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'The O.C.,' 10 years later: Josh Schwartz looks back, part 2
Revisiting Oliver, Johnny's knee and Ryan Atwood, cage fighter
Tonight is the 10th anniversary of the premiere of “The O.C.” on FOX. Last night, I posted the first part of a very long interview with the series’ creator Josh Schwartz, focusing on the show’s origins, casting the main characters and developing the sound of “The O.C.” In part 2, we spend more time on the ups and downs of the series as it continued well past the point anyone expected it to, and as rookie showrunner Schwartz had to figure out what to do after cramming three seasons’ worth of plot into his first one.
(Schwartz begins sipping his coffee)
All right: Oliver.
(Schwartz just barely avoids spitting out his coffee.)
Josh Schwartz: God bless him. I love Oliver.
You did those first seven episodes through the Tijuana trip, and everybody thinks it’s all amazing. And not long after, Oliver turns up..
Josh Schwartz: He had one scene, I think, in the Chrismukkah episode. So he didn't really come into the show until January.
Okay. But I'm saying that Oliver was really the first creative bump in what had been a pretty smooth road to that point.
Josh Schwartz: Well let me just take a moment to remind your readers that we had 27 episodes our first season. So two seasons of a cable show, four seasons of “Downton Abbey.”
Here's the thing about Oliver, too. I mean, this is the reality, that I certainly have come to learn having done this now for ten years, especially as social media as evolved. People like yourself and other like-minded people, had a much bigger issue with Oliver than your average 10th grade viewer. So that is a moment where not just the bimodality of the show, but the bimodality of the audience became more apparent. Meaning the Oliver story, I was hearing from people, “My kid is on the edge of their seat,” or I would hear from people when Marissa shot Trey that girls were crying, and then some critics would roll their eyes at that same stuff. So we were walking a lot of tight ropes.
Okay, so to jump ahead for a minute, you kill Marissa at the end of season 3, which to a certain like-minded viewer…
Josh Schwartz: I think I did it for you. Just to get you off my back.
… for the adult audience, this is a cause for celebration. But for the teenage girls, this is the worst thing you've ever done.
Josh Schwartz: Yeah. And by the way, look at the ratings in season four.
Clearly there were more of them than there were of us.
Josh Schwartz: Yeah. And that has been a big lesson for me, that the Twitterverse is a one-to-one ratio. For every one person who tweets about that, that represents one person. That's not one person representing a thousand people.
And that was a very difficult decision creatively. It was born out of a number of issues; creative, cast chemistry, ratings. There was a version of the show not coming back in season 4. We had a new network president. They had kind of moved away from doing programming like “The O.C.,” and there was a shot that there was no season 4. And on the one hand it was, as you said, cause for celebration amongst a certain kind of viewer and heresy amongst more viewers. And actually, that night I went online and I was like, “Oh, dear God, what have I done? I can't believe I listened to Sepinwall.”
It's all my fault.
Josh Schwartz: It's always all your fault. But I’d been wanting to correct the show for critics who felt like the show had lost what they really enjoyed about it in season 1 and season 2.
Chrismukkah: whose idea?
Josh Schwartz: Hard to say now. With the actual name, it was either going to be Hannamas or Chrismukkah. But it was the idea of the Cohens being half-Jewish. The idea of being Jewish in Newport Beach was something that was very important to me as a part of the show. And this idea of Seth being a guy who was an outsider but also relishes outsider status; whereas some kids would feel like they didn't know what to celebrate or how to feel about their identity, Seth very quickly would embrace the idea that this is perfect. Eight days of gifts followed by one day of many, many gifts. He exploited this holiday. We should have done a better job of trademarking it.
I totally skipped past Captain Oats.
Josh Schwartz: That was Jane Espenson. She was only with us for the six or seven episodes of the summer helping us break story. She wrote it in as a throwaway line: "Don't talk about Captain Oats that way!" And I just thought it was hilarious and then like any joke I just couldn't let it go and had to just keep telling it. And my dad worked for Hasbro, so My Little Pony was a big part of that. I wanted to give Summer her own version of Captain Oats.
So you get to the end of season 1, Luke has been pretty much defanged. He's part of the group. Jimmy and Julie have broken up. Both of those guys you sent away.
Josh Schwartz: And Anna. Not smart on my behalf. Part of it was I had never done this before, so the learning curve was steep. Part of it was I didn't watch a lot of these shows, and the ones that I loved did not make it past one season. So there wasn't a lot of instruction. If I could go back in time and do it all over again I would have for sure kept Anna and Luke in the show. The Jimmy thing was more of a financial thing, but I would have loved to have found a way to keep him in the show, too. There was more mileage to gain from those characters, and part of what I think made season 1 so fun for people was we didn't really know what we were doing. And we were having a blast. I think that was felt. I think you could feel that. We were going for it. It was going to be big and memorable. And we were going to take the villain of the pilot and by the end of his arc on season 1, he was going to be the most sympathetic character on the show. And we cycled through a lot of stories.
Josh Schwartz: So fast. That was fun for us and no one had said to put on the brakes or asked if we ever thought about what's going to come after this season. So I think that's part of what made the show fun to watch. The very things that made the show so fun to watch in that first season became problematic later on 'cause we burned through so much story. So if I could do it all over again, I would have slowed down aspects of those stories and we probably could have kept those guys around. We always talked about Ryan/Anna. We always talked about Luke/Summer. There's all those kind of combinations – Seth/Marissa, we flirted with the idea. There's a moment in season 2 where you think maybe they're heading that way toward each other. When we were trying to stay away from that of just re-pairing people, but those characters that you introduce in your first season are core characters and it's very, very hard to bring characters in who matter as much or ever feel as organically part of the group as those first season characters. We probably didn't help ourselves in season 2 by trying to bring in so many people at once.
Yes, there was Zach and Alex and DJ.
Josh Schwartz: And Lindsay. Some of them worked better than others, but the audience wants to see who they want to see and then they don't want to see a whole bunch of new people all at once. They want to see the core characters. Lessons learned.
So basically you had to start over because you told the stories…
Josh Schwartz: We completed the story. Ryan went back to Chino. The show's over. Yeah. No, no one really prepared me that there were other seasons to come.
Whose idea was the upside-down Spider-Man kiss?
Josh Schwartz (humbly): That was mine. I don't like to take too much credit; put, in parenthesis, “humbly.”
Josh Schwartz: The idea was that this was going to be Seth's ultimate romantic fantasy, that he was going to get Summer back and not only that but get her back as if he was Spiderman. That was really fun to do. And honestly, I just enjoyed introducing rain to Newport Beach and the idea that rain could be a sweeps episode. “It's raining. Oh, my God!”
Season 2 also gives us a new Trey, Logan Marshall-Green.
Josh Schwartz: Yeah. Logan was great. I mean, Logan really came in and brought a good level of danger to the show. I think that's one of those storylines that was more on the melodrama side but I think really worked.
The Imogen Heap song.
Josh Schwartz: Yeah, Imogen Heap. And that's funny. That was a song heard early on in season 2, and I said to Alex, "Can we please just get it and hold it? There's going to be the right time for this song." That end of season 2 was the right moment.
What did you think when “SNL” did the parody years later?
Josh Schwartz: I was thrilled. I mean, it's an honor to be parodied by “SNL,” those Lonely Island guys got their start doing “The Boo,” which was their online parody of “The O.C.” And every time I've ever seen them they've been incredibly nice. There's still stuff that are surfacing. There's still like Internet recuts of things that are set to the Imogen Heap song. I just saw a recut of the Red Wedding from “Game of Thrones” set to “Hide and Seek.” So, that's awesome. I'm proud of that.
All the new characters you introduced that season you cycled through and you were done with by the end of that year.
Josh Schwartz: Yeah. Zach stuck around longer. Alex, we would have liked to have kept around longer. There was a lot of discomfort about the Marissa/Alex storyline.
Okay. Let's talk about that.
Josh Schwartz: We were living in the long shadow of Nipplegate at the Super Bowl and broadcast standards and practices got very intense around that time. I think that storyline made people nervous.
Josh Schwartz: The other thing I forgot to mention that I haven't really talked about very much is in between season one and season two they wanted me to do another show. They originally wanted it to be a spin-off, and they wanted it to be about Anna. I didn't really know what that show was going to be. So we had done 27 episodes (in season 1), and I wrote a lot that season. It was a pretty long season, and then I had a two-week hiatus during which I was supposed to write a pilot for this other show and then spend a little while battling about whether this show was going to happen or if it wasn’t. Finally, I was like, “I have to focus on ‘The O.C.’ I have to focus on the whole reason we're here and kind of pull the plug on myself,” just because I was feeling like completely pulled in all different directions.
I’ll be seeing J.J. Philbin later today.
Josh Schwartz: We had a bunch of great writers who stayed with the show. J.J. was hilarious and John Stephens, Steph, Bob De Laurentiis, Leila Gerstein, who now has created “Hart of Dixie.” We had really, really good writers, and we kind of ran with the same small cadre of writers for the last couple years. I think everybody looked at each other at the end of season three and said, "All right, we are not here to do the Johnny and Chilli story. Why are we here and what do we want to do?” I wanted to do the show that these guys wanted to come work on to begin with. That was a really fun season for everybody because they're really funny writers and quirky writers, and I think got the opportunity to really display that.
You mentioned Johnny and Chilli. Lots of different things are happening in season 3 and one of them is we meet the shadow version of the cast on the beach.
Josh Schwartz: Yeah. Which was supposed to be funny and then – look, season 2, I get things may or may not have worked as well as season 1, but I still on the whole feel like there was a lot of good stuff in that season, a lot of fun stuff. I felt really good about it. Season 3, I was burned out, personally. I think some of the cast were frustrated with the direction the show was going. We had a new network president who wanted us to introduce, you know, a more adult soap storyline and, “Can we get Nicollette Sheridan? If only we could get Nicollette Sheridan,” you know. “Desperate Housewives” was crushing at the time. I think we just started making a different show. We were just trying to make a show that delivered on the melodrama and even if we're doing something that was kind of amusing like Ryan's bar mitzvah it was in the service of Johnny robbing a liquor store.
And that's the year with the trouble in the Cohen marriage, right?
Josh Schwartz: No, that was introduced in season 2. That's probably, if I had to list one other regret, it would be that.
Sandy and Kirsten were the perfect couple, perfect marriage. Was that hard to write over multiple years and that's why they started having trouble and Billy Campbell and other trouble started showing up?
Josh Schwartz: Yeah. I mean, it was partially that. It's partially you're just looking to find story from some new avenue. Again, the Sandy/Kirsten dynamic and the strength of their marriage was really important. I think it got to a good place in the intervention scene with Kirsten. It was actually a really nice Cohen family moment, but the “Will Sandy stray?” storyline was probably hard on some of our viewers but anyway, sorry.
So anyway, I think the problem, the biggest problem with season 3 was, say what you will about Oliver or say what you will about Marissa and Alex, or whatever it is, they were memorable, they were fun, and I think season 3 was probably a little safe, a little boring at times.
So season 4 is a funnier season, but it also opens up with Ryan Atwood, cage fighter.
Josh Schwartz: Yeah. We were going for it. We wanted to be big and memorable, and the show always had this kind of operatic strength to it. And it certainly wasn't like lost on the other characters; they were making comments of, “Oh, Ryan's cage fighting.”
Hey, I like Ryan Atwood, cage fighter.
Josh Schwartz: Look, it's memorable. Again, I think the worst thing you can accuse a show like this of being is predictable or dull. The idea with season 4 was going to come back and we really wanted it to feel vivid and fun and memorable, and get that kind of spirit back. The cage fighting certainly allowed you to understand the place that Ryan was at in his life.
In season three you had introduced Taylor; did you have any sense of what she and Autumn (Reeser) were going to be bringing to the show?
Josh Schwartz: Well we knew she was great. That was another long season where we were struggling at times, but that was a character that everybody was very excited to write. So, on the wish list of things for season 4, Taylor Townsend and Autumn Reeser were going to be right at the top of that list.
And Chris Pratt we knew about from “Everwood.” Patrick Rush, our casting director, who cast “Everwood” said, "He's really funny." He was the first guy who auditioned for “Chuck,” by the way. J.J.'s married to Michael Schur, so Mike had a front-row seat to how good Chris Pratt was and he got “Parks and Rec” off of that.
Yeah, now they're in London filming their premiere just so that Pratt can be in it. So it's a good time to be Chris Pratt.
Josh Schwartz: Yeah. Well, by the way, a hundred percent deserved. That guy is awesome. He's hilarious and he brought so much life to the set and the cast, and you start to feel all the other actors have to raise their game 'cause they knew this guy was walking in and he was really, really fun.
You've said to me that you knew going in this was going to be the last year. When did you know? How did you know?
Josh Schwartz: Well, first of all, I knew how on the bubble we were at the end of that season 3. So when we got the call, “We're going to bring you back, and it's going to be for 16 episode,” that basically said “the final season.” Nobody ever actually said that, and we got a rating spike at the end of season 3 with the Marissa death. Had a pretty good sense of it and you always want to believe that maybe you can bring it back, but we were in a really competitive time period and we were up against “Grey's Anatomy” and it was a monster at that time. Shows like this are not necessarily meant to run forever. It's part of the fun of 'em, but I think we felt like if this was the last season let's go out with a show we can be proud of.
So how did you decide what the finale wound up being?
Josh Schwartz: Well we always knew we wanted to bring the show full circle. The idea of the Cohen's returning to Berkeley, the idea of Kirsten being pregnant, and delivering when they're up looking at the house. I'm trying to remember everything that happened in the finale. But really just trying to bring closure to the series. Is that what you're asking about?
And also the final scene with Ryan Atwood, architect.
Josh Schwartz: Yeah. Where he runs into that kid. That, and the idea of the Cohen house collapsing and that they all would need to find their identity kind of outside of that house that had meant so much to them. That felt like a really nice way to end the show.
That season, you could have contrived to have them all go to UC-Newport Beach, and instead Summer goes off to Brown and Seth and Ryan stay home, and Taylor comes back from France.
Josh Schwartz: Yeah. Seth and Summer trying to do the long distance thing. We were trying to avoid other things. Obviously, when we were doing “Gossip Girl,” keeping everybody in New York once they were out of high school, is a lot more organic and believable than everybody going to college at UC-Newport Beach, or OCU as we called it. So that felt like the more satisfying way to try to do it.
When did “Real Housewives of Orange County” come on? While you were still on the air?
Josh Schwartz: No. “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County” came on as we were starting season 3, which also contributed to my angst 'cause I was like, “Now it's the real version. How are we going to compete with the real version?” Then “Real Housewives” came on I think a year after we went off the air.
And I ran into (“Desperate Housewives” creator) Marc Cherry a few years ago at some Writers Guild thing, I had never met him before, and he was saying, “When ‘The O.C.’ went on the air, there were no nighttime serialized dramas really on primetime at that time, and certainly none with comedy, and that gave ABC a sense to put this show on the air.” I was like, “Wow, that's really nice. Did you guys have to completely destroy us in the ratings on top of it?” He was really nice. So, it was a moment where there weren't really any teen dramas on, the nighttime soap had kind of fallen off on primetime. And we were able to kind of come in and fill that void. Accidentally. It was just luck.
And you wound up inspiring a reality empire that's still going on.
Josh Schwartz: Yeah. I would have like to have had a piece of that. We gave birth to Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt in some weird way.
Maybe you shouldn't want a piece of that. Maybe your soul is a little cleaner this way.
Josh Schwartz: Yeah, maybe. That's probably true. When it was happening, I was living and dying by every episode, every “Television Without Pity” recap, every What's Alan Watching recap, and every ratings bump or drop in a way that I learned later to not do. With “Chuck,” I had to go through the ratings thing every week, but had kind of learned that you can't just live and die by that every week. But I did that on “The O.C.,” and one of the nice things about it being ten years now is the distance from that, and that people still want to talk about the show, people still remember the show, people still want to talk about the music on the show or this character or what have you. That's nice. It's like whatever people loved or had issues with along the way, they remember the show and that's all you can ask for.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com