Guess what? You're old! Maybe you already suspected as much, but here's confirmation — hallmark teen drama The O.C. premiered exactly 10 years ago today. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to throw the Jeff Buckley version of "Hallelujah," lock myself away in the pool house and have a good cry while thinking back my old friends Seth, Summer, Ryan and Coop and considering my own mortality. Fun!
The O.C. gave us a lot a lot of good things (six soundtracks, this SNL parody and a weekly look at Sandy Cohen's impressive caterpillar brows), but it may have also given us something far less welcome — an exceedingly unhealthy relationship with booze. While all of the show's characters directly or indirectly dealt with issues of substance abuse during the series' four season run (Marissa used drugs and alcohol to cope with her mental health issues, Ryan's mom was an alcoholic and Kristen Cohen loved her sauce so much that she went to rehab at the end of season 2), most of the drinking on The O.C. ended up being consequence-free.
In The Atlantic's "10 Years Later: The O.C.'s Influential Glamorization of Teen Drinking," author Nolan Feeney looks into not one, but two studies (one out of the University of Antwerp and one by the Journal of Advertising) on how The O.C. affected the way we drink and think about drinking.
Here come the stats!
The University of Antwerp study analyzed 1,895 scenes from The O.C. (the first two seasons) and found that roughly a sixth of them depicted an alcoholic beverage. The Journal of Advertising study offered more specific stats: Each episode of The O.C. featured on average four minutes of alcohol depictions and four to five verbal references to booze. Of all the episodes analyzed, more than a third had storylines in which alcohol was an important component.
The messages surrounding these depictions were largely neutral, if not positive. Keeping with television tradition, alcohol consumption on The O.C. was overwhelmingly consequence-free—94.5 percent of the time, according to the University of Antwerp study. Of the 76 episodes the Journal of Advertising study analyzed, 89.5 percent depicted at least one positive outcome, while 60.5 percent featured at least one negative outcome. When you narrow that down to episodes that only featured positive outcomes from alcohol, you get a third of the first three seasons. When you do the same for negative consequences, you only get about two episodes.
But what does this mean for the teenagers who made up the bulk of The O.C.'s viewership? According to the Journal of Advertising, the way you perceived alcohol consumption on the show was directly related to the way you perceived the show to begin with. In other words, casual O.C. fans thought the series was sending a negative message about drinking, while die-hards (the ones who empathized greatly with the characters) saw the drinking as positive.
From The Atlantic:
Viewers were conscious of both the positive and negative messages in the show, but in different ways, according to the Journal of Advertising study. The more episodes of The O.C. the study's subjects watched, the more they perceived the negative messages about alcohol laced throughout the series. But the more they felt connected to the show—loved it, related to it, identified with it—the more they noticed and believed the positive messages and outcomes about alcohol, both subtle and obvious.
Counter point: I was as big of an O.C. fan as they come. I also rarely drank in high school and was well aware of the negative messages about alcohol that ran throughout the series. Marissa — with her destructive behavior and weirdly crimped hair — was never the one I wanted to copy (did anyone want to copy Marissa?) and, if I'm remembering correctly (I am), several characters died as a result of extreme alcohol consumption. (Of course, one of them was lame surfer Johnny, so maybe booze isn't so bad after all.)
While teenagers are certainly influenced by the media they consume, it's strange to call out The O.C. as being specifically to blame for teenagers drinking alcohol in real life. As Feeney points out, the adults on that show easily out-drank the adolescents and teen drinking really only made up 26% of the onscreen alcohol consumption.
It could be that I'm the exception, not the rule, and that a lot of O.C. fans did drink more because of the show. That said, teens were getting wasted on camera (and off) long before 2003.