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Why ‘The O.C.’ was the definitive show about the 2000s economy


A dialogue of nerdiness.

To: Mike Konczal, Dylan Matthews

From: Jim Tankersley

Re: Chrismakkuh in August

The most culturally important television show of the 2000s is suddenly 10 years old, gentlemen. Has it really been that long since Ryan Atwood stumbled into the gilded, troubled paradise of Newport? Since Jimmy Cooper went all Ken Lay on his neighbors? Since we all rushed out to buy our Seth Cohen Starter Kits? (Just kidding – I already owned all of those items. Indication No. 3,481 that Seth was The High School Kid I Always Wished I Had Been.)

In the process of consuming all means of anniversary tributes, I have realized two very important things about ‘The O.C.’ One, that the two of you are as obsessed with it as I was/am. Two, that it freakishly captured the economic struggles of an entire decade.

I’d love your thoughts on this, but I’d start with the following: The O.C. was, at its heart, a show about the income inequality rupturing America in the run-up to the Great Recession. Newport is the One Percent, in its full glory. Ryan, the hard-luck car thieving teen from Chino, and to a lesser extent, Sandy, his public-defender-turned-adoptive-father, are the 99 Percent, baffled by excess and wealth and often raging against it. Is there a better foreshadowing of the Occupy movement than Ryan being taunted by surfer-boy Luke on a beach, and then uncorking this:

If there’s one thing that characterized the 2000s economy, it was this: The growing public perception that rich kids were getting fatter while the Chino kids struggled to stay afloat. Nearly two-thirds of all the income growth in America from 2002-2007 flowed to the top 1 percent of earners, economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty have calculated. Median incomes fell from the dot-com bubble and were just barely recovering when the recession came along. And even before the recession wiped out all the jobs created over the preceding several years, the 2000s were on track to be the nation’s worst decade for job growth since the Labor Department started keeping detailed statistics.

So before Occupy, before Sen. Barack Obama decried inequality at Knox College, we had Ryan Atwood. Misfit kid, working-class anti-hero, prophet of the 99 Percent. Also, he liked Journey before Glee liked Journey. Like I said, prophet. With anger management issues. And uncanny economic insight.

What lessons did you two take from the show?

To: Jim Tankersley, Dylan Matthews

From: Mike Konczal:

I agree the show captures all the economics you need to know from the pre-crash 2000s. And, as you point out, inequality is key for this. Note the multi-season drama between Ryan and his older brother, Trey. The show starts with Ryan being rescued from poverty and the criminal justice system by Sandy, while Trey does time and pretty much spirals out of control.

Ryan, with stable resources behind him, is capable of graduating Berkeley by the end of the show. Trey gets shot by Marissa and then is forced to listen to Imogen Heap. Trey is unlikely to be comforted by Obama-era revelations that growing up in poverty is worse for a person than being exposed to crack cocaine as a fetus or that intergenerational mobility is negatively correlated with greater inequality.

To build on the Trey point, there’s also a pretty clear storyline about the rich getting away with whatever they want. The pitch is that "The O.C." is just as dangerous, violent and chaotic as the tough streets where Ryan is coming from (e.g. “Welcome to the O.C. [expletive]! This is how it’s done in Orange County”). But, while they are capable of staying rich, the rich characters don’t have any major consequences for their actions outside their personal dramas. Oliver pulls a gun on Marissa and himself and is carted off to rehab. Meanwhile the characters from Ryan’s old life, like his brother, or his old flame Theresa Diaz (played by the charming Navi Rawat, who would later play the role of a combinatorics crime-fighter in the TV show "Numb3rs"), are consistently a bad call away from much bigger trouble.

(Did anyone else notice Oliver Trask, an early villain of The O.C. crew, has a similar name to Bolivar Trask, an early villain of the X-Men crew, who created the mutant-hunting Sentinels? Because he does.)

But about housing.

Trivia question: How many times did a cover of the Leonard Cohen song "Hallelujah" play in "The O.C.," and what happened the first time it played?

Answer: Three. And the first time it played was when Ryan was hiding in a model home for a new housing development Kirsten’s crooked father was building. He and Marissa flirt, Luke barges in, they fight, and in the chaos the model home burns down. (Also: second time, where everyone goes to a bad place, and third time, when Marissa, of all things, dies.)

Which is to say there’s so much damn housing in the show it can burn down and basically nobody cares. Housing starts were steadily climbing to high numbers during this time period, only to collapse in the crisis. There’s a baseline background corruption about the housing as it is being created. It works better in the background, as the times the show tries to make it explicit (as in a terrible, dragged-out season three subplot about bribing a hospital or some such) it doesn't work. It makes a nice companion to "Arrested Development," which also centers around a model home and a family’s housing ambitions as a general marker of corruption.

As for our actual mortgage fraud, the only people seeing jail time and serious repercussions for all of it are the little people, not the ones who made all the real money. Welcome to the OC, [expletive], indeed.

What about you Dylan?

To: Mike Konczal, Jim Tankersley

From: Dylan Matthews

I'm amazed we've gotten this far without talking more about Jimmy Cooper. "The O.C." doesn't really get points for prescience for portraying a character who gets in hot water for corporate malfeasance. After all, it premiered in the wake of Enron, Worldcom, Adelphia, and the rest of the post-dot com boom spree of corporate scandals. But the form Cooper's con took is not totally dissimilar to the Madoff/Stanford Ponzi schemes that unraveled in 2008. A bunch of his accounts had investments go bad, so he stole money from other clients to repair the damage. Not a full-fledged pyramid scheme, but the kind of practice that the collapse of corporate governance standards in the past decade made possible.

The other thing we haven't touched on yet is that this show is basically a Robert Frank dream. Frank, as Wonkblog readers likely know, is a Cornell economist whose big thing is relative wealth effects. What makes people happy, he posits, is less having lots of money than having more money than those around them, and having more high-status goods than those around them.

That kind of economic thinking motivates all manner of behavior in season one. Status management keeps Summer away from Seth for far longer than is narratively necessary, it explains the initial hostile reaction to Ryan's arrival, it accounts for Sandy's decision to leave the public defender's office for private practice and, eventually, running a real estate company, and so forth. Everyone on the show is rich, but their absolute wealth doesn't matter a bit. People are just playing comparison games.

But I'm curious. How much do you guys think the show is really critiquing the wealth culture that envelopes its characters? It seems more concerned with personal motivations than the actual consequences of the character's decisions. Sandy working for a private firm's all right because Sandy's a swell guy; Caleb's actions are dubious because Caleb's dubious. Or am I missing something?

To: Dylan Matthews, Jim Tankersley

From: Mike Konczal

Great points Dylan. There are ways in which the wealth culture is parodied, but my memory is that's dropped relatively quickly. If anything, the issue with the wealth culture is the lengths the various adults are willing to go in order to stay within it. There is, in Barbara Ehrenreich great phrasing, a fear of falling that pushes Jimmy to scam, Julie Cooper to marry Caleb, and everyone to lie to each other and themselves.

As economists would say, public goods are often actually club goods, where it is cheap to share them but easy to exclude people. And fighting against being excluded from the life, the schools and the space of privilege in "The O.C." is the reality the Coopers deal with throughout the show.

We should discuss "The O.C." and the culture industry. "The O.C." is airing right when a large amount of people’s cultural lives are moving online and digital. It’s Friendster [1] and early-generation iPod era, the time when a person would realize that they have, as n+1 noted, “more music on his computer than he could ever know what to do with.”

Meanwhile, The O.C. was influential in both building out a certain brand of emo-y indie rock (e.g. Seth playing A Movie Script Ending on a road trip, which Summers refers to as “one guitar and a whole lot of complaining”), to the nerd culture that has taken over the movie and culture industries. Adam Brody was playing a proto-Seth character on the TV show "Gilmore Girls" immediately before "The O.C.", but "The O.C." is the one that capitalized on it and built it out.

Coincidence? What can "The O.C." tell us about the digital, cultural and content industries of the 2000s?

[1: My plan to have my 23-year-old self live forever in the form of an old and untouched Friendster profile is apparently foiled. I just checked the site and the profile is gone, replaced by lord only knows what.]

To: Mike Konczal, Jim Tankersley

From: Dylan Matthews

Personally, my favorite O.C. culture moment wasn't the introduction of the Seth Cohen Starter Kit — complete with a copy of Death Cab's "Transatlanticism," "The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," and "The Goonies" — but Summer's concise and brilliant dismissal of "This American Life" as "that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are." It works both as a solid zinger and as a real point about the social and technological dynamics that make "TAL" possible. I imagine that the upper middle class in the 1950s sometimes discussed how the other half lived, but they didn't have their own radio show about it. They weren't so disconnected that constant updates were something hundreds of thousands of people would tune in for.

"TAL" thrives because of deep societal segregation between the kind of people it tells stories about and the kind of people (including, let's be honest, the three of us) who listen to it, but also because culture has become far more diffuse in the past decade, and a fundamentally niche program like that, which never would have gotten off the ground when there were only a handful of radio stations to choose from to get your now-podcastable content, is able to thrive.

It's the same phenomenon — "long tailing" I believe is the TED talk jargon — that allows cult items like "Kav and Clay" and the rest of the "Seth Starter Kit" to develop solid audiences without ever coming close to widespread popular adoption. I don't know if that's what Summer meant but I'm not going to let any intentional fallacy nonsense get in the way of a nice half-baked theory.

But my favorite part of that line is Ira Glass's response to it. He played the line on air and proceeded to talk about how much he loved "The O.C." and how uncomfortable the dig made him in light of his fandom. There was a bit of "oh, isn't it funny Ira likes a trashy soap opera" air to the whole thing, but not much. We've sort of gotten past the point where, to be a upper-middlebrow figure like Glass, you have to punch down at lower culture. It's fine to like soap operas. Everyone likes soap operas. It's more declassé to front like you don't like soap operas than it is to admit you binge-watch "Scandal" and "Revenge" on the regular. That seems like a very '00s phenomenon, for whatever reason. Any theories as to why the "guilt" in "guilty pleasure" died under W's watch?

To: Dylan Matthews, Mike Konczal

From: Jim Tankersley

So many of our guilty pleasures are highbrow now: "Breaking Bad," "The Walking Dead," everything Joss Whedon. Grantland has made a fantasy league featuring "The Bachelorette." Comic-book blockbusters are maybe the only sure thing left in Hollywood. Ryan was the economic prophet; Seth was the cultural pioneer. And really, so was "The O.C." – it gave TV shows permission to rev their plot lines up to ludicrous speed. They killed off Marissa at the end of the third season, which is why, a few years later, we all totally accepted the idea that Don Draper could whip through 46 different relationships and three total reinventions of his company in the span of a few hundred cases of brown liquor.

Which brings us back to the economics. Some things are striking when you re-watch "The O.C." a decade after it launched. You remember how you knew, even then, that Olivia Wilde was destined for much bigger things than Mischa Barton. You wonder, what happened to Kelly Rowan, and how did applications to RISD not go through the roof?

Most of all you realize how little has changed economically since the show aired. America’s Newport-types only increased their share of national income during and after the recession. Chino-type kids are finding it harder and harder to climb out of poverty and into the middle class. (Statistically speaking, Ryan was less likely to finish college than the lowest-achieving Newport native at Harbor; oh, and if he did graduate from Berkeley, he would have entered a truly terrible post-recession job market.)

America’s favorite guilty pleasure today is listening to politicians talk about how much they love the middle class and want to restore its former glory. The big plot twist is … that’s not actually happening. The years leading into the recession stunk for job and income growth, and the recovery has stunk, too. You might call that a lost decade. Or you might imagine that the broad majority of American workers hopped on a raft 10 years ago and set course for Tahiti.

They didn’t get there. They didn’t even get to Portland. They just washed back up on shore. Right back where they started from.