As someone who spent the bulk of her 13th year alive watching The O.C., re-watching The O.C., making collages pertaining to The O.C., writing pamphlets concerning themes in The O.C., crafting cootie catchers with O.C.-inspired scenarios, and actually putting together a short “book” that included tips on how to throw an appropriate O.C. party, a detailed character web, “O.C. Awards” (best hug, best kiss, best line, etc.), O.C. playlists for different moods, and a list of key accessories needed for a “Dead Marissa” Halloween costume, I’d say I’m probably among those most well-versed in all things The O.C. (like top 100, at least?). And OK, I no longer spend my weekends tearing photos of Adam Brody from Tiger Beat, but I can still recognize that The O.C. was something special.
I’m not the only one who thinks so. People have been trying to replicate the show’s unique blend of sharp dialogue and high-stakes teen drama for years — no one more so than the show’s own creator, Josh Schwartz.
Schwartz went on to adapt Gossip Girl from its namesake book series. And while the characters and their world were established before he came on the scene, the show took liberties that were unmistakably Schwartzian, with near-identical storylines cropping up along the way. The addition of Lily van der Woodsen and Rufus Humphey’s romance, which was exclusive to the show, seemed a sort of fantasy fiction route to giving Kirsten Cohen and Jimmy Cooper a relationship that existed outside the confines of an oft-referenced past.
By the time Gossip Girl aired, Schwartz had implicitly cornered the “rich kids confronted by outsider” market. He explored the realm of egregiously wealthy teens a couple more times, with Dynasty and The Runaways — both of which bear the Gossip Girl-esque ache of a series desperate, and ultimately unable, to strike the same balance of wit, heart, and cultural relevancy as The O.C.
Schwartz’s most recent adaptation, a Hulu miniseries based on John Green’s young adult novel Looking for Alaska, is the most obvious attempt to recreate The O.C.’s magic yet.
The series begins where the book does, in 2005 — which, lucky for Schwartz, is also midway through The O.C.’s four-season run. Interestingly, Schwartz actually wrote a screenplay for a Paramount movie adaption of the novel around the time of its release. The project was ultimately shelved, but found its way back to him nearly 15 years later.
Anyway, Looking for Alaska’s timeline allows music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas (who, you guessed it, also worked on The O.C.) to not only revisit the same artists that were used on The O.C., but the very same songs — 11 of them, actually (though some are covers). A couple of the songs played on Looking for Alaska were actually played in the same context as on The O.C. — a house party gets underway to the tune of “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House,” “Fix You” fills the auditorium at a school dance.
But the soundtrack isn’t the only parallel between Schwartz’s Alaska and The O.C. An outsider from the onset, it’s difficult not to see Alaska’s blond-haired, blue-eyed Miles Halter (Charlie Plummer) as a less street-smart Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie). Miles’s love interest, too, a complicated and slightly more defined facsimile of the era’s all-too-familiar manic pixie dream girl, Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth), feels like a woke Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) — Alaska’s wide-leg jeans and peasant blouses subbed in for Marissa’s Lacoste polos and trendy minidresses.
One of Miles and Alaska’s early scenes brings the similarities home, with the characters sharing an intimate conversation about famous last words (Miles’s preoccupation). The score-heavy scene opens with Miles smoking a cigarette, and Alaska soon following suit. Though Miles’s sputtering inhalation is a million degrees less cool than a new-in-town Ryan grabbing a smoke in his leather jacket and signature wifebeater, and the bridge he and Alaska are sitting beneath is no Newport Beach driveway, the allusion to Ryan and Marissa’s smoke-break introduction (“Who are you?” “Whoever you want me to be.”) doesn’t go unnoticed.
Looking for Alaska also has its very own Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) in Miles’s roommate at Culver Creek Academy, Chip “The Colonel” Martin (Denny Love), an outsider despite his familiarity with the school and its privileged students, who provides a note of comic relief in the series’ primarily somber landscape.
Paying further tribute to The O.C., Looking for Alaska replicates a slow shot from the pilot in its own, with Ryan/Miles watching Marissa/Alaska as his car pulls away — both characters locked in unapologetic eye contact as the distance between them grows.
In episode six, Schwartz even pokes fun at the crossover by having Miles and Lara (Sofia Vassilieva) watch an episode of The O.C., the trill of Phantom Planet’s “California” barely audible from the speakers of a clunky Apple laptop.
Oh, and who can watch a drama-filled cotillion episode and not flash back to the pearl-clutch-inducing "you're a thief!" incident at Newport's annual debutante ball?
Sure, you can tally these parallels and label them an “ode” or a “throwback,” but the problem is that Looking for Alaska fails to match The O.C. where it matters — in dialogue, character definition, and authenticity. Looking for Alaska is a good adaptation of a good book, but as a standalone teen drama, it’s missing “the great perhaps” Miles so desperately seeks. The show targets O.C. fan nostalgia, but without equivalence in its structural elements, the tribute feels more like a rip-off.