Growing Up In Orange County With “The OC”

The OC was an ensemble drama that aired on the FOX network from 2003 to 2007. The series had nine principal characters that lived in Newport Beach. Four of the principal cast members – Seth, Summer, Ryan, Marissa – were 16 in 2003 when the series began. They were loaded. Seth and Ryan’s house had a poolhouse with a cliff-style view of the ocean and enough space in the backyard to throw events with 80+ names on the guestlist. Summer lived in a mansion with a grotto and drove a BMW. Her mom had a “pill problem,” though Summer never bat a lash at the presence of Xanax, Percocet, and Klonopin. 99% of the show was shot in Malibu, CA (which is decidedly less gaudy than Newport Beach).

The real Orange County, CA is just south of Los Angeles. The bottom half of the county is the wealthiest – Newport, Corona Del Mar, Laguna, San Clemente. I lived in a cul-de-sac in Huntington Beach (the middle of ‘The OC’). My backyard was small. It had a crippled lemon tree. A small shed with a lock – the key nonexistent. I drove a 1990 VW Passat station wagon for the first half of high school. It would stall in the middle of intersections. Its transmission was replaced at least three times.

My friends and I ‘met’ Seth, Summer, Ryan, and Marissa in 2003. Up until then, we thought no one ever talked about our town; no one had ever heard of it. Seth, Summer, Ryan and Marissa became those friends you only talked about knowing. We wanted to know what they knew about us. We knew it was a soap opera, designed to pull us in and keep us close. We did so, willingly. We not-so-secretly envied Seth and Marissa, even when we yelled at them for making bad decisions. Choices we were unable to make because we didn’t have enough money or the right script.

At our “OC parties,” we laughed at all of Seth’s jokes and winced when he was about to fail with Summer. Said things like “if he actually went to Marina he’d be such a poser.” We hid our smiles when a sarcastic dig at Newpsies was thrown, when they went to Modest Mouse together. We, that group in the corner who’d hear “emo faggots” as the football team walked by, hadn’t even seen Modest Mouse. We wanted to be Seth. He listened to Bright Eyes and Death Cab for Cutie and still dated the untouchable, intimidating girls at his high school. Those kinds who wouldn’t look at us boys with long hair and too-tight jeans, who didn’t play football, who would go ice-blocking or sit outside of Del Taco when there wasn’t anyone around to buy us booze.

Modest Mouse never came to Orange County. Neither did The Killers, or Death Cab for Cutie. Wouldn’t it be awesome if they came here, we asked each other during commercial breaks. Yeah, except they had no where to play.

I had my own Marissa Cooper in high school, except we never hooked up. She went to Sage Hill and was a collagist and a lover of Marc Jacobs. She begrudgingly attended cotillion. We blasted The Smiths and Rilo Kiley while we drove down PCH in the afternoon in her Audi A4, ashing Camels out the window. She hated home. Her mother was a drunk who didn’t know how to love her daughter. Her father was kind, but always on a work trip. So she found solace in her friends, and would have terrifying, truly amazing tantrums when inebriated on alcohol and/or other illicit substances. She is still alive though, and doesn’t get existentially shit on as much anymore. She’s well, according to her Facebook. Last time I saw her was two years ago. She still had her Audi. She’d stopped shaving her arm pits. She wore a Marc Jacobs t-shirt that I remembered from high school, it was peppered with holes.

The OC did come to Huntington Beach once, to film a season one episode on a golf course. This happened at Seacliff Country Club. The girls in our group squealed, planned the day they would meet Seth Cohen. They were going to ditch school and catch them on lunch from filming. Fuck Seth, we said. Us boys wanted to ditch too, maybe catch a glimpse of Anna. I fantasized about charming her over with my varied, expansive taste in music, then going to TK Burger to get shakes and ahi-ahi burgers. We’d get stoned and make out in my Volkswagen, listening to something twee. Later Smashing Pumpkins, maybe.

There’s an episode during Season Two where Sandy Cohen and Jimmy Cooper are having dinner. Jimmy Cooper wants to leave The OC. Sandy encourages him. This place is a vortex, says Sandy, it’ll swallow you up. That part is true. Orange County is full of secrets, and they consume you. Secret joys and tragedies. When you don’t leave that place, anything that isn’t 75 degrees or bikini-clad or wrapped in a corn tortilla is exciting. Like Santa Ana’s rockabilly scene. The mysterious death of a stripper-turned-informant in Orange. Local AA meetings are peppered with old, melted punk rockers.

Things I didn’t find in my OC: The Cohen’s mansion, the trophy wife, the publicized Irvine Group (read: “Newport Group”) scandals, The Bait Shop, Chrismukkah, the comic book kids. As the show entered its third season, when I got a car and my first blow job, when my friends had boyfriends and girlfriends, when Seth started listening to “bad music” (which meant anything after 1996 for us, who listened to Death Cab anymore? We want Fugazi), when Marissa Cooper died, when Ryan got over it, Orange County felt real again. Flat, boring, beautiful, secretive.

Orange County is weird. But it is home. All of my close friends are from there. And as gilded and fake the show made my town out to be – as did the other OC shows that followed – I’ll still love it. The show is ridiculous. But it gave us an excuse to hang out on a school night. And it made our home feel less isolated. Orange County is like LA’s weird second cousin. There is no where else where you can buy weed, drive down PCH to eat a tofu mushroom burger, then walk on the beach in the space of an hour. One thing I would like to clarify: none of us say “shakka” seriously. Stop making fun of us for that. Shakka. TC mark


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  • Kim Baker Raymond

    You very neatly encapsulated what it is like to grow up in Orange County (no one ever called it “The O.C.” at Newport Harbor). I’m grateful that I was too old for The O.C. tv show; we watched Beverly Hills 90210 and bitched at about the melodramatic, angsty actors who portrayed the over-allowanced, indulged characters that were all too similar to my own classmates. I’ve tried repeatedly to explain why I wanted so desperately to escape 75-degree weather; clean, sandy beaches with perfect waves; and the most surgically-beautiful people you could ever meet but I can see them vacationing at the Dunes while I speak.

  • Steven Timberman

    Lovely piece of writing, definitely got me nostalgic about California. I grew up in the better parts of “The 909” (next to Claremont) and somehow both envied and sneered at those who actually lived in Orange County. “What snobs,” I’d say, while secretly fantasizing about my own Summer Roberts.

    Then I moved to an east coast uni for college and actually met kids from “The O.C.” Pill-addicted waste of spaces who’ve had so many personal tragedies that they’ve somehow become jaded, unjaded, and then jaded again all before they were eighteen. 

    As I sit here, living in another continent, I dream of California. Dreaming of California and all that it stands for me, I know that that version of California never really existed. Everything always seems that much brighter in reflection.

    • ryan chang

      hi steven, those pill-popping ‘waste of spaces’ are a product of massive boredom, i think. some i knew were just very bored and very unhappy that they were very bored, and others were just very unhappy. 

      • Steven Timberman

        Yeah, I completely agree with you on that. I and so many others built up this amazing fantasy-land version of their lives, and of course the reality can’t really compete. 

  • Kay

    What I want to know is what it was like growing up in the OC in the midst of MTV’s Laguna Beach, the reality version of The OC. As far as I remember, my friends in Cali all rolled their eyes at these people then and now. 

    And I’m sad for your that Modest Mouse never came to the OC…but isn’t that what you guys have LA for?

    • ryan chang

      hi kay, people rolled their eyes, as it was very obvious that it was scripted and the people were carefully chosen. laguna was a good 30 minute drive (on a good day) from huntington, but we’d always hear from a friend-of-a-friend of a friend-of-a-friend that so-and-so was much uglier IRL. 

      of course we had LA. but that was LA. it wasnt Orange County.

    • guest

      I grew up in Newport, but apparently the Laguna High kids would wear “fuck MTV” shirts when they knew cameras would be around (to parties, etc.) My ex worked at a laguna surf shop and sold free stickers for a ton of cash on Ebay at the time.

  • A.

    One- Everyone in Orange County knows Huntington is kind of 909, so I’m not sure that’s perfectly comparable

    That being said, I really enjoyed this. Especially the “Orange County is full of secrets, and they consume you. Secret joys and tragedies.”

    And finally, since when does TK have ahi burgers?! (Seriously tho, that sounds delicious)

    • ryan chang

      thanks, a. TK has had ahi burgers for as long as i remember. it comes on a whole grain bun topped with oats and red peppers, some sort of dijon, and red onion. 

      • A.

        Well I guess I know what I’m having for dinner :D

  • m bell

    loved this, reminded me a bit of didion when she writes about ca or hawaii.

    • ryan chang


  • Alyssa Johnston

    The actress who played Julie Cooper went to my high school in the OC. My high school was the school MTV originally chose to be The Real OC but my principal nixed it. When people ask me where I grow up I mumble “between LA and San Diego…”
    When I’m feeling particularly spry I tell them about the constant yacht parties.

  • guest

    LOVE this! I was 17 attending high school in Newport Beach when the OC came out and it was hilarious to see the interpretations of literally, us. We DID go to killers and modest mouse shows, but I think that’s because I’m a bit older than the author. My favorite thing about this is the beautiful nostalgia for our weird little home. Well written, though, I don’t know if you would get it if you weren’t from “the OC.”

  • Halo_Override

    Don’t call it that.

    • A.


  • janice

    I love your “growing-up-in-the-OC” memoirs.They completely depict what it’s like to live in the OC. “Orange County is like LA’s weird second cousin.” Genius.

  • shane leach

    this was lame. i saw modest mouse at house of blues in anaheim back in high school. why would you want to see the killers though? but im pretty sure they did play at uci. the nice orange county has all types of people; there has always been the indie scene, and the druggies, and the stoners, and the alcoholics, and the christians, and eagle scouts and democrats and republicans and straight edge and hipsters and artists and corporations and financial institutions. orange county is just an affluent suburbia, nothing else. but i never watched the show so i guess i can’t really relate.

  • yooo

    this is awesome, i really liked your writing style. as a sage hill 06 alum (sup sup) and i don’t think that i miss the oc but i do think it says something that i’m still super close with mostly all of my hs friends, and we all mostly live in nyc, and it’s great to just laugh at things that are weird, so oc, and no one else would get. 

  • Linda Le


  • Alice

    i’m pretty sure we were friends on livejournal when i was in high school. was your username skyskraper?

    • ryan chang

      hi alice, that was me. what was your username?

      • Alice

         i thought so, my name was drpepper. wow that was a while back!

  • reena.chohan

    Suddenly feel like watching it from the beginning.

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