It’s been 10 years since Marissa Cooper was tragically killed on the season three finale of The O.C., but her demise is still the topic of conversation between creator Josh Schwartz and executive producer Stephanie Savage.
“It’s something we still wrestle with,” Schwartz said Sunday at a writers room reunion for the Fox drama at the ATX Television Festival. “Steph and I still talk about it and play it back.”
When asked the reason behind that decision, which saw star Mischa Barton depart ahead of the show’s fourth and final season, Schwartz said it was reasons both creative and otherwise.
“It’s complicated,” he said. “There were a lot of factors involved and it was something we really wrestled with and there were reasons both creative and in terms of just the show itself and where we were at that moment with the network.”
In the pre-Twitter era, Schwartz said the mixed reaction to the death took him by surprise. “There were some people who celebrated and at the time, those were the most vocal people,” said Schwartz, who called it “a really good lesson for us moving forward in the rest of our TV lives.”
Although they didn’t hear from the Marissa fans as much before the death, they certainly did after the death aired. “There was a lot of anger and fan art that came our way,” Schwartz said.
Going back to the beginning of the series, Schwartz revealed that Barton almost wasn’t cast in the role of Marissa. The other actress up for the role? Olivia Wilde, who would go on to play Alex on the show in season two.
“Marissa was obviously a character who Ryan needs to save,” Schwartz said. “And Olivia Wilde needs no saving. She’s pretty tough.”
Another change at the beginning of the series was the name of the Cohen family at the center of the drama, who were originally called the Newmans because of “conversations” with the network about the difficulty of having a neurotic Jewish character, i.e. Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), play such a prominent role.
“Seth Cohen was Josh’s way into the show and it was also what made the show in many ways unique,” Savage said. “Because it was unique, it was challenging for the network who wasn’t used to seeing a character like that in their glossy primetime soap.”
Schwartz, whose first series was The O.C., was unfamiliar with Fox’s previous teen soap drama Beverly Hills, 90210. “Josh did get the question that if Ben [McKenzie] was the Dylan than who was the Brandon and he did not understand,” Savage said with a laugh.
The first season of the series, which ran 27 episodes, also saw the departures of several characters, including Anna and Luke. “There were a lot of Luke stories we left on the table, Anna stories and so on,” Schwartz said. “In retrospect, we still talk about the possibilities of a Luke-Anna relationship.”
The first season received some criticism for going through stories and characters at a rapid pace, also since the first season consisted of 27 episodes, a bump up from the typical 22 episodes for a network drama.
“Part of it is we didn’t really know the rules so we were making it up as we go along,” Schwartz said. “You obviously learn as you go and lessons we took on shows after that if you have characters on your show that people really love, you should find a way to keep them around.”
Season two introduced several new characters that didn’t last long, but in season three Taylor Townsend (Autumn Reeser) was added to the cast and brought a new energy to the series.
“She was so annoying and so delicious,” executive producer Leila Gerstein recalled. “We needed a new voice and she really excited us.”
Season four saw Taylor play a bigger role after Marissa’s death and as the characters went off to college. Savage recalled the nervousness about moving the characters out of high school but still finding ways to tell stories for the adults as well.
“We didn’t want to do that but what we tried to do had some challenges in it,” Savage said. “Once we were in season four, we were like we could do this forever.”
However, Schwartz said the writers “had a pretty good sense’ that season four would be its last.
“It was freeing creatively. We did some pretty weird stuff in season four,” Schwartz said. “We took some chances that I think we probably would have felt uncomfortable doing before that.”
When asked where the characters, particularly Seth and Summer (Rachel Bilson), would be today, Schwartz left that open to fans’ individual interpretations of the final scene. The reunion was followed by a lively script read of the pilot episode by a guest cast including Tate Donovan reprising his role as Jimmy Cooper, among others, as well as sing-along of the show’s iconic “California” theme song by Phantom Planet.