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The O.C.: 7+ Thoughts I Had While Rewatching The Pilot Episode All These Years Later

Ben McKenzie is Ryan Atwood after making bail in the pilot of The O.C.
(Image credit: Fox)

The O.C. was a pop culture phenomenon back in its day, making waves thanks to everything from its young stars to the soap opera-esque storylines heating up primetime to the music. This was a teen drama centered on a group of high schoolers, but it was no Saved by the Bell or Boy Meets World with these kids. Crimes were committed, drugs and alcohol were passed around, secrets were kept, lies were told, romances ranged from the steamy to the unhealthy…and that’s just describing The O.C. pilot episode that aired back in 2003! I felt that it was high time to revisit the series and rewatch the very first episode. 

As somebody who was there for the pilot's iconic “Welcome to the O.C., bitch!” to the first “Mmm, whatcha say,” to the very end in 2007, rewatching the pilot was a blast to the past with some things I’d forgotten and some things I now see differently. By the time the credits rolled, I definitely had some thoughts. 

Ryan and Seth are playing video games in The O.C. pilot.

(Image credit: Fox)

The True Love Story Was Always Ryan And Seth

The O.C. was chock full of romances, but revisiting the pilot established something that would remain true until the very end: the big love story of the show was always Ryan and Seth's bromance. 

Sure, romantic sparks were flying between Ryan and Marissa from the moment they locked eyes, and Seth was in love with Summer for years before they even spoke, but Ryan and Seth were basically in best friend mode from the moment they met. They came from extremely different backgrounds, but were cool with each other from the start, and that bond is only going to get so much tighter after the pilot. What show needs romance as a legacy when there’s a friendship like Ryan and Seth at the center? 

Peter Gallagher as Sandy Cohen after meeting Ryan in the pilot of The O.C.

(Image credit: Fox)

Sandy Cohen Was The Best TV Dad From The Start

Everybody who has ever heard of Sandy Cohen probably knows him as an example of a great TV dad, and the pilot proved that was true from the start. As Ryan’s public defender, he didn’t start by dispensing fatherly advice, but after looking at Ryan’s test scores and meeting his unfit mom, his dad instincts were clearly activated. 

Before the end of the episode, he was teaching Ryan how to tie a tie, happy to see him getting along with Seth, and clearly was willing to let Ryan keep living in the pool house after the big fight on the beach, even though that was a step too far for his wife. Is Sandy a perfect dad from start to finish on The O.C.? Definitely not, but he earned his status as a great TV dad.

Kelly Rowan is Kirsten Cohen talking to Sandy in the kitchen of The OC pilot.

(Image credit: Fox)

Kirsten Had A Point About Ryan

When I originally watched the pilot of The O.C. as a teenager back in 2003, Kirsten seemed like she was being unreasonable about not wanting to let Ryan stay, first after Sandy brought him home and then the morning after the beach fight. Ryan even made bacon! Who kicks out a houseguest who makes bacon without even being asked? 

As an adult, however, I see that Kirsten 100% had a point with her hesitation about Ryan. Seth went from never getting in any trouble to being involved in a drunken brawl on the beach, and definitely not holding his own in it. She didn’t even meet Ryan before Sandy brought him home! And, honestly, Kirsten making some valid objections to her husband bringing home his client makes her welcoming him into the family down the line all the more touching.

Mischa Barton is Marissa Cooper in driveway during The OC's pilot.

(Image credit: Fox)

It Was Very Early 2000s

For better or worse, The O.C. definitely shows its age as a product of the early 2000s. While you wouldn’t know the time period from Ryan’s white t-shirt and hoodie in the pilot, all it takes is one look at Marissa Cooper’s low-rise jeans, Seth’s t-shirt collection, and Luke’s puka shell necklace to cement the blast to the past in the pilot. Throw in Julie Cooper wondering if her straight hair and highlights were “too Avril Lavigne” and Ryan talking about Social Security running out in the oh-so-distant year of 2025, and the episode will transport you back to 2003. 

Summer and Marissa are gossiping at the fashion show in the pilot of The O.C.

(Image credit: Fox)

Summer Was The Worst (At First)

Seth built the expectations for Summer high after dreamily telling Ryan about his plans for their future while floating on the boat that he named after her, and Summer definitely becomes a standout character later in the series, but she’s kind of the worst in the series premiere. While drunkenly hitting on Ryan and showing no interest in Seth wasn’t as bad as what some of the other rich Orange County kids did, ditching a passed-out Marissa on her lawn was a very low point for the character. Sure, it served as an opportunity for Ryan to heroically carry Marissa into her home, but it was not a good look for Summer, and my rewatch really reminded me of why I didn’t like her at first. 

Bradley Stryker is Trey Atwood stealing a car with Ryan in pilot of The O.C.

(Image credit: Fox)

There Were Some Big Recastings

The very first scene of the pilot was a reminder that The O.C. actually did some pretty major recastings of characters. Bradley Stryker played Trey Atwood in the pilot, and one more time in Season 1, before he would be replaced by Logan Marshall-Green in Seasons 2 and 3. Trey also isn’t the only character who would be recast, as Shailene Woodley played Kaitlin Cooper in the pilot and rest of the first season, but would be replaced by future Arrow actress Willa Holland in Seasons 3 and 4.

Ben McKenzie's Ryan Atwood has a black eye in the pilot of The O.C.

(Image credit: Fox)

The O.C. Would Still Become A Hit Today

Even though the pilot proved that the show was very 2000s, the episode convinced me that The O.C. would still become a hit if it premiered today. It had an intriguing premise with a talented cast of young actors, some of whom – including Ben McKenzie with Gotham, Rachel Bilson with Hart of Dixie, and Adam Brody with StartUp – went on to star in their own series after the end of The O.C. (Mischa Barton has since spoken up about her exit from the series.)

Even Chris Carmack was best known as Luke before signing on to Nashville in 2013 and Grey’s Anatomy in 2018. I’d say that the recipe for success that worked in 2003 could have created a hit in 2022, and makes the series worth a rewatch beyond the pilot. (You can do so streaming with a Hulu subscription and/or an HBO Max subscription.)

Seth Cohen is playing video games in the pilot of The OC.

(Image credit: Fox)

Additional Thoughts

There was no way that I could stop my O.C. thoughts at just seven, so here are some others that I just can't get out of my head:

  • Ben McKenzie was great as Ryan, but he never looked like a teenager on The O.C.
  • Ryan was punched in the face for the first time five minutes into the pilot. It was the first of many punches over four seasons.
  • Ryan threw his first punch 32 minutes into the pilot. Also the first of many.
  • There are some things that you forget after almost 20 years, but not the lyrics to the “California” theme song by Phantom Planet.

You can find The O.C. streaming on both Hulu (opens in new tab) and HBO Max (opens in new tab). If you’re in the market for some upcoming viewing options, be sure to check out our 2022 TV premiere schedule for what to watch and when to tune in.

Laura Hurley
Laura Hurley

Resident of One Chicago, Bachelor Nation, and Cleveland. Has opinions about crossovers, Star Wars, and superheroes. Will not time travel.