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Curious Guy: ‘The OC’

Bill Simmons has had about a million questions about 'The OC' from day one, so who better to ask than the show's creator?

Editor’s note: This column originally ran on Sept. 8, 2005.

Welcome to a new feature called “Curious Guy,” where I e-mail questions to somebody who’s successful — whether it’s the GM of a baseball team, an author, a creator of a TV show, another columnist or whomever — and we just start trading e-mails for an entire day. As with many of the new features I start up, you may never see this one again, or you might keep seeing it. I don’t know. Let’s see how this one works out.

Anyway, yesterday’s exchange was with Josh Schwartz, the creator and executive producer of The OC (starting its third season tonight on Fox). He’s also the guy who writes pretty much every episode. Somehow he found the time to exchange e-mails with me off and on for an entire day. And just for the record, if you don’t watch the show, there’s a good chance that many of these exchanges will go over your head. So be prepared going in.

Here’s what transpired:

Simmons: All right, forget about the premiere of The OC for a second. We need to clear this up. You’re from Rhode Island, and I’ve heard conflicting reports that you’re a Red Sox fan and a Yankees fan. In fact, one of my readers claims that he knew you in high school and swears that you were a sports bigamist (liked the Yankees AND the Red Sox at the same time), which I refuse to believe. I would have an easier time believing that you were a child molester or a mass murderer.

So which is it? I need to know because it could affect whether I will continue watching your show. And if you ARE a Red Sox fan, then A) why haven’t you publicly challenged the Farrelly Brothers’ title as “Most Visible Sox Fan From Rhode Island,” and B) why did you make Sandy Cohen (one of the greatest TV dads ever) a Yankees fan?

Schwartz: Well, I guess I’m a child-molesting mass murderer on this one. See, I have an identity crisis. I’m from Providence, Rhode Island — the only sports team we could ever truly call our own was the Pawtucket Red Sox (aka the PawSox). And later in life, we got the Providence Bruins, but who likes hockey, right? Now add the fact that my dad was born and raised in the Bronx, so obviously he was a die-hard Yankee fan. And sports teams and their histories (the mythology, the lore, etc.) are things classically handed down to you by your dad, right?

But watching sports is something you do with your friends, and all my friends were across-the-board New England fanatics. So, during the classic Celtics-Lakers rivalry of the ’80s, I had to publicly (for the sake of my family name) root for a last-place Knicks team while privately rooting for the Celtics. And during the ’86 Red Sox-Mets epic World Series battle, we went to Game 1 at Shea and I had to root for the Mets … while all my friends were bleeding over the Sox. So, you can see the bind I was in. Forced to live a double life, couldn’t let down my father (the real-life Sandy Cohen) … but all the time, wanting to fit in and be rooting along with my friends.

A tough road to hoe. I’m sure I’ve engendered the sympathy of your readers. I need an identity, Bill. Help me?

Simmons: Wow … that’s one of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard. Applying my sports-fan bigamy rules, I think you need to confess your love for the New York teams and renounce everyone else, or else A) you’re going to have major commitment problems down the road, and B) you’re going to get an ulcer from harboring all this unresolved guilt. I also think you need to write an episode where Sandy Cohen wants to take Seth to an Angels-Yankees game but Seth has been quietly rooting for the Angels ever since the 2002 World Series, leading to a climax where Sandy beats the hell out of Seth for the first time and forces him to wear a Yankee cap around the house. You could even promote it as a “very special episode of The OC.”

Which brings me to my next question …

In my opinion, the best two characters on the show are Seth and his dad. You always need a little luck with a TV show, and you guys clearly lucked out with Peter Gallagher (who was always underrated) and Adam Brody (a much better actor than people realize). But at the same time, those characters are well-written and consistent as people — which is why I thought it was such a mistake to have Sandy considering adultery last season (because you had built him up as such an honest guy, and it just seemed out of character for him, but that’s a whole other story).

Anyway, how did you sketch out those characters during the original creative process? Did you have them in your head? Were they distorted versions of you and your Dad? Did you write down a bunch of qualities that you thought they should have? Did you try to tailor them for the strengths of the actors? Or was it a combination of everything? I don’t want to come off like James Lipton or anything, but I always find it interesting to hear how people create TV characters from scratch, so I had to ask.

Schwartz: Holy crap, man. This is like homework. But I appreciate your passion. And no one has written more on our show than you. So I guess I owe you an explanation:

Sandy and his infidelity — that was a story about first love, and how sometimes, when that person comes back from the past, it can reignite all those old feelings, and be about something that transcends marriage, etc. It takes you back to a time and a place, makes you question your life’s choices, who you’ve become, etc. And that Sandy’s involvement with Rebecca Bloom was never about infidelity, it was about reaching out to someone who used to mean so much, who was lost in the world and needed his help. Sandy is never a man who can refuse to help someone. And sometimes your idealism clouds your judgement. It was never about Sandy Cohen boning another chick, and if you’re a Jew from the Bronx, you’re never going to do better than Shiksa Goddess Kirsten Cohen. It was about his inability to not help someone who meant so much, and not realize the toll it was taking on his marriage. That kiss between them was really a goodbye kiss (Rebecca was planning on leaving, and her dad had just died), never a romantic one. Did all that come across in the episodes? Maybe not. But that was the intention. Plus, the guy is human. Mistakes, faults give a character depth.

And having Sandy and Kirsten dealing with issues in their 20-year marriage, exacerbated by the absence of their two sons all summer, was a difficult thing sometimes for viewers to watch, which I appreciate. The connection people had to their marriage, the need they felt for Sandy and Kirsten to be the moral center of the show (as voiced by Julie Cooper in “The Rainy Day Women”) was not something I anticipated being as strong as it was. The Cohen marriage had a power for people I only now truly appreciate. And with this being Senior Year, Sandy and Kirsten are preparing for the kids to leave, and to be empty nesters. And with everything they’ve gone through with Rebecca Bloom, and the alcoholism, etc., they are really coming back strong this year as the great parents, there for their kids in this last year with them in the house.

Long answer, and I’ve yet to come to the real question, but I’m defensive and long-winded like that. Peter Gallagher is fantastic. Great actor, great guy, great dad, great golfer and consummate pro. Digs in on every script. Does his homework. Has ideas. And has the craft and commitment of a real actor to inhabit a character. Not to mention he’s damn handsome and can sing (he’s got an album coming out in November.) He’s also really funny. Brody is naturally talented, a funny guy, and has a Point of View on the world (and an initial perspective on Seth) that made him feel very specific, and had a little attitude. It was as much Seth’s choice not to fit in, as it was the Water Polo players rejecting him, and a lot of that came from Brody, as well as a love for Death Cab for Cutie.

And I’ll take the compliment on the scripts (thanks!). The dynamic between Sandy and Seth is very much based on me and my dad. We love each other, but we chide each other and bust each other’s stones as a way of displaying that. And I also love to eavesdrop, so elements of their real-life personalities, cadences, attitudes, etc., found their way into the material. The more specific the character, the better. All that being said, all the actors on the show are great. Melinda Clarke deserves mention as Julie Cooper. She’s fantastic. And Ben McKenzie and Rachel Bilson are having banner years this year, as is Mischa. They’ve all never been better. Kelly Rowan keeps the show grounded, real and relatable, and she breaks your heart. But that’s just me being an Exec Producer suck-up.

Simmons: Nice job mentioning everyone on the cast, that was very savvy of you. You will make a terrific politician some day. Just so this doesn’t come off as one of those interviews where somebody is just kissing your butt to promote your show, I need to bring up three of the biggest mistakes (in my opinion) from the first two seasons: A) the Oliver saga (you’ve taken enough heat for this); B) Sandy Cohen’s near adultery (we already covered this); and C) Seth’s Mom developing a drinking problem in about three seconds and shattering the record (held jointly) of Alison Parker and Bailey Salinger for “Fastest drinking problem by a TV character on Fox” (just once I want to see a TV character have a drinking problem with no repercussions whatsoever, but that’s a personal thing).

All of those mistakes were understandable, and I think viewers forget that many times when someone is writing a show, they end up going in a plot direction that ends up not working like they thought it would, so they’re trapped into seeing it through to the end — almost like the Yankees being stuck with Giambi’s contract through 2029. So you have to cross your fingers and hope it works out, kinda like when Giambi started hitting homers in May.

But here’s the one mistake you made that was incomprehensible to me: Dumping Olivia Wilde (Marissa’s lesbian crush) midway through Season 2. Not only was she the best actress on the show other than Seth’s Mom, she was a Pantheon TV Babe — right up there with Cheryl Ladd and Jaclyn Smith on “Charlie’s Angels,” Heather Locklear on “Melrose Place,” Nicole Eggert on “Charles in Charge,” Nell Carter on “Gimme a Break” and everyone else. HOW COULD YOU GET RID OF HER!?!?!?!?!?!?!?! This was like giving away Google stock four years ago! I will never get over this. She is going to be a huge star some day and we both know it. Please explain yourself.

Schwartz: Thanks for your forgiveness — your tough questions will keep your street cred legit. As for Kirsten’s drinking problem, it developed verrrry slooowlly over two seasons. Go back and check it out for the clues.

As for Olivia Wilde — dude, I am right there with you. Whose idea do you think it was to have her in a relationship with Marissa? But the network was very nervous — it was an extremely conservative time in our country (thank Janet Jackson for that) and everyone was freaking out. We had a whole episode where every kiss between them was cut out, just so I could get one kiss in the Rainy Day Women episode. I was literally on the phone with Broadcast, Standards and Practices bartering for kisses. It was a battle, and The Powers That Be are part of a big corporation, and were going in front of Congress at the time (every network was) — so I understand they are all good people who were under a lot of pressure. But they wanted that story wrapped up as fast as humanly possible and Alex moving on out of the OC. But Olivia is a superstar. She was great in the part. I would have her back on the show in a heartbeat. And she’s going to have a huge career, I totally agree.

But if you want Alex back, America — you’re going to have to VOTE BUSH OUT OF OFFICE.

Simmons: Wow, I feel like Mike Myers right now. Could somebody play some Kanye West in the background? Anyway, let’s just say that I know what you’re going through in terms of battling for content that’s close to the line. (I’d tell you more, but I murdered an ESPN higher-up during the brouhaha over my WNBA column last week and his body is currently hidden in the trunk of my car.) Who would have thought that Janet Jackson would end up doing more damage to this country than Michael?

But you reminded me of another question: Unlike 90210 and “Melrose,” you’re trying to make this show work in the “everyone’s a critic on the Internet” and “networks read message boards and actually listen to people posting under anonymous names who like and dislike certain things” eras. For instance, if the Internet was around when 90210 was on the air, Andrea Zuckerman would have been bashed relentlessly for being a high school sophomore when she was 35 years old in real life, Fox would have killed her off within three seasons, and Gabrielle Carteris wouldn’t have gone on to launch one of the worst daytime talk shows ever. Also, Tori Spelling would have killed herself by 1994 because of all the mean comments on various message boards. And I’m pretty sure they would have scrapped David Silver’s music career before it got to the point of “Baby It’s You, Girl” becoming a No. 1 hit, because everyone would have been mocking Brian Austin Green relentlessly until he left the country.

So how much do the Internet critics affect the way you write the show and your gut feeling on something? How much do the networks pay attention to this stuff? Have you ever fought off the urge to go on an message board and defend yourself? I need to know these things.

Schwartz: I’ve thought about that a lot, wondered what would doing a show would be like in an era where everyone wasn’t a TV critic, reviewing every episode and the minutiae of it all … and yeah, things would’ve gone very badly for Andrea Zuckerman in a TV-without-pity universe …

I don’t know how much networks read the boards. They have their own opinions. I do think TV critics have gotten increasingly lazy and will read message boards instead of having their own opinions. But I can tell you, not only did I used to read them, I used to read them ALL THE TIME. When Aaron Sorkin was on The West Wing, I guess he got busted for reading the boards and responding. And then he did an episode about it. But I heard it was embarrassing for him, so that’s incentive enough to lay off the ole message boards.

Anyway, one of the challenging things about doing a TV show is that everyone has an opinion. And no opinion is the same. Literally, all the things you named that you weren’t happy with, a hundred other people would cite as their favorites and vice versa. It can get to be confusing and make it difficult to hold onto your original vision. During the first season I discovered these evil Web sites, and got hooked on them. And I started to fall prey to wanting to please everybody all the time. But you can’t. And I may have made some changes to the show, thinking it was going to please people. But then everyone who was complaining got upset that we were changing the show.

That’s when I realized something: people just like to complain. But part of the pleasure of watching a show for these message-board people is to bitch. And that what’s important and what drew me, and the other writers and producers of the show, to The OC in the first place. And to hold onto that. And that when the show premiered, we had a whole bunch of episodes in the can that had never been subject to message board review. And that was how it needed to be.

So, I’ve been hooked, bottomed out, rehabbed, and I’m clean and focused. No message boards for Season 3 … unless they have really nice things to say. I think part of the fun for some people is the stuff they hate, as well as the stuff they love. Which is cool with me, as long as they’re watching.

Simmons: Smart move avoiding the boards. I think you make a really interesting point about the appeal of certain TV shows being how much people love to bitch about them. For instance, Entourage drives me crazy — out of the 23 shows they’ve had, I think I’ve only felt like, “Wow, they hit that baby out of the park with that one!” on two of them. And they miss so many easy opportunities to make the show better — like with hiring Mandy Moore to play Vince’s girlfriend (safe, boring choice) instead of creating a character who could have been an evil parody of some of the Hollywood bimbettes that are wreaking havoc right now (like a twisted, PR-hogging cross between Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie who could have just totally demolished Vince by cheating on him or something). I can’t believe they miss this stuff.

And yet, I look forward to the show every week, and I get disappointed when it’s over, and there are just enough good moments — like the second-to-last episode that revolved around Ari’s demise at his agency — that keep me watching. So if I’m either consistently entertained/annoyed/frustrated/disappointed depending on the show, but I’m always looking forward to the next one, isn’t that all you can ask for from a show? It’s like when people were ripping The Sopranos during Season 3 — well, stop watching it then! The only exception is “SNL,” a show that has legitimately had 4-5 funny moments in the past four years and has turned into a sad parody of what it used to be. Of course, I TiVo that every week as well. I’m an idiot.

All right, next question: Somebody sent me a tape of The OC pilot about three weeks before it aired on Fox. I remember watching it and thinking three things. First, I was delighted that someone had made a conscious effort to continue the 90210/Melrose legacy — it had been far too long. Second, I was impressed that you nailed so many of the basic themes that work for these kinds of shows — an outsider moving into a crazy world of rich people, likable parents, good-looking females, rich people being rich, a pompous villain who doesn’t get along with our hero, and so on. And third, after my wife watched it three times over the course of two days, I remember thinking, “The guy who created this show is going to be really, really rich.”

So here’s my question: At what point in the process did you start thinking to yourself, “Holy crap, I may have actually hit the jackpot with this one!” And was it as rewarding as you thought it would be?

Schwartz: Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. I was having my teeth gold-plated and my pancreas bronzed; I’m that rich. But, you know, when you’re deep into the show, you have no perspective. And I’m Jewish, and neurotic and a sadist — so I always look for the flaws, the bad reviews, the nights when the ratings weren’t there, to convince myself the show has never caught on. But I would be hard-pressed to deny that we’ve been successful. I think the breakthrough moment was seeing the cast on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. I read that magazine religiously as a kid, and seeing the show on the cover really landed for me.

But I guess it was also when George Lucas was on the show and I got to pick him up at the airport — it was just me, and him, and his daughter (who was a teenager and fan of the show). She asked me, “What’s it like to have created something that so many people watch and are obsessed with?” And I’m sitting there thinking, “Uh, your Dad created Star Wars? And you’re asking me?” So that was surreal. George Lucas is awesome, by the way. Nicest guy ever.

And finally, getting to do this column with you means the show has permeated the pop-cultural landscape. You’re the last one on the checklist — after Charlie Rose and after getting name-checked by Ari Gold on Entourage — that let’s me know we made it. But come Friday morning, I will wake up in cold sweats, convinced we’re going to get cancelled.

As for this being rewarding — there’s no reward like getting to do what you love. I have the best job ever. And I’m entirely grateful for my experience on the show. No joke.

Simmons: That’s great, I’m glad you’re grateful about everything. And thank you for emphatically overrating this column’s impact on the pop-cultural landscape — right now the guy from Defamer.com is preparing some doctored Photoshop picture with us making out along with the link to this column. So I need to ask another mean question to preserve my street cred …

Some of your actors are in their mid-20s playing high school kids … are you worried that one of them is about to go Ziering on you and show up one summer suddenly looking like they’re 30 years old? From the promos, it looked like Ryan should have a wife and three kids at this point. I mean, do you really want to have somebody with a 5 o’clock shadow taking the SATs? How can you avoid this? Or is there a way to have fun with it?

Schwartz: Look, it’s one of the buy-ins on a show like this that the kids are going to be too old and the parents too young. But as long as you buy it, it works for as long as it needs to. That being said, this year is Senior Year, so after this, it won’t be an issue. And I’m sure all the kids would rather be playing their age, and some of them have been vocal about it, but it doesn’t seem to have hurt anyone’s career. And by the way, we auditioned actual 15-year-olds for these parts. Have you seen a 15-year-old lately? They look like they’re 10 (10-year-olds, weirdly, still look 10). No one wants to watch real 15-year-olds lose their virginity. It’s uncomfortable.

Simmons: Speak for yourself, pal. Just kidding — I see your point. In fact, when you created the show, I wish you had realized that it would have been much funnier and entertaining if Ryan and Seth had a buddy who was legitimately 40 years old (but playing a sophomore in high school). You could have even hired Ian Ziering himself. What would have been funnier than a 40-year-old Ian Ziering getting grounded by his parents — who could have been cast younger than him, by the way — because they found porn on his computer? I’ll never forget his 21st birthday party on 90210 when he was really, like, 37 in real life — that was one of my top-five favorite shows. And yet I digress.

Well, I guess I can’t talk you into an episode where Ryan starts taking Viagra because he’s suffering from erectile dysfunction. But give me three reasons why Season 3 will be better than Seasons 1 and 2.

Schwartz: OK, three reasons why Season 3 will be the best season yet.

1. It’s Senior Year. And we all know shows like this are all about Senior Year. It’s epic, it’s heartbreaking, it’s real … it’s gonna be All-Time.

2. Sandy and Kirsten back and better than ever. Fully in love. Parenting the %#$@! out of their kids.

3. For Chrismukkah this year, Ryan is getting an honorary Chrismukkah Bar Mitzvukkah. Nuff said.

Simmons: Good enough. By the way, reason No. 1 is much more entertaining if you read it out loud like the guy who narrates the promos on Fox.

(And yes, I’m disappointed that one of the reasons wasn’t something like, “Summer starts slutting it up and gets Hepatitis B.”)

Speaking of Summer, please confirm or deny whether…

A. Rachel Bilson is actually a Clippers fan. She claimed to be so in one of those Maxim/Details/FHM magazines two years ago and I always wondered if it was true. Doesn’t she realize she needs to show up at, like, three games and she will seize the torch from Penny Marshall and Frankie Muniz as the Most Famous Clippers Fan Alive?

B. You had to turn Luke into a good guy because William Zabka was threatening to sue you unless you paid him royalties.

C. You and Peter Manfredo Jr. got into a fistfight two years ago over who got to use the nickname, “The Pride of Providence.”

D. Black people live in “The OC.”

E. There are other music clubs in America beside The Bait Shop where people can have extended conversations in normal voices while a popular rock band is loudly playing 30 feet away.

Schwartz: In order…

A. Rachel/Clips: Don’t know. But Rachel Bilson is a Springsteen fan. And how many girls who look like that can reference Jungleland?

B. Luke/Zabka: That’s how we pitched “The OC” originally. It was the Karate Kid without the karate.

C. Pride of Providence: When it comes to Buddy Cianci, I defer to the man a hundred percent. Greatest mayor ever. And makes a helluva tomato sauce. Free Buddy!

D. Blacks/OC: Have you watched Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County? It’s a reality show set in the same town as our show. Not making any excuses. Just saying it — it’s the unfortunate reality of Newport Beach.

E. Bait Shop/Conversations: Based on your complaint on that issue in an earlier column — in episode “The OC: Confidential,” Summer remarks that only in The Bait Shop can you always have a good view of the band, the music is never too loud to talk over and tickets are always plentiful. That line was ’cause of you, man. I hope you’re busting out with pride.

Simmons: See, now you’ve done it. The Defamer.com guy is definitely Photoshopping a photo of Colin Farrell and Jared Leto in a naked bear hug from “Alexander,” then copy-and-pasting our faces on them, and it’s going to be downright humiliating. It’s a mortal lock. Oh, well. I just hope I get to be Farrell, I never liked Leto.

Anyway, on how you pitched “The OC” as “the Karate Kid without the karate,” I just spent the last 10 minutes trying to think of another movie title that you could pitch as the same title, with the same meaning, only with the key component of the movie and word from the title removed, and I couldn’t come up with a single comparison. Like, you could pitch “Quicksilver” without the cycling and turn him into a delivery guy for a Chinese restaurant, but you couldn’t easily condense it into a simple six-word description like “the Karate Kid without the karate.” That’s really impressive. I wish you hadn’t told me this, I’m going to spend the rest of my week trying to come up with another six-word premise where you could drop one word in the title and still have it work. Damn you, Josh Schwartz.

One final question. My wife wants to know if you’ve given any thought to creating a companion spin-off show to The OC, kinda like how 90210 spawned Melrose Place. She thinks Summer could have an internship at a record company in West Hollywood, then she could fall for a brooding barista at Starbucks who lives in an apartment complex on La Brea with seven other complicated people in their mid-20s, and they could call the show, “La Brea Heights.” Who cares if it’s a complete Melrose rip-off? You could even hire the guy who played Jake on Melrose to be the brooding barista.

The point is, she would watch it. So have you considered this, or any other OC-type spin-off? And if not … then why the hell not?

Schwartz: We wanted to do a spin-off where Ryan gets thrown into jail and Seth gets himself thrown into the same jail to bail him out. We were going to call it “The O.Z.” But seriously, I don’t know about a spin-off. We talked about it for a little while — Marissa’s sister Kaitlin being the seeming best character to spin off. But at the end of the day, we just didn’t have enough inspiration. It would’ve been a deal made purely for commerce, and not the love of the game. So, we’ll probably do it in Year 5.

Thanks so much for the back-and-forth. This has been fun. And one day soon a shady, no-good character with a dirty secret will ride into the OC. And his name? Bill Simmons. So keep watching.

Simmons: Yeah, right. With my luck, if this character ever happened, he would be played by Jonathan Lipnicki, Haley Joel Osment or one of the Culkins. So I’m not getting my hopes up. But thanks so much for taking the time, best of luck with Season 3, and I’m sorry about your ongoing problems with sports bigamy.

Filed Under: Art, General topics

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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