanie (Savage), I binge watched 12 episodes in a row and fell in love with it.
What specifically made you fall in love with it?
JJ Philbin: I thought it was a tone that I hadn't seen before. And I just wanted to be in that house, that Cohen house. I wanted Sandy and Kirsten to be my parents. And the characters were really lovingly drawn.
So if you came in around episode 18, that's two-thirds of the way through this insane 27 episode season. How burnt out was everyone even by the time you got there?
JJ Philbin: Very burnt. And Oliver had just happened. And it was one of those things where, when you're inside a writers room, it's like the whole world is about whatever kind of a fiasco has just happened to your show. And I remember coming in and it was like, "What are we going to do about Oliver?" And I was like, "What? It seemed like Oliver seemed fine." I remember there was just a lot of angst about that.
One of the things Josh has talked a lot is that he was new at this, 26 and 27. He had no idea what he was doing. So he basically went through five years worth of soap opera plot in a season. Was that something, as you're getting towards the end of that season, anybody was aware of? Or it wasn't until it was all over where everyone's like, “What do we do now?”
JJ Philbin: Yeah. I mean I think that it was just this break neck pace that they had become accustomed to. And then I remember sitting down at the beginning of season two and there is this discussion of like, how are we going to do this? How are we going to keep this pace up? And it was like, “Let's tell some smaller stories,” and I'm thinking of “My So-Called Life,” but I think the transition was like a little bit bumpier for us. I think that that pace was just incredibly built go to keep up.
And of course at the end of season 1 you write out Anna, Luke, Jimmy. It's like a whole bunch of people who had been significant parts of the show just go away and you've suddenly got to bring in new people to repopulate the show.
JJ Philbin: Oh, my god. I remember in season 2 suddenly we were at The Bait Shop all the time. Every season of that show really had its own distinctive flavor.
Also in season 2, Trey comes back. A new Trey.
JJ Philbin: That's right. A new Trey. I think I wrote the episode where he first came back and he shoplifted in the store and like Ryan — someone got punched; I don't remember who punched who. I liked that arc. But yeah, season 2, we tried to slow it down and tell slightly smaller stories. And season 3 we tried to pace it back up.
So do you think it was just you went too far with the pace? Because there are issues with season three.
JJ Philbin: There's some issues in season three.
So what were the issues as far as you were concerned?
JJ Philbin: It got too dark and I think that we spent too much time with these peripheral characters. And that was a reaction to season two where it felt like nothing was really happening and the network was feeling like it wasn't promotable so suddenly we had things to promote but it's like who are these people and why should we care about them?
JJ Philbin: Johnny, Chilli, Johnny's knee. And I think we just drifted – the tone of the show was an elusive thing that we were always trying to grab on to. It's just really hard to find that sweet spot. Often times we were telling stories that were too small or stories that were too big; too soapy, not soapy enough. And I was most comfortable writing season 4. Because that tone was much more in line with how I write.