Rich, angst-ridden teenagers are interesting people to watch. They're self-destructive, they're mean-spirited, they do dumb things and they look good doing them. The gossip rags are filled with entertaining examples of rich kids in their teens and early 20s, acting like jackasses in public. So, given this fertile soil of the young and the feckless, why does "The OC" return to the barren ground of Afterschool Specials year after year?
Characters who should be going to exclusive clubs in thousand-dollar outfits, ganging up on each other, hurling foul insults, and sniffing lines of coke in the bathroom and then passing out on the dance floor are, instead, getting threatened by (secretly nice) bullies or smoking joints on the sly. If these kids would just drink too much and run their SUVs, packed with other kids, off some cliff, if they could just bust open their skulls jumping from the roofs of their houses into swimming pools, if they sometimes climbed trees to retrieve frisbees and ended up paralyzed, if they got STDs and slept with skeazy rocker guys and stole each other's boyfriends, then their antics would resemble the wrongheaded antics of real teenagers.
But instead, they're sweet and supportive and have the best of intentions, so all of the drama has to come from bad luck or shady types who rope them into unsavory situations that eventually end in tragedy. Each week, Ryan, Seth, Marissa and Summer are ambling along, minding their own business, when they attract the attention of a Scooby-Doo villain, one who inevitably ends up a) punching Ryan in the jaw, b) coaxing Ryan into being present when criminal activity takes place, or c) terrorizing Marissa.
You see, just like in the Afterschool Specials of yore, all it takes for a good, honest kid's life to turn tragic is one bad decision: one make-out session with a bully, one joint smoked at Daddy's office, one late-night punching match with the ex-girlfriend's new fling. When Seth (Adam Brody) starts buying pot and smoking it on the sly in his room, he doesn't listen to Yes or Jethro Tull or the Dead like a normal teenager, he doesn't put in marathon sessions on his Playstation or order late-night pizzas or rent Cheech and Chong movies. No, he listens to angry punk rock and glares at the wall. Smoke pot and glare at the wall? Come on. Smoke pot and smile at the wall, maybe.
Seth's pot-smoking isn't even a sign that he's losing his motivation, that he's getting lazy, that he's going through a "Who the hell cares?" stage. He's not showing an interest in harder drugs or skipping school or even sleeping late. No, the pot tells us that Seth is living a lie -- you know, like his mom, who swills vodka on the sly then passes out on the bed without throwing up, breaking any dishes or even messing up her flat-ironed hair. Soon, we know, Seth will have to pay a price for all that smoking and glaring. It's just like the Afterschool Special where Super-Stone Jack (played by Scott Baio) smoked pot and then hit his brother on the head with an oar during swim practice and almost killed him. Seth's pot smoking was destined to bring tragedy and shame to the house of Cohen -- in a totally arbitrary and unlucky way, of course, since Seth is such a good kid. So Seth goes to dad Sandy's office to pick up an illustration for a presentation, smokes a joint (um, why there?) and then drops the lit joint in the trash can and leaves, indicating that he's not only stoned but really, really stupid.
Next thing you know, sirens are blaring, the cops swarm the big party du jour, and Seth is led out in handcuffs for burning down his dad's office. Oh nooo! His future is ruined! At least until the next episode, that is, when dad and Seth have a nice little talk and a hug, and Seth's totally off the hook. Well, at least that part sounds a little bit like the disciplinary measures used on some of the rich kids I've known.
After a season of these sorts of empty twists and turns, it shouldn't have come as any surprise that the finale would consist of four parts hugging and learning to one part senseless tragedy. For the first 50 minutes of the finale, we witness Seth and Sandy (Peter Gallagher) forgiving each other for being a stoner and an absent dad, respectively, Marissa (Mischa Barton) and her mom, Julie (Melinda Clarke), hugging and making up for loathing each other all these years, Summer (Rachel Bilson) and Seth securing their future together in Rhode Island (Summer's going to Brown, Seth is going to the Rhode Island School of Design! Yay!), Sandy and Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) kissing and making up for almost getting divorced, and finally, Marissa bidding the gang farewell before her yacht trip to the Greek Islands. Yes, we're supposed to believe that Marissa will be swabbing the deck and peeling potatoes for the next few months. I'm so sure. She'd rather die!
In order to honor her true feelings about manual labor, Marissa hops a ride to the airport in Ryan's brand new SUV, obviously reasoning that, with 10 minutes left to the episode, something tragic is bound to happen and she might find a way to avoid messing up her manicure in a sea of potato peels. Volchok, Marissa's fifth or sixth self-destructive, depressed boyfriend in a row, appears on cue, swigging from a flask, driving that van from Scooby-Doo, appropriately enough. He pulls up next to Ryan and bashes his car from the side, and Ryan makes that one, fateful bad decision that will lead to tragedy: He speeds up. Volchok speeds up, bashes the car again, Ryan loses control, his car rolls down a hillside and lands upside-down, squashed.
Ryan crawls out, then pulls Marissa from the burning car. Cue tragic indie rock as Ryan carries Marissa's limp body along the road and the car explodes in the background. Marissa has dark red blood on the side of her head, but not enough to seriously impair her blow-out. She blinks prettily, but miraculously doesn't say anything like "I've always loved you," or "Stay sweet," or "See ya, wouldn't wanna be ya!" Instead, she groans, blinks and dies. Ryan clenches his jaw, but miraculously doesn't bellow "Noooo!" or nuzzle Marissa's bloody face. It's OK, we liked his happy-go-lucky, jewelry-making girlfriend much better than Marissa anyway.
And this twist came as no surprise, since Mischa Barton had already blabbed to Access Hollywood that her character had been through so much "there's nothing more left for her to do," making it pretty clear that Marissa would be killed off so that Barton could pursue a film career. Way to honor those fans you expect to pay good money to see you roll your eyes and bat your lashes on the big screen, lady!
Still, Marissa's death may be the most promising plot twist to occur on "The OC" since the very first episode. Tense or romantic scenes between Ryan and Marissa have always had the intensity of watching a bowl of fruit slowly rot. Even when Marissa was victimized -- which happened constantly, whether by suicidal Oliver (institutionalized) or sad and lonely Johnny (stumbled off a cliff after one night of drinking and died) or Ryan's violent delinquent of a brother (got shot and skipped town) or that mean girl at the public school (rode in the ill-fated Scooby-Doo van with Volchok) -- all she could muster was wide-eyed looks of desperation and tears, lots of 'em. Barton could really turn on the waterworks but that was about it, and every scene with her in it had a way of reminding you that you had a Pop Tart in the toaster or laundry in the dryer.
And look, if Marissa had died from a freak fire started by an unattended Pop Tart in the toaster, that would've been great. As long as tragedy is utterly arbitrary, why involve angry bullies at all?
Still, those who don't watch "The OC" will surely wonder why anyone would expect more from a teen show than cartoon villains, empty plot twists and a big, fat moral to every story. The frustrating thing is, smart people write this show. The dialogue is deceptively clever and spirited, and never matches the action, which seems to have been dreamed up by preteen girls, mapping out plot points with their Barbies. Seth even compares his life to "an Afterschool Special" when he's discovered smoking pot, but somehow that's not enough to save him from fulfilling the exact plot points of an Afterschool Special anyway. And instead of using Marissa's exit to hint that the show will change dramatically (it needs to) next season, the only suggestion of new characters lies with Marissa's little sister, Caitlin, who returns and expresses her intention to "rule Harbor [High School]." I think that's what she said, anyway -- her severe Valley Girl speech impediment makes it tough to tell.
So it looks like we'll have to sit through a whole new season of absurdly stupid story lines before we can relish the sight of another lip-glossed waif meeting her maker in some fiery catastrophe, as Imogen Heap wails plaintively in the background. Oh well. Until then, we'll always have Paris.