An Analysis of Class in Episode 3 of The OC

Rich is rich, and poor is poor, and never the twain shall meet. Unless you’re watching The OC, in which case rich and poor meet every day for breakfast in the sunny, lavishly appointed kitchen of the Palace Cohen. Today we skip to episode 3 of the first season, which opens with Ryan in jail again, having burnt down one of Kirsten’s model homes while trying to hide from the cold, unfamiliar light of upper-class living. Sandy bails Ryan out and tracks down his mother, whose severe periwinkle eyeshadow condition prevents her from taking good care of her son. Given a night to ponder the situation, the whole gang heads to a casino charity benefit and Mallory and I learn what it takes to signify rich on TV.


Mallory: READY WHEN YOU ARE. Count of 3? 3, 2, 1.


Mallory: And we open with the blue poverty filter of Chino! This house fire from the second episode totally presages the Occupy movement. Ryan burns down The Man’s house with The Man’s TOOLS.

Jia: And ends up in jail. Again.

Mallory: “We gotta stop meeting like this,” says Peter Gallagher. Oh, Sandy. Didn’t they pat you down for quips at the door?

Jia: Whoa, Luke’s in jail too?

Mallory: Yeah, but he gets out immediately thanks to his mom who is Cindy McCain. Looking at him rubbing his puka shells in relief (that’s where he stores all his white privilege). 

Jia: Sandy’s eyebrows furrow, merge into a single eyebrow, crawl across the table, and form a heart over Ryan’s jumpsuit pocket. “It’s going to be okay,” the eyebrow says warmly. Ryan does not think it’s going to be okay.

Mallory: Did you hear how Ryan just delivered that line about foster care? He’s 40. HE’S A GROWN MAN. Why is he worried about child services when he’s clearly in adult jail?

Jia: Here come the Ethnic People with Ethnic Mustaches.

Mallory: Yeah, why isn’t he in WHITE JAIL?

Jia: I’ll think about it after the theme song!

Mallory: CALIFORNIA HERE WE COME! And then here’s Kirsten, drinking already. “Charity Casino Night,” she says. What charity is it for, Kirsten? No one knows! Just “charity.”

Jia: Here comes Rosa!

Mallory: Kirsten will not have this conversation again with you, Rosa.

Jia: Can you please just put the scones somewhere nice, Rosa?

Mallory: Rosa, please, not OUTSIDE. Scones don’t go in the flower bushes! This is why Rosa never appears after the first four episodes. And here’s Julie, wearing the highlights of a much poorer woman.

Jia: Julie is a green serpent wearing a going-out top from Contempo Casual. And there goes Sandy, bringing up race. How very Berkeley of you, Sandy.

Mallory: Quick cut to Adult Jail. Ryan is getting… poked, I guess… by Weevil from Veronica Mars! But the spork bending against his neck is clearly plastic. Is that why there are no guards in this jail?

Jia: Another Real Housewives scene in Kirsten’s living room. Thank you, Rosa, the cake stands look wonderful. “We can’t have two black-tie events in the same month!” someone shrieks. Because that would be too ostentatious? Are all of these women telegraphing wealthy well enough?

Mallory: No, not at all. This show had no budget at the time. They spent all their money on Peter Gallagher’s eyebrow stylist.

Jia: His eyebag handler.

Mallory: These women have on patterned shirts. Like WORKING MOMS.

Jia: Seth Cohen looks like he has never grown a hair on his face. There is no skin on my body as smooth as Seth’s face. So, Ryan is in juvie, says Seth. Good to know.

Mallory: Seth gets a facial a day. Oh my god. “Acetate bunting, Kirsten, is it okay?”

Jia: NO WAY! Was that a Julie idea?

Mallory: OF COURSE IT’S NOT OKAY. Neither is that SALMON TOP, you miserable heart-stunted mess.

Jia: Get that K-Mart shit out of here! Kirsten, Seth wants you guys to go to jail right now! Okay TERRIFIC: now we’re doing girl talk with Summer and Marissa!

Mallory: Summer dresses in the most tacky and haphazard way in the first eight episodes. She looks like she shops at Forever 21.

Jia: She looks hot. “How’s that dog you adopted, Coop?” “He’s not calling me back.” “He’s in prison, maybe he’s into dudes now.”

Mallory: Prison rape jokes. Edgy stuff!

Jia: Marissa, really, he’s poor and ALSO probably GAY. Seth just came into the room and then came in his pants.

Mallory: Who just hangs out in their bra that long?

Jia: Seth’s tongue hangs out in his mouth that long.

Mallory: Seth, your poor career, sitting there just like your tongue. OK BACK TO THE FILTER OF POVERTINESS; POOR POOR GRAY SHADES. Everything is so dark. Like Ryan’s future.

Jia: Like the prisoners.

Mallory: The Inland Empire is a terrible place.

Jia: 90% of the minority actors ever to appear on the OC are in this single episode.

Mallory: Jesus, Kirsten, put on a cardigan. Don’t you know that there are rapists here? POOR rapists? Like this guy.


Mallory: Why do you lie, Weevil? Kirsten has no swerve. She is swerveless, straight up and down. I mean, she looks great, but you can’t do Yogalates with swerve.

Jia: This fight is crazy! Where are the GUARDS?

Mallory: All the guards were busy guesting on Arrested Development, which was filming concurrent prison scenes on the Fox lot.

Jia: Kirsten, shocked by the conditions at the dog pound, takes the sad pup home. “I never knew you to be an impulse shopper,” says Sandy.

Mallory: Oh, we’re going there. We’re buying people.

Jia: “They were going to kill him in that place,” says Kirsten.

Mallory: With sporks. God, Ryan, don’t just unpack like that!

Jia: Don’t argue in front of the dog, he can hear you!

Mallory: Don’t trust anyone. Spell out your words.

Jia: There isn’t even a golden filter on these scenes to contrast with the blue-gray poverty filter. There’s just regular, white, pretty light.

Mallory: NATURAL light, Jia.

Jia: The natural light cast by immutable hegemony. Why are they eating Snak Stix? What are Snak Stix?

Mallory: Ryan is wearing a lot of leather accessories. You can pick one leather cuff, kiddo. One.

Jia: Ryan is a leather daddy on loan from a Tobias scene in Arrested Development. Cut to the Cooper household. JULIE WHAT IS THAT PINK SWEAT SUIT. WHAT IS IT.

Mallory: JUICY! Julie is dressed like a social-climbing dog-walker. “You’ve invested too much in this relationship to give up now,” she says to Marissa. Maybe Marissa needs to DIVERSIFY HER PORTFOLIO.

Jia: Back to the Cohens. And Rosa! Thank God, there’s so much to do, Rosa. The scones. I don’t want to have to say this again.

Mallory: Rosa is the only person who is not skinny on this entire show. She’s representing a lot of demographics all by her lonesome.

Jia: Kirsten, you should bring Ryan to help set up for casino night!

Mallory: The Boy Who Played With Fire.

Jia: And we’re in the country club. Luke’s bone structure is so intense.

Mallory: He looks like an extra from Starship Troopers.

Jia: The show is pitting necklace vs. necklace. Leather vs. puka.

Mallory: Tall Handsome White Guy vs. Slightly Less Tall Handsome White Guy. The eternal battle.

Jia: “You were right, we’re from two different worlds,” says Marissa to Ryan. She has chosen the Tall Handsome White Guy.

Mallory: Truly, they hail from two different cities in the same county.

Jia: So Julie skips out on setting up for casino night so she can hang out in the cafe and talk shit about “women who avoid their home lives by being workaholics”?

Mallory: “No wonder her husband is bringing around Poors.”

Jia: NOT EVERYONE’S HUSBAND CAN EMBEZZLE FOR A LIVING, JULIE. Oh there’s Sandy filling out fake paperwork in the corner and he heard her! “Julie,” he says, “You’re from Riverside, so you must have a little sympathy?” Julie is EXPOSED!

Mallory: She emerged from a heap of garbage and Slayer T-shirts, coated in eyeliner and class anxiety, to become queen of the nouveau riche.

Jia: Julie comes home and sheds her daily snakeskin. “Sandy called me white trash,” she whines.

Mallory: Jimmy has a beard of impending unemployment. Jimmy is eating chips and watching TV. Jimmy is definitely a Buffett fan.

Jia: I would never trust that man with my money if I had any money. Oh right right right Kirsten is paying all their bills!!!


Jia: “You’re taking handouts from Kirsten?” Come on Julie, you love handouts.


Jia: Here’s the poverty filter.

Mallory: This laundromat is full of ANGRY FAT POORS. OK, aside from Rosa, this is the last non-model-sized character you will see on this show. No one here is happy. No one here is kind.

Jia: Dawn Atwood, why did you spill all those quarters on the ground?

Mallory: Did you know that no one poor has any patience or command in any given situation?

Jia: Aw man, she is tweaking out big time. And now we cut to fine china at the dinner table and Rosa giving everyone carrots. Does Rosa always do this? Why is this Downton Abbey all of a sudden? Just to impress Dawn?

Mallory: Even Nana had to eat takeout at Christmas. This is the last home-cooked meal you will ever see on this show.

Jia: Dawn Atwood is “between places.”

Mallory: Dawn doesn’t understand the WASP Code. Never mention your personal problems when there are still carrots left in the chafing dish. Who do you think is wearing more blush right now, Ryan or Dawn?

Jia: Probably Ryan. Would you call her eyeshadow lavender, or powder blue?

Mallory: I would call it periwinkle and I would call it Trashy. Oh, by the way, I was born in Chino.


Mallory: Should I have mentioned that sooner? Yeah. Chino Hills, technically, just over the line. I lived there until I was 8. It was nice! We had a Carl’s Jr. and a playground down the street.

Jia: My cousins live close to there! I always thought it seemed nice, too. Okay, fade to INFINITY POOL.

Mallory: Why is Seth cleaning his own pool? He can’t serve himself at the dinner table but he cleans out the pool?

Jia: Okay, Dawn Atwood classed it up a bit. “Welcome to my world,” Kirsten says, but it’s different this time. Rich or poor, we’re all embarrassing to our children, am I right?

Mallory: Oh boy DO NOT INVITE HER TO VEGAS NIGHT. DO NOT FIND HER A DRESS. Her eyes just sparked with a dim and distant madness.

Jia: All of the synapses in Dawn Atwood’s body are crackling with vodka wildfire. She emerges from the flames as a facsimile of a rich person, thanks to a nice blowout and a pearl necklace.

Mallory: But will the pearls be enough? (No.)

Jia: “The count is way positive,” says Dawn Atwood, casino shark-eyes on.

Mallory: How high an apple box do you think Ben Mackenzie’s standing on in this scene to look taller than his mother?

Jia: “Our luck is turning around already!” Are they trying to make Dawn into an object lesson about the relationship of the working class to the lottery?

Mallory: How long has this same song been playing? Dawn is getting inappropriately excited and she has split bangs.

Jia: All of the characters have bang problems. ALL of them.

Mallory: Same song, still going.

Jia: The band just vamps for 75 minutes, plays a single chorus and leaves.

Mallory: Sandy just called Julie’s bluff. Julie told him she knew about the $100k loan from Kirsten, knowing he didn’t know, but he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of admitting it, so he just pretended to know about it! GALLAGHER, you magnificent bastard. Never let ‘em see you sweat.

Jia: Dawn orders a 7 and 7? That’s great.

Mallory: It’s the only drink they serve in Chino, and thus the only drink Ryan and his mom have heard of. “That’ll do the trick,” she says. Dawn, ALL drinks do the trick. It’s the same trick. There’s only one trick drinks can do.

Jia: Summer just called Seth “Stanley.”

Mallory: Earlier I think it was “Sid”. Oh God, now Dawn is swearing. Her hair is all mussed up too. It’s like watching a sad, drunk Cinderella.


Mallory: Your roots are showing, Dawn. That works on two levels (like your hairrrr).

Jia: Wait, honestly, can you imagine being in a relationship where the other person just gives their friend $100k without telling you? Wow, Julie just took those words RIGHT out of my mouth. What is her problem? What would she rather Jimmy do: make her WORK?

Mallory: Two arguments going on, but only one is classy, i.e. quietly emasculating. Sandy, this display is pretty borderline. Your Bronx is showing. You’re practically yelling!

Jia: Sandy, it was just a loan, rich people give each other $100k whenever.

Mallory: You forget that women can’t loan money without also loaning… their feelings.

Jia: Sandy is probably upset about not making as much money as Kirsten. He’s going to go home and anxiously fluff his eyebrows all night. Oh no, DAWN!

Mallory: Ohhh dear.

Jia: Oh no, no, no.

Mallory: How embarrassing. She fell AND laughed at the same time. This is just like that awful, racist garden party on season three of Mad Men, only there’s no Pete and Trudy to distract everyone by doing the Charleston.

Jia: How did she get drunk that fast? “HALP ME AAPPPP,” she’s slurring, “HALPPPP.”

Mallory: She’s coasting through eight stages of alcoholism in forty seconds.

Jia: And Kirsten is taking ownership! “She’s with us.” She’s choking on these words. “We.. do… know… some poor people…”


Jia: More gel than hair.

Mallory: Marissa and Luke, reunited by their sense of propriety in the face of public intoxication, a regular Daisy and Tom Buchanan. Marissa, didn’t you get flung out of a truck onto your own driveway in this exact same condition last week?

Jia: Luke is going to go home tonight and listen to The Rise of the Colored Empires on audiotape and get a rage boner.

Mallory: I refuse to believe that. Luke’s all smooth down there, like a Ken doll.

Jia: And with that, the evening ends, a new day “DAWNS,” if you know what I mean. “Hey Kirsten, you mind if I smoke Virginia Slims by your infinity pool?” COME ON DAWN, you know the answer to that.

Mallory: Now she’s got her hoop earrings back on (AUTHENTICITY) and is ready to take responsibility. By giving her kid to this nice rich lady.

Jia: “I’m not wired for this,” she says.

Mallory: “I don’t have what you got.” What’s she got, Dawn?

Jia: $$$$$$!

Mallory: Also: subtle makeup, lawn furniture with cushions, acetate bunting. Dawn, you can’t just give your kid to her! What if Kirsten didn’t take him in and he actually went to foster care? Which… is probably what would happen in real life.

Jia: Oh here we go with the end-of-the-episode tearjerker song.

Mallory: SO MANY LEONARD COHEN COVERS ON THIS SHOW. How did you get a cab to come to Orange County, Dawn? You don’t have a cell phone.

Jia: Rosa called the cab. Dawn was like, “Rosa, HALLP ME AAPPP.”

Mallory: Kirsten walks into the kitchen. “I have been given this child. He is ours now.”

Jia: Ryan’s posture is so expressive right now.

Mallory: Like a whipped puppy! BUT NOW HIS LITTLE SMILE! Fun fact: this is the only time Ryan Atwood smiles in season 1.


Mallory: I think he smiles again in season 2 after Trey gets out of jail.

Jia: Kirsten is real smug about her cross-cultural adoption.

Mallory: And we’re back to buying people jokes! Full circle.

Jia: “We just got in way over our heads. He’s practically a minority, he’s so poor.”

Mallory: BUT WE LOVE IT! Oh man, the credits? That went by so quickly! Well, what have we learned? Well, first: it’s incredibly easy to waive parental rights in the state of California. All you have to do is say “take care of him” and leave.

Jia: Juveniles in California look extremely old, due to their hard-knock lives.

Mallory: There are no guards in juvenile hall, and no one in Orange County knows how to dress according to their tax bracket.

Jia: Once you cross into a county with a median income below $150,000 the light turns grayish blue.

Mallory: You can be an alcoholic as long as you don’t laugh too loud.

Jia: Fashion works on trickle-down economics. Those 2003 OC fancy lady outfits are being worn by 2012 Dawn Atwood.

Mallory: Ryan was meant to be in rich, as he has the white teeth and casually expensive-looking clothes of an OC teenager.

Jia: Ryan can pass. His teeth allow him to code-switch.

Mallory: He deserves to be plucked from the working class. He deserves to stand in the sun.

Jia: What about gambling? What is that representing here?

Mallory: Well Jia, in a way they’re all taking a gamble. Sandy and Kirsten are gambling on Ryan; Marissa’s gambling on Luke; Julie’s gambling on that track suit.

Jia: But the gambles of the poor are harder, the stakes higher, the clothes much much worse. The class signifiers are really sort of LOUD AND CLEAR on this show, aren’t they?

Mallory: Remember there is no middle class on this show. Everyone is either Too Poor To Dream or Too Rich To Care.

Jia: It’s true. It’s so wonderful. This has been the shortest 43 minutes of my life. Let’s do this again soon? Perhaps with the Tijuana episode?

M: Oh GOD yes. See you in TJ, where the racial signifiers just EXPLODE off the screen. Or, should I say, “essplode.”


Previously: Thoughts on Class and Finance from The OC Pilot Script 

Jia Tolentino and Mallory Ortberg are experts on teenage television series of the mid-aughts. 



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