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Growing Up Is Hard To Do: ‘The O.C.’ and How Ryan Atwood Learned to Let Himself Be Taken Care Of

Growing Up Is Hard To Do: 'The O.C.' and How Ryan Atwood Learned to Let Himself Be Taken Care Of

Editor’s Note:  This is part one in a series of five articles looking at memorable depictions of coming of age on television — a favorite topic on the small screen, from “Leave It To Beaver” to “Pretty Little Liars.” It’s presented in partnership with Participant Media’s new network Pivot and its series “Please Like Me,” about a 20-year-old man (Josh Thomas) who still has a lot to figure out about identity, love and family. Catch all six episodes back-to-back at 8pm ET/7pm CT on Thursday, August 1.

“Welcome to the O.C., bitch!” The five-word declaration is one that shall forever live in pop culture infamy since it hit the airwaves a decade ago in the pilot episode of “The O.C.,” the first series by showrunner wunderkind Josh Schwartz (who’d go on to co-create “Chuck” and “Gossip Girl”). The show is about troubled youth Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) who’s swept off the streets of Chino by his public defender, the prominently eyebrowed Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), and subsequently introduced to a fish-out-of-water existence in tony Orange County. It’s easy to shrug off “The O.C.” as the common teen soap — hey, it aired on Fox, it had a decidedly contrived premise, and it featured hilariously unbelievable alcohol dependencies.

But “The O.C.” still resonates with audiences because, while it did feature more than a few teen soap tropes, it transcended its contemporaries by accurately depicting a lot of the trials and tribulations of teenagerdom, especially through the Schwartz conduit of the charmingly geeky Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) as he awkwardly experienced many rites of passage for the first time or dealt with parental embarrassments. Conversely, Seth’s adoptive bro Ryan arrived to Orange County sans virginity and, angst aside, was smooth with the ladies. His growing up involved learning how to be a teenager, how to accept being taken care of in a loving home without resistance.

The rearing of both Ryan and Seth by Sandy and Kirsten Cohen (Kelly Rowan) was perhaps the chief reason why “The O.C.” depicted coming-of-age so well. Unlike a lot of teen soaps, the pair were very present in their children’s lives, and were fully fledged characters unto themselves who were tough but fair to their kids. Throughout the five-season series, Sandy and Kirsten consistently provided valuable parental advice and made attempts to nip all bad behavior in the bud. Did it work all the time? No. But it doesn’t in real life either.

When Ryan first arrived at the Cohen’s palatial McMansion in the pilot, he went outside to take a smoke break, emulating the bad boy behavior he learned growing up in Chino. He offered one to literal girl-next-door Marissa (Mischa Barton) in an attempt to be cool, along with the nice line about his being “whoever she wants him to be.” Sandy saw Ryan smoking — and guess what? He took that cigarette away — and Ryan never smoked again. That’s effective discipline for you!

Sandy, like Ryan, came from some mean streets of his own, the Bronx, and was able to see through his ward’s tough affectations and to help reverse some of the damage that his previous environment has caused, with kindness and understanding. Later on in the series, Sandy would enact his patented “Sandy Cohen Mind-Meld” on each of his boys, his faux passive approach of stepping aside and letting the boys realize the errors of their own ways, thereby allowing them to grow emotionally and come to their own decisions.

The pilot episode of “The O.C.” is also emblematic of the all-important true-to-life depictions of teen angst and awkward social humiliation the series would become known for. Most of this occurs at the big party at which Abercrombie-ready Luke (Chris Carmack) exclaimed, “Welcome to the O.C., bitch!” Ryan, the cool and mysterious newcomer, got invited to the party by Summer (Rachel Bilson), the teen queen who Seth has loved since elementary school… and who didn’t even know his name.

Ryan brought Seth to the party with him, a first for the young nerd who usually spent his evenings playing video games, reading manga and jamming to Death Cab for Cutie. And Seth got drunk for the first time, got publicly shunned by Summer and got into his first fight — and while all of these activities are socially humiliating, Seth also found them exhilarating, in a way, because they are all such seminal “firsts” that he probably wouldn’t have been exposed to had Ryan not been thrust into his life.

Teenagerdom, as depicted on “The O.C.” and as it is in real life, is a heady mix of the awkward and exhilarating. Asking someone out for the first time or even losing your virginity is awkward, sure — but they’re important life moments that are exciting because they’re new and being experienced for the first time. Through Seth’s eyes, we are able to witness the ebbs and flows of the nerd in us all ambling our way through growing up and delighting in becoming an adult. And no, his Bar Mitzvah didn’t really count as the moment in which he became a man.

The firsts that Ryan experienced on the show are quieter, in that he had never before understood being a part of a functional family unit. In the pilot, for instance, Ryan had to get ready for a fashion show, run by his future love interest Marissa. Thing is, he’s never worn a tie and doesn’t know how to tie one. He played it cool and pretended he wanted to arrive to the posh event with an “open collar,” but Sandy saw through his facade and lovingly taught him how it’s done.

The growing up comes by Ryan succumbing to being parented, which continues over the course of the series. Ryan also got mocked by the others when Seth drunkenly blurted out at the party that he’s from Chino, and therefore from the wrong side of the tracks. Being an outsider is a first too, for Ryan, an equalizer between him and Seth that made them bros for life.

“The O.C.” doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not — it even pokes fun at itself with teen soap-within-a-teen soap “The Valley.” But it speaks the truth in terms of the dynamic between teens and their parents and teens with teens. Teenagers, as a rule, are not accommodating to outsiders. They form nearly impenetrable cliques and feel the intense need to belong. Ryan and Seth don’t fit into certain groups and provide great examples of what it’s like to grow up against the adversity of not belonging and rising above it. That — and having the world’s best dad, Sandy Cohen, didn’t hurt.

Indiewire has partnered with Pivot and its new series “Please Like Me.” (Binge-watch the whole season starting at 8pm ET/7pm CT on Thursday, August 1, with a total of six back-to-back episodes.) “Please Like Me” is a comedic-drama based on actual painfully awkward events from the life of 25-year-old, award-winning Australian comedian Josh Thomas. Watch the first episode here, as in the span of 24 hours, Josh is dumped by his girlfriend, realizes he may be gay and moves in with his mother, who has just attempted suicide. All of a sudden, it seems as though everyone’s life is in disarray and Josh is at the center of it all.

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