“We didn’t know anything,” Josh Schwartz said. “We didn’t know the rules and we were making it up as we went along. That’s something that you learn from.”
“But you can’t repeat it,” he continued. “You can only do that once.”
Schwartz and his producing partner, Stephanie Savage, have created many coming-of-age series, including “Gossip Girl,” “Looking for Alaska” and “City on Fire.” But he was referring to their first show, which he dreamed up at 26: “The O.C.”
A hybrid of a glossy nighttime soap and a quirky teen comedy, “The O.C” aired its first episode on Fox in summer 2003. This story of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks (though how wrong is Chino, Calif., really?) taken in by a wealthy Newport Beach, Calif., family became a sensation among younger viewers, and it made stars and tabloid phenomena of the actors Mischa Barton, Rachel Bilson, Adam Brody and Ben McKenzie.
That first season burned through stories as though they were beach bonfire kindling. It blazed less brightly in the second season, and by the third (20-year-old spoilers follow), which culminated in the death of Barton’s poor-little-rich-girl Marissa, that flame had guttered. Following a shorter fourth season, the series ended in 2007.
“I personally felt like I had failed,” Schwartz recalled.
This was during a recent joint video call with Savage, but the mood was celebratory, not remorseful. Because in a twist worthy of the show’s first season, “The O.C.” has lived on, admired by a new generation and at least partly responsible for introducing idiosyncrasy and quirk into the conventional network formula.
Now with the publication of “Welcome to the O.C.: The Oral History,” a collaboration among Savage, Schwartz and the Rolling Stone TV critic Alan Sepinwall, its legacy also includes a book. In conversation with all of the main cast as well as network executives and members of the crew, the book explores the audacity, challenge and often painful compromise of making an hourlong show in the decade before streaming began to dominate.
During an hourlong chat, Schwartz and Savage discussed bikinis, burnout and what they learned about killing off young, attractive leads. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What was the original pitch for the show?
JOSH SCHWARTZ I had gone to U.S.C. As a Jewish kid from the East Coast, I felt like an outsider. The original pitch was centered around a character named Lucy Muñoz, whose father was the gardener and house manager of the Atwood Estates in Newport Beach. Ryan Atwood was a wealthy kid. Lucy Muñoz was our fish out of water. There was still a Seth character, though he was much nerdier. That was the pitch until we went into Warner Brothers.
What did Warner Brothers have to say?
SCHWARTZ Warner Brothers said: “We love everything about the world of the show. Can you just change the entire concept?” There were multiple shows that year that centered around a white guy-Latina Romeo and Juliet love story. So they said: “Could you reconfigure the premise of your show? In three days?”
What were those three days like?
STEPHANIE SAVAGE They were intense. We came out of that meeting feeling like we were dead in the water, but we were determined to keep going. The core of what Josh and I originally talked about was, How do you do something that felt like “The Breakfast Club” in a gated community in Orange County? We changed the chairs that these characters were sitting in but still kept that core idea.
In the book you talk about the show as a Trojan horse. What’s the horse, and what’s inside it?
SCHWARTZ The horse is a glossy nighttime soap in the tradition of “Beverly Hills 90210,” with bikinis and bonfires and fistfights at galas. The soldiers inside were our characters. We were inspired, as Stephanie said, by John Hughes movies and by “My So-Called Life” or “Freaks and Geeks” — beloved, short-lived TV series that were very soulful and had great humor.
Did you feel you achieved that?
SCHWARTZ The first eight episodes were a perfect distillation of that Trojan horse. That was the horse breaching the gates. We were in!
SAVAGE That was a really fun run. The show launched in the summer, which was very unusual. We did those episodes with no feedback coming from the outside world. We were making them in a bubble, which was a really freeing and rewarding experience.
Was this a comedy? A drama? A teen soap?
SCHWARTZ We were calling it a soapedy at some point. I’m not sure that caught on.
When you cast the younger actors, did you know that it would change their lives?
SAVAGE No. You hope that your show is successful enough to stay on the air and satisfy audiences and be a good creative experience. You just have no clue of how big a show can be and what fame will mean. It was an era before social media, thankfully, but it was an era of high paparazzi. Mischa was one of the young women stalked by photographers and treated unkindly by online bloggers. Fame hit in a certain way that would have been very hard for anyone to predict.
Is there anything you now do to prepare or protect younger actors?
SAVAGE On our shows subsequent to “The O.C.,” we were able to have nice conversations about things that they could possibly expect to happen in the future and about how to comport themselves through that storm. But at the time, we were really clueless.
SCHWARTZ Our No. 1 piece of advice since “The O.C.” is: Stay off the internet. Obviously with the advent of social media, that’s become challenging. But we’ve always tried to caution people, “Don’t read what people are writing about the show while you’re making it.” Just trust in the work that you’re doing. It’s advice that we can’t take ourselves.
SAVAGE Exactly: Stay off the internet. Be kind to the crew. Sleep a lot.
You have a strong first season and a second season that mostly sticks the landing. Then what happens?
SCHWARTZ By the time we hit Season 3, there were a number of factors at play. I was burned out. Steph probably feels the same. We had blown through a lot of story and were challenged to keep creating new story. A lot of our characters had left the show — that was on us as well. And some of the other actors were ready for that next level, movie offers or what have you. So there was frustration there. Ratings inevitably start to soften; people tried to fix that. Sometimes you can just leave the burners on for too long and overcook story. We lost our sense of irony, our sense of fun. We became the type of melodrama we would have made fun of in Season 1.
If you had to do it over again, would you still kill Marissa?
SCHWARTZ There was a vocal minority online that had grown frustrated with the Marissa story line. That in conjunction with a lot of network pressure to kill a main character as a way to spike viewership drove the decision to kill Marissa. The night that the show aired, we heard from a whole other swath of the audience that loved the show, watched every week, didn’t feel the need to log into a forum to analyze it. For a lot of people, Marissa was the character they were watching for, Mischa was the actress they found the most exciting and Ryan and Marissa were endgame. We violated that in one fell swoop. It’s now part of the legacy of the show. We’ve had to accept it. It hasn’t stopped us from killing other young women in other shows that we’ve done.
Have you learned nothing?
SCHWARTZ We haven’t. But here we are: It’s 20 years later; people still want to talk to us about the show. The legacy feels really secure to us now, and we can appreciate it.
Do you see the influence of “The O.C.” on subsequent shows?
SCHWARTZ “Laguna Beach: the Real Orange County” was a result of the show, which then led to “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” which has now spawned an entire franchise, which we should have seen coming and gotten a piece of.
SAVAGE Marc Cherry has told us that he doesn’t think he would have been able to do “Desperate Housewives” if it weren’t for the success of “The O.C.,” in that regard of doing something that had a lot of humor and voice to it.
Nearly all of your subsequent projects are about adolescents and young adults, and “Looking for Alaska” and “City on Fire” are set in the same time period as “The O.C.” Did you get a little stuck?
SCHWARTZ We love coming-of-age stories. Fashions change, technology changes, vernacular changes, but emotionally, they are truly universal. When you make something for an audience of that age, they love that forever and love it deeply. It’s just a really exciting time. Everything is heightened. Everything feels like life or death, and sometimes it is. And probably we’re still subconsciously working through some [expletive].
How do you feel about “The O.C.” now?
SCHWARTZ Grateful and proud. Which sounds simplistic, but it was a 20-year journey to get there.