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On Watching The O.C. Twenty Years Later

by Gabriel San Román

Fellow Slingers:

Twenty years ago, "Orange County" became a brand and I couldn't have cared less. 

As several retrospectives have already recounted, "The O.C." premiered on Fox on Aug. 5, 2003 and introduced the world to Newport Beach through Ryan Atwood, an adopted bad boy heartthrob from Chino. 

"Welcome to the O.C., bitch!" 

For 20 years, the iconic (and corny AF) line from the show didn't register with me until I started streaming "The O.C." earlier this year on Hulu and chuckled at the horrible writing. 

Unlike Atwood, I left OC (what people from here actually call it) and lived in Riverside when the teen drama defined our county during the aughts. 

Back then, I was too deep into the rock en español and Latin Alternative scene to notice. Being in the Inland Empire, my rockero friends didn't seem to define me by the show, even when we hit concerts at J.C. Fandango's or the House of Blues in Anaheim. 

And with the U.S. invasion of Iraq that year, bombs over Baghdad drew my attention as an anti-war activist looking for the next protest hit in Southern California. 

In short, I had other things on my mind than whether Ryan or Marissa Cooper would get back together. 

But twenty years later, I'm finally watching "The O.C." and just finished Season One last night. 

I have a few thoughts. 

First off: the Mexicans. 

Newport Beach was and still is overwhelmingly white.

Viewing OC through Zooport means Mexis only appeared briefly in the form of Rosa, the housekeeper for the Cohens, Ryan's adopted family, and Teresa, his old flame from Chino, who gets more screen time and introduces us to teen pregnancy and domestic violence through brown skin.

How quaint! 

Sure, Mexis are small in numbers where Newport Beach is concerned, but that ain't the case for all of Orange County to be othered away. 

And Mexis loom large on Zooport's xenophobic minds. 

Just two months before "The O.C." premiered, a Newport Beach Councilman by the name of Dick Nichols made headlines by opposing more grassy areas at Corona del Mar State Beach because more grassy areas meant more Mexis hanging out on them all day. 

The racism depicted in "The O.C." is far too subtle, too Irvine, without nary a Santa Ana scare. 

That aside, and with almost two decades of OC reporting under my belt, I sure do recognize many of the characters on the show. 

Jimmy Cooper, Marissa's white collar criminal dad who is otherwise affable as he begs for work? I've met the real-life version. 

Sandy Cohen, the former public defender whose do-gooder dialogue and one-liner zingers give the show its depth without being didactic?

He's somebody I probably would have run into at some Democratic Party of Orange County banquet or another. 

Caleb Nichol, the villainous real estate developer? I've also met the real-life version who lived in Newport Beach at one time. 

While Nichol was Riviera Magazine's "Man of the Year" on the show, he would have made a good candidate for OC Weekly's Scariest People issue. 

All that's missing? A bumbling Balboa Bay boat man. 

Speaking of OC newspapers, I love that "The O.C." gave shout outs to Riviera, the Daily Pilot and OC Weekly, but with a tinge of melancholy as two of those rags are as antiquated as the flip-phones on the show. 

Thanks, boat man!

That being said, much of "The O.C." holds up 20 years later as it mostly nailed Newport and as people still annoyingly refer to OC as the O.C.

I love and loathe the show, so far. That level of Stockholm Syndrome is as Orange County as it gets. 

But OC sure has evolved since 2003, even if Zooport and its Balboa Bars and Cotillions haven't much. Any reboot would have to dial up the diversity.

But then again, when has Hollywood ever been interested in telling that Orange County tale? 


This article originally appeared in San Román's newsletter Slingshot. Subscribe here.


Gabriel San Román is an Orange County writer for the Los Angeles Times. He previously worked at OC Weekly – as a reporter, podcast producer and columnist – until the newspaper’s closing in late 2019. San Román just may be the tallest Mexican in O.C.

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