September 2003 marked two watershed moments in my life: I started high school, and I was introduced to Ryan Atwood, Seth Cohen, Marissa Cooper, and Summer Roberts, the cast of the unforgettable teen soap opera, The O.C.
For those who, like me, find no purer comfort than simple, completely implausible drama, the show was absolute perfection. Hot jailbird brothers, tragic surfers, the most endearing MILF character ever written for primetime television — it truly had it all. For four years straight, my friend Katie and I religiously tuned in to the weekly crises and triumphs of those fictional Orange County high schoolers. After every episode, we would walk around the block in the freezing cold, awash in her cigarette smoke, discussing the developments of the evening’s episode alongside the less salacious mini-dramas of our own lives.
I found the fictionalized, vodka-soaked version of Newport Beach a welcome retreat, partially because it looked nothing like my gloomy Pittsburgh public school reality and partially because I wanted to believe that my moody teen self was as compelling as pouty, lanky Marissa. (This was not the case.) So it is hardly surprising that half a lifetime later, I found myself returning to Newport’s poolsides in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone has their own form of escapism, and for me — sad, alone in my Seattle apartment, and overwhelmed with free time — there was no better mental vacation than revisiting the show’s tortured teenage love triangles, listless weeping, and punny quips.
But I returned to the O.C. a more complex woman than my younger self, thank God. Less wracked by the self-inflicted woes of my own personal life and more distraught by those of the world, I found myself drawing fewer parallels to my terrible teen relationships and more time fascinated by how the characters come to terms with real-world conflicts — including, ugh, climate change.
This wasn’t a connection I set out to make — in fact, quite the opposite. I was attempting to escape from the realities of some very dark months, including my daily work reporting on climate change. And for all my years identifying with Marissa’s angsty and self-destructive tendencies, and I had completely forgotten the plotline in which Summer Roberts (played by Rachel Bilson), Newport’s most bronzed and materialistic daughter, becomes a die-hard environmentalist.
When we meet Summer in the first season of The O.C., her self-proclaimed interests are “tanning, shopping, and celebrity gossip.” She is a lip gloss-laden encapsulation of the vapid McMansion SoCal culture of the early aughts. But zoom ahead to the start of the fourth season, and she is rushing out onto the quad to defend the rights of chickens, clad in a t-shirt that reads “More Trees, Less Bush.” (A slogan somewhat at odds with the fact that she has also stopped shaving her legs.)
Summer’s activist turn is, of course, a symbol of her emergence from a cocoon of shopping-obsessed narcissism and transformation into a more responsible, mature adult. It’s also framed as a kind of coping mechanism for (spoiler alert!) her best friend and show protagonist Marissa’s fiery death. Summer attempts to resolve her grief by hurling herself into environmental activism at Brown University. She chains herself to campus trees, demonstrates against the use of cages on poultry farms, and plasters her dorm walls with posters of forests and trees. She embraces nihilistic references to the subsummation of her beloved beaches and malls and lacrosse fields by a Pacific Ocean swollen from melting polar ice caps. Imagine your personal tragedies being so terrible that it’s preferable to think about immobilized chickens and the mass destruction of the California coast! Poor Summer!
From the vantage of 2020, there’s a lot one could ridicule about the O.C.’s take on environmentalism — freeing rabbits from a lab? A fondness for didgeridoos, for some reason? — especially in comparison with the systemic awareness that the youth climate movement of today seems to carry. And yet, it painted a fairly accurate picture of the general (lack) of environmental awareness of the time. Even though the gradual accumulation of carbon emissions in the atmosphere has been progressing for quite some time — like, centuries, as Summer would inform you — and scientists have been warning us that a warmer atmosphere will make Earth unlivable for decades, that wasn’t as front-and-center in our minds 17 years ago. For all of the early aughts, I was blissfully unaware of the urgency of climate change. Indeed, I don’t even remember any of my peers really thinking about climate change as anything more than an offhand joke in reference to being able to tan outside in April.
At the time it first aired, The O.C. garnered attention in some cultural criticism circles for its seamless blend of irony-worshipping hipsterism with sun-worshipping Californians; think Urban Outfitters meets Hollister, for those old enough to remember when the two brands were differentiable. For much of the show, trying not to care too much — about people’s opinions, or the world writ large — was the teens’ go-to defense mechanism of choice. For example, in the fourth season, there’s a quick exchange between nerdy outcast Seth and the newly eco-conscious Summer in which she rails against the lack of local recycling options. Seth (played by actor Adam Brody) suggests his longtime girlfriend call the local councilperson. She enthusiastically agrees, but he clarifies that he was being sarcastic.
“I don’t do sarcasm anymore, I’m post-ironic,” she says, to which Seth replies: “You mean … earnest?”
For all The O.C.’s devotion to outdated early-aughts ethos, there’s something timeless in the way it captures the classic teenage navigation of social responsibility and personal irresponsibility. There is a line in Doreen St. Felix’s review of the teen drama of the moment, the Drake-produced Euphoria, referring to the promise of Gen Z: “They will avoid the mistakes of their sinner predecessors—the gig economy and the Internet’s irony-poisoning, climate-change ambivalence, and millennial listlessness.” But her review also goes on to describe the ways in which Euphoria contradicts this expectation, reveling in the dark and drug-addled dysfunction of Tik-Tok era teens.
Self-absorption is a fundamental feature of teen dramas, going back to the genre’s foundational text, Romeo and Juliet. That’s not an adolescent failing, it’s a necessary step in their evolution. Young people are naturally caught up in how much they’re changing, trying to wrap their hormone-drunk heads around what the world expects of them, and most of growing up is just becoming aware that there are world problems more complicated and deserving of all-consuming attention than an unrequited crush.
A common refrain from teen climate activists of today is that they have been forced to grow up too fast, deprived of these years of dumb decisions, self-centeredness, and devotion to small dramas due to the sheer urgency of the climate crisis. They have no time for snide detachment.
I look at someone like teen climate activist Greta Thunberg and feel a twinge of embarrassment for my high school self: so much time spent moping around over the events of some loathsome party or another. But this year, being (very) aware of the world’s problems, the fires and the virus and the hurricanes and the violence, felt so unbearable at so many moments, that retreating to a time when my greatest concerns were all contained within my own little life felt bizarrely comforting.
Pretending I could relate to a moody teen once again was a welcome relief. My wish for teens of the future isn’t just a stable atmosphere; it’s that they, too, can enjoy the luxury of being completely wrapped up in silly, spectacular, utterly selfish drama.