Ten Years Later: The O.C.'s Influential Glamorization of Teen Drinking

Reading the scholarly literature on television's changing portrayals of alcohol use
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TO THE NAKED EYE, IT MAY APPEAR THAT: Beloved teen drama The O.C., which premiered on Fox exactly 10 years ago today, was just one in a long line of formulaic primetime soaps to glamorize the hard-partying lifestyles of affluent teenage characters.

BUT ACCORDING TO SOME PEOPLE WHO THOUGHT REALLY, REALLY HARD ABOUT THIS: Yes, the booze was a-flowin' for many in Orange County, but, like the lives of its moody teenagers, the show's messages about alcohol were more complicated than they appeared--and consequential. And how much those messages resonated with viewers may have depended on just how much they loved the likes of Marissa "Hey" Cooper and company.

The O.C. lasted for four seasons from 2003 to 2007, but academic interest in the show's portrayals of alcohol only picked up once the program ended. After the Parents' Television Council named the show one of the worst programs for families, its reputation as a primetime provider of teenage debauchery was apparently great enough that two different groups of researchers set out to study what the show had to say about the sauce. The first study, from the department of communication at the University of Antwerp in 2007, analyzed the patterns, context, and meanings of alcohol use in the show's first two seasons. The second, published in the Journal of Advertising in 2009, studied the messages about drinking in the first three seasons, but also looked at how viewers interpreted these messages after watching.

Prior to these papers, a number of studies had already mapped out the landscape of televised drinking. As the most-depicted drug on television, alcohol had often been consumed by rich, white, attractive, older men in non-villain roles, often with little consequence or moral judgment. Young adults watching such characters internalize the messages behind these portrayals, or so says cultivation theory, which holds among its tenets that kids develop beliefs and behaviors through observation of their on-screen role models.

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.

The University of Antwerp study authors seemed particularly alarmed by the show's more subtle pro-alcohol messages, such as the characters' inclination to drink their problems away when life got tough. "It is remarkable how understanding and even approving other characters were when someone once turned to alcohol after a setback," they wrote.

That's not to say Newport Beach was a world without repercussions. As fans will remember, some of the series' biggest storylines--spoiler alert!--involved serious alcohol-related consequences: Ryan's mother battled a drinking problem that led the Cohen family to take him in; Marissa struggles with alcohol even after going to therapy for a drug overdose; Kirsten Cohen's alcoholism wrecks her car, nearly wrecks her marriage, and sends her to rehab; Marissa's surfer friend Johnny falls off a cliff to his death after drunkenly declaring his love for her; Marissa herself dies in the third season after her drunk-driving ex-boyfriend rams her off the road.

Kirsten Cohen, present during 38 percent of all on-screen alcohol, drank more than any of them, followed by her husband, Sandy, and her friend-turned-stepmother, Julie Cooper, according to the Journal of Advertising study.

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. Highly connected viewers still recognized the negative references, but they also had better recall about affluent characters' product choices, like their favorite drink, and other lifestyle habits. So if you were a casual fan or hate-watcher, the show may not have seemed particularly pro-alcohol. But if you were really, really into The O.C., it could have inspired you to hit the bottle during your own family trauma--like, say, finding out your mom was sleeping with your ex-boyfriend.

Teens drinking on TV may seem like old news, but The O.C.'s underage revelers were particularly noteworthy. Academics say the show led a wave of increasingly prevalent depictions of alcohol and drugs that set it apart from its pruder predecessors of primetime. It also was wildly popular: The O.C. was once the highest rated drama among the 12-17 and 18-34 age groups, and it attracted on average 9.7 million and 7 million viewers during its first and second seasons, respectively, according to Nielsen. (The tamer Dawson's Creek, which ended the same year The O.C. premiered, never hit those numbers.)

Its legacy is still apparent today: The O.C. inspired a few teens-in-paradise knock-offs like The CW's Hidden Palms and paved the way for Gossip Girl, another Josh Schwartz creation that, like Hidden Palms, set off the Parents Television Council due to its portrayals of underage drinking. The O.C.'s more significant contributions, however, may have been in reality television, where it ushered in a wave of MTV programming such as Laguna Beach and Newport Harbor, as well as Bravo's The Real Housewives of Orange County, now one of six franchises that traces its DNA back to the fake housewives of The O.C.

AND... ANYTHING ELSE? Despite popular perceptions, it wasn't actually the teens doing most of the drinking on screen. The University of Antwerp study found the show's younger characters were only responsible for 26 percent of alcohol consumption in the first two seasons. Kirsten Cohen, present during 38 percent of all on-screen alcohol, drank more than any of them, followed by her husband, Sandy, and her friend-turned-stepmother, Julie Cooper, according to the Journal of Advertising study. In fact, though the two studies come to different conclusions about Newport ladies' drink of choice (one says wine and champagne, the other says straight vodka), both claim The O.C. broke another television trend by featuring mostly women as the show's heaviest drinkers.

AND THUS, WE CAN CONCLUDE THAT: In addition its killer soundtrack and self-aware metahumor, The O.C. should also be remembered for portraying partying in a nuanced way that had a ripple effect on American television.

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Nolan Feeney is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Entertainment channel. 

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