Fans of The O.C. will never forget, *spoiler alert*, Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) carrying Marissa Cooper’s (Mischa Barton) lifeless body away from a car accident, watching the vehicle explode behind him as she took her final breaths, to the soundtrack of ‘Hallelujah’ by Imogen Heap.
20 years on, it’s still a television moment that stops you in your tracks. You’re waiting for the next episode to start and tell you everything is fine, but that relief does not come. Killing off a main character is a devil-may-care move, and something that showrunners Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage have come to regret with time.
Speaking to Vanity Fair, the creative pair, who are releasing a new book on the series to mark its anniversary Welcome to the O.C.: The Oral History, said the distance of time has helped them reflect.
“I think the 20 years since it happened has given everybody a little bit of grace and mercy to be able to feel vulnerable, be honest and not pretend that everything was perfect—and that was exactly how we wanted it to be,” Savage told the publication.
Savage calls their creative process at the time ‘chaotic’, referencing the kind of reckless abandon with which storylines twisted into pieces and then back together again.
“But as Josh said, that life is in the show. You feel that sense of going from episode to episode as they’re being made and going on TV,” Savage added.
Despite the early success of the breakout show, Schwartz and Savage faced mounting pressure for the following seasons to meet the same hysteria. It created a revolving door of cast members brought in, to then be unceremoniously, but dramatically dumped.
“I think we talked about this in the book—we didn’t always keep the people around as long as we should have. Whether that was Luke or Anna, there were a handful of characters that if we had a mulligan, we would’ve kept around longer. They were really terrific actors and fun characters, and the audience really embraced them,” they say.
Of course, the mind jumps directly to Marissa Cooper who was abruptly killed off in the season finale of the third season.
“It’s something that we regret, and looking back on it, we wish we could have come up with a different solution. We didn’t see an alternative path at the time, which is why we went down that road,” Schwartz explains. “But obviously in hindsight, there were lots of other ways we could have written the character off the show—and given Mischa the break that she needed and wanted—that still would’ve allowed for that character to return.”
At this point, it’s important to understand why Barton left the show. While she was very quiet about her exit for many years, in 2021 she opened up to E! News citing issues within the production team and wanting to move on to new opportunities in her decision to leave.
“They made me feel like the show is going to go on with or without you and it is what it is. So I was just, like, OK, cool, then let’s go out with a bang,” she said. “I was getting offers from big films at the time and having to turn them down. I had always been supporting in The Sixth Sense and any of those things. My dream was to be offered those lead roles, so that’s what happened. It just felt like it was the best thing for me and my health and just in terms of not really feeling protected by my cast and crew at that point.”
For Scwartz and Savage, they had experienced some positivity towards their cut-throat approach to characters. They told Vanity Fair that when Marissa killed Trey, there was a sadness that was also positive, but when Marissa died, it did not “feel good”.
“It did not feel like that audience had been served or respected in the way that we always wanted and aimed to. Immediately, we had regret at that point,” he adds.
Savage explains, “We were also under tremendous pressure to do something with that level of drama. Killing a series regular came down from the top. If we wanted a season four, we’d have to do something like that.”
“The O.C. really felt specific to these characters. It feels like any version of doing [a reboot of] The O.C. would require bringing back that original cast. But I think 20 years looking back, we really feel like we captured lightning in a bottle.”
Cast member Rachel Bilson (who played Summer Roberts), runs her own podcast dissecting the show called Welcome To The O.C., Bitches. She has said that she would be keen for a reprisal of the show.
“I know that Melinda (Clarke, who played Julie Cooper) and I have both said we would, of course, be more than willing to revisit such a fond memory,” she said on her podcast. “And (executive producers) Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage can do no wrong, in my opinion.”
For now, you’ll find us watching reruns, celebrating Chrismukkah and mourning the Taylor Townsend/Ryan Atwood coupling.