Why The O.C. family tree still confuses me

It’s been over a decade since I watched The O.C. for the very first time and, without exaggeration, I’ve thought about it nearly every day since.

I was in college when I initially ventured into the illusive and dramatic world of Newport Beach, California, immediately drawn in by Phantom Planet’s now-iconic theme song. An hour later, I was fully invested in the story of Ryan Atwood, the teen who was arrested for auto theft but “rescued” by his lawyer, Sandy Cohen, who welcomed him into his family with open arms. The other principal characters—Kirsten and Seth Cohen (Sandy’s wife and son, respectively), Summer Roberts, and Marissa Cooper—would later become such an integral part of my pop culture repertoire that it would feel like I knew them IRL. I didn’t realize it then, but by the time Ryan told Marissa he was “whoever you want me to be,” The O.C. had sunk its claws into my heart and soul, already becoming one of my favorite television shows of all time—one that I would re-watch over and over again for years.

It’s safe to say that The O.C. had its fair share of relatively bizarre storylines, from everything involving Oliver Trask (ugh) to the con artist who tried to steal all of Kirsten’s money. But no matter how many times I re-visit Newport, California via my collection of DVDs (something about changing the disc every four episodes keeps me humble), I’ll never fully wrap my head around the straight-up bananas Season 2 storyline involving Lindsay Gardner, Ryan’s girlfriend who turned out to be—surprise!—Seth’s grandfather’s illegitimate love child.

Let’s back up for a second and do a little refresh in case you, unlike me, haven’t re-watched the series a million times since its 2007 finale. Ryan and Lindsay meet toward the beginning of the second season on her first day at the Harbor School. Despite a slew of awkward interactions (he spills a latte and knocks over her tampons, she basically calls him a dumb jock), they end up dating a few episodes later.

Everything about Lindsay is fairly dramatic from the get-go. The show spends an impressive amount of time building up to her romance with Ryan, first establishing them as star-crossed lab partners seemingly destined to hate one another (alas!), then slowly hinting that maybe, just maybe, they might like each other. Their emotions—overtly obvious to the audience from day one, but apparently not to each other—come to the surface after a double date gone wrong. Soon enough, they’re “studying” (aka making out) in the Cohens’ pool house on the reg.

And here, my friends, is where things go from mildly intense to borderline batshit.

Shortly after Ryan and Lindsay give into their feelings for one another, we learn that Lindsay’s mother, Renee, had an affair with Caleb Nichol (Seth’s grandfather) 16 years ago. And, oh, btw, there was a child. And yes, Lindsay is that child. Which makes her definitely related to the Cohens—Ryan’s adopted family—and kiiiind of related to Ryan. Her boyfriend.

The first time I watched all of this go down from my college dorm room, I just accepted this storyline as a typical O.C. plot. Teenage road trip to Tijuana? Casual. A guy standing atop a coffee cart in the middle of high school to profess his undying love? Happens all the time, I’m sure!

Finding out your boyfriend is basically your adopted nephew? Sure, why not.

But after a few re-watches, I started contemplating the bigger scope of this reveal and it’s pretty headache-inducing. Let’s break it down: Kirsten is Seth’s mom and Caleb’s daughter. Lindsay is also Caleb’s daughter, meaning Lindsay is Kirsten’s half-sister (and Sandy’s sister-in-law). That makes her Seth’s aunt—and also Ryan’s, via adoption. But it also ties her to the Coopers, since Julie Cooper married Caleb Nichol. This means Lindsay is Julie Cooper’s step-daughter and Marissa and Kaitlin’s step-sister. Oh, and let’s not forget that Kirsten has another sister, Hailey, even though by this point in the series, she had moved to Tokyo.

This tangled web unfolds in the most O.C. way possible: at a Chrismukkah party at the Cohens’ house. After all, ain’t no party like an O.C. party cause an O.C. party don’t stop until there’s mad DRAMA (and maybe one or two people get punched or end up in the pool, depending on the day). Caleb, who is in the midst of a legal battle, is forced to explain why he’s been paying money to a seemingly random woman for the better part of two decades, leaving him no other choice but to come clean about his affair with Renee.

A full-on family meltdown ensues: Caleb gets slapped (twice), Kirsten throws some fancy pottery at her father’s head and locks herself in a bathroom, and Lindsay runs off crying. I’d probably cry too at first, but being part of the Cohen family seems pretty awesome TBQH. It’d be worth it for the fresh bagel selection alone, not to mention the elaborate holiday gatherings (I mean, according to Seth Cohen, Chrismukkah is sweeping the nation).

A first-time viewer might think that Lindsay and Ryan’s relationship is doomed after the revelation that they’re sort of related. And this brings me to my favorite part of the Lindsay Gardner saga; just as The O.C. took its sweet time building their (incredibly obvious) romance, it takes foreverrrrrrr for it to dissipate. Along the way, they try to be friends, then realize they can’t “just” be friends, then try a relationship again. It’s honestly more back-and-forth in a handful of episodes than Seth and Summer experience throughout the entire series, culminating with Kirsten catching them mid-makeout sesh. Awk-ward.

Always one to avoid confrontation when she can, Kirsten encourages Ryan and Lindsay to continue their relationship, but it’s still downhill from there. Lindsay tries to get to know Caleb better—a fool’s errand if I ever did see one, as the man doesn’t seem to actually have a heart and/or soul. Eventually, the entire saga comes to a screeching halt after Lindsay takes a paternity test confirming that Caleb is, actually, her father. The endless rollercoaster of emotions proves to be too much for Lindsay; she ultimately tells Ryan that she and her mother are moving back to Chicago, and then we literally never see her again.

That’s right. The O.C. spent 12 entire episodes getting us to simultaneously care about a new relationship and a new Cohen family member, then took both away in the blink of an eye. And is it just me, or did it seem like the Lindsay plot went on forever? Granted, it was half of the season, but a lot of other stuff also happened during Season 2 (the Marissa/Alex romance, Kirsten’s descent into alcoholism, and everything with Ryan’s brother Trey—just to name a few). The O.C. often introduced strange plots only to end them just as suddenly (again, Oliver), but those storylines usually served a bigger purpose in the series’ overall arc. Lindsay, despite stirring up trouble for nearly all of Caleb’s relationships, seemed to have the mildest consequences of all the series’ sub-plots—yet her storyline was arguably one of the most unrealistic and dramatic of all time.

Still, she clearly made an impact on viewers (hello, I’m proof). After all, that’s why we tuned into The O.C. week after week. It wasn’t just because of the iconic music or the ways in which Seth Cohen stole so many of our hearts (he still has mine, btw), but because the series was so damn out of control while still resonating with us on a truly personal level. The O.C. was nothing like our real lives, but the characters were somehow still exactly like us. We may not have had a coffee shop in the middle of our high school, but we fell in love, we broke up, we made new friends, and we fell out of touch with others. At its core, The O.C. is about companionship, family, growth, and loss—and it’s those elements that touched us the most. The weird plot twists were just the cherry on top.

And that’s why I’ll continue re-watching The O.C. every few years.

I’ll revisit the way I felt when I first watched it in the ’00s, returning to that pocket of time when my own world was a little simpler, but on my TV screen, it was absolutely, totally, wildly, out of control—full of elaborate parties ending in fights, thrown punches, and the occasional long-lost family member.

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