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‘The O.C.’ podcast is ‘group therapy’ — and a nostalgia goldmine

Rachel Bilson and Melinda Clarke host the “Welcome to the OC, Bitches!” podcast, re-watching and analyzing episodes from the hit Fox show. (Kast Media)

VAN NUYS, Calif. — Before an interview with “The O.C.” stars Rachel Bilson and Melinda Clarke can start, one slightly awkward issue needs to be addressed. When the Fox teen drama debuted in August 2003, the reviews were favorable, but not all. The Washington Post’s TV critic at the time, Tom Shales, called the pilot episode “nearly breathtaking in its imbecilic banality” and “formulaic and pandering in laughably obvious and palpably desperate ways,” adding that he hoped it would be swiftly canceled.

Instead, “The O.C.” became a hit and cultural phenomenon that still reverberates, leading to “Welcome to the OC, Bitches!,” a popular re-watch podcast hosted by Bilson and Clarke since 2021. Two decades ago, showrunner Josh Schwartz couldn’t help but take a dig at his harshest critic. In Season 1, Bilson’s character volunteers at a hospital and says she has to check on a patient named “Tom Shales”: “He’s two floors down. He’s, like, incontinent.”

Sitting in their podcast studio in March, Bilson and Clarke cracked up at the memory — no, there’s no grudge against The Post. “Josh got him back. He was good about that,” Bilson said. Clarke recalled that Shales had a sense of humor about it, too: In an interview at the time, Shales said he was “quite touched” by the tribute.

Young viewers flocked to the sun-soaked series back then. It was packed with witty and self-referential dialogue not normally encountered on a teen soap. Centered on the outrageous wealth and personal drama of the residents of Orange County, Calif., the series opened with the Cohen family (parents Sandy and Kirsten, played by Peter Gallagher and Kelly Rowan) taking in an abandoned teen named Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) from Chino. (This was designated as “the wrong side of the tracks,” enraging real-life locals.) Ryan bonded with his new brother, the charmingly neurotic Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), and fell for the troubled, beautiful girl next door, Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton).

Bilson, 40, and Clarke, 53, were originally guest stars, then quickly promoted to series regulars. Bilson played Summer Roberts, Seth’s longtime crush who was much deeper than her shallow first impression; Clarke was Julie Cooper, frequently cited as an iconic TV villain who is perhaps most infamous for sleeping with her daughter Marissa’s ex-boyfriend, Luke (Chris Carmack, who uttered the line in the pilot that became the podcast’s title). Now, they offer an ideal counterbalance as co-hosts — the running gag being that Clarke remembers everything and Bilson recalls very little, leading to lots of memories as well as insights from someone who is essentially viewing the show for the first time.

“Everything is a surprise to me — even things with my own character,” Bilson said.

While it’s hard to find a 2000s show these days that doesn’t have a nostalgic re-watch podcast (“The Office,” “New Girl,” “Parks and Recreation,” etc.), “Welcome to the OC, Bitches!” sets itself apart with candid revelations from actors, producers, writers and crew members about the surreal nature — and intense pressure — of suddenly being on TV’s hottest show. As abruptly as “The O.C.” soared, it was canceled after four years. Fans always had lingering questions about loose ends, such as Marissa’s shocking death in the third season finale, and so did some of the stars.

“I had this, just, genuine curiosity about what happened. It burned so brightly … like, how does something go from that to ending?” Clarke said. “Because it didn’t seem to me that it should have ended after four seasons, personally.”

As they try to explore those answers while recapping episodes, Bilson and Clarke have been taken aback by the cultural impact of the series, even beyond the soundtrack: “The O.C.” is widely credited for giving a huge boost to acts including the Killers, Death Cab for Cutie and Rooney, not to mention the theme song by Phantom Planet. (“Californiaaaa …”)

They’ve also delved into the show’s influence on comics (there’s speculation that Seth Cohen’s graphic novel obsession helped make comics “cool” to the mainstream), fashion (Ugg boots and Juicy Couture tracksuits got a spike in popularity) and reality TV (MTV’s “Laguna Beach”; Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Orange County.”)

“We were doing something that was creating pop culture instead of reflecting it,” said Clarke, who was astonished to find academic analyses of the show. “I was kind of aware of that when we were shooting, but as we’re doing the podcast now, I just think it’s really fascinating.”

And they have discovered new depth to aspects that were glossed over: A same-sex relationship between Marissa and Alex (guest star Olivia Wilde) was treated as an eye-rolling sweeps stunt, but fans over the years have pointed to it as gratifying LGBTQ representation when that was rare, especially for teens.

Schwartz, the showrunner, said he has also heard from many people who say the show inspired them to move to California, some with the goal of meeting their own Seth Cohen. “In an era now where people consume so much content so quickly … the fact that people still remember episodes so vividly, and storylines, is really nice,” he said in a phone interview.

Bilson and Clarke have noticed, with some surprise, that their podcast has become a place of “healing,” as they put it. The reunions with other cast members can be joyous — and sometimes a bit challenging and cathartic. Barton, who was the youngest cast member at 17 during the pilot, told E! last year that she faced “sort of general bullying from some of the men on set” and that she felt “unprotected” as the show took off.

Bilson and Clarke hope Barton will one day join them for an interview; they said they had no idea she had such a tough time. “I couldn’t imagine being 17 and doing that,” Bilson said of the pressure Barton endured as a lead character. “We can’t speak to her personal experience … but we can sympathize and empathize with a young girl having to go through all of that.”

In another episode, Tate Donovan — who co-starred as Julie Cooper’s husband, Jimmy, and directed episodes — good-naturedly accepted Bilson’s apology on behalf of her and her young castmates, whom she acknowledged did not always handle their newfound fame with grace. In a two-part interview, Brody spoke thoughtfully about his “O.C.” experience and sounded mortified when Bilson reminded him that his final words to the cast and crew were, “Well, it’s been lucrative.”

Bilson admitted she was nervous to ask Brody, whom she once dated in real life, to appear on the podcast, given he had previously been critical of the show. However, like Bilson, he’s a parent now, and she thinks that may have helped change his perspective. “You just kind of look at the world differently,” she said.

“It’s kind of like group therapy,” said Schwartz, who has appeared as a podcast guest. “But the biggest thing is that we made something that 20 years later, people still want to talk about … we’re all just very grateful we had this experience.”