Thursday, February 22, 2007

The O.C.: Josh says goodbye

Today's column is an interview with Josh Schwartz about the end of "The O.C.," the beginning, and lots of things in between:

"The O.C." creator Josh Schwartz was in the middle of a storyline last season involving Johnny, an angst-ridden new character, when he got a note from his bosses at Fox.

"It was fairly indicative of the POV there (at the time): 'This is Fox, not Fox Searchlight,' " he says, referring to the boutique independent film division. "Thus, Johnny was hit by a car."

(Later, Johnny fell off a cliff and died.)

The Johnny memo was just one of many clashes Schwartz had with the network that year. He and the producers had already outlined the season's first six or seven episodes when they got an order to go back to the beginning and insert a femme fatale character, who was played by Jeri Ryan.

"It was tonally wrong, and we probably should have been focused on things like not making the Johnny storyline (stink)," he says.

To read the full column -- including Josh listing his favorite musical moments from the series -- click here. If you have a whole lot of time on your hands, the full transcript (or close to it) follows after the jump.

So, what can you tell me about the finale?

Nothing -- especially since the Fox promos did such a good job of giving almost everything away in the final act. (He sighs.) It definitely brings real closure to the series, it's almost like last week was the finale, and this week was almost a pilot for the future, as long as one's being pretentious

Will "The Valley" be canceled?

You'll have to watch and see, won't you? The fate of "The Valley" will be decided.

Now that you're done, how do you feel about these 16 episodes?

I'm immensely pleased with these 16. We went into this season with a real point of view about the kind of show we wanted to do, and I feel like we did that.

Is there anything you would have done differently if you knew going on that this would definitely be the final season?

What do you mean, "if"?

When we talked before the season, you were at least pretending to be hopeful.

We knew. You always want to have hope. You don't want to go into a season going, "It's over." But I think we knew.

So knowing that, what did you specifically want to accomplish with the last year?

It was really about, I felt at times last year, in the need for trying to deliver ratings, the storylines got a little overcooked, we lost some of the humor and some of the heart of the show, and it was forsaken for the spectacle of a promotable moment. Our show has always had to walk this line between melodrama, an operatic level of melodrama, and also this character-based romantic comedy. You ask a bunch of different people what they watched the show for and who they watch the show for, and you get a bunch of different answers. It was a fine line that the show had to walk, and I think this year, we decided if we were going to fall off the balance beam, we were going to fall more on the romantic comedy side, and that was the decision we made. You weren't having cliffhanger endings every week.

And no one literally fell off a cliff.

In our best episodes, even in this season, we were able to do both, and in every season. Our decision was, well, if we're not going to have the crazy story points, we're going to have to make it really funny.

Getting back to something we talked a little about at the beginning of the season, Taylor's really the only character you added after the beginning who stuck.

Well, there's also Kaitlin.

Technically, she was there at the beginning. You just recast her.

Touche.

So why did Taylor fit when, say, Alex or Zach or the others didn't?

First and foremost, it's Autumn Reeser. She's just tremendously talented and delightful to work with, and she wanted to be on the show and work really hard, and that came through. But also, when the show started, I'd never really done it before, I'd never watched "90210" or "Dynasty" or "Dallas," so the whole idea of introducing new characters, that was something I had to learn as I went. We never introduced any of those characters in season two with the intention of keeping them around. As much as I loved having Olivia Wilde on the show -- and we were forced to wrap up that storyline quicker than we wanted to because of what was going with the FCC -- even her, we never planned on keeping any of these characters long-term. When we introduced Taylor, we wanted to plant some characters to stick around for more than a season.

So you never planned for Lindsay or anyone else to be around long-term?

We never planned for it that way, and one of the things I've learned over the run of the show is that an expansive ensemble takes some of the weight off your principal characters, an ensemble that feels like it's part of the show. When you don't have your crisis of the week and it's just the relationships that sustains your show, it's good to have a wide gallery of characters and we created some characters that weren't intended for more than we used them.

In retrospect, is there anyone you wish you had kept?

I always loved having Luke on the show, and he may have quickly gone soft. We rehabilitated him very quickly, it wasn't long before he was strumming a guitar being a goofball, though I loved that part of him. I think there was room for him to stick around. Who knows about the great Luke/Anna love story? Now you can only find out about that in fanfics.

Why did Haylie keep vanishing?

Fox kept giving Amanda Righetti series regular jobs, she kept appearing in other Fox shows, and we weren't ready to commit to making her a series regular to keep her to ourselves.

Let's go back to the genesis for a minute. I know you've said that the pitch was "'The Karate Kid' without the karate'...

Or "'Fresh Prince of Bel Air' minus the wacky graffiti," take your pick. The genesis of it was, I had gone in for a general meeting at McG's company when Stephanie Savage was still working for his company, now she's a full-time producer on the show. We started talking and she mentioned Orange County as sort of a world, and she said they were open to any take. One of the suggestions was, "What about extreme sports cops, '21 Jump Street'-style?" I said, "Let me come back to you with characters." I didn't know extreme sports or cops, but I had gone to USC, been around these Newport kids, being a Jewish kid from Rhode Island, and being around all those Orange County kids, I felt extremely Jewish and extremely 5'9" and not buoyant in water. But I also knew it was really a seductive place and would have loved to have dated one of those girls.

I am very much a product of my pop culture influences, and so is Stephanie, so we were going to have one toe in the 80s teen movies of my youth and also a nod to all the "Rebel Without A Cause" and Douglas Sirk '50s melodramas as well. Aside from pop culture references, we wanted it grounded in a real family that was the only normal haven in this world. The wish-fulfillment of the show wasn't being given the keys to the kingdom, but was being adopted by this family that anyone would want to be a part of.

The Seth in the pilot wasn't really recognizable from who he became. How much of that transformation was getting to know Brody? And talk a little about how the show went from Ryan's story to Ryan and Seth's story.

It's Ryan's story again in the finale. Even if it didn't always seem that way, Ryan's story was the framework for the show. But one of the pleasures of working in a television show is getting to know your actors. Seth was always going to be a prominent part of the show, but there was a lot of fear in the beginning about having too comic a character in that role. We kept hearing from the network after we cast Ben, "Now that you've got Luke Perry, who's your Jason Priestley?" And we kept going, "That's not the model!" When Brody walked in the room to audition, he was also good-looking enough that people felt comfortable he could be a leading man, but if you go back and look at all the launch posters, he wasn't on them. They put Luke on instead of him.

I thought Seth's line last week about how turning their story into a body-switching comedy might get another couple of years out of it was the most self-aware line he's ever had.

He's got a couple more coming up…

Was there a struggle early on with you and the network over how funny the show should be?

Initially, it was okay. There were a few times -- the episode where we went to LA and followed Grady Bridges around, we had some rants taken out, and probably rightfully so. It was a balancing act, and I think maybe last year we went away from it. I think in time, the Gail Berman regime came to embrace the comdic elements of the show, but it certainly wasn't what anyone focused on initially. At the end of the day, we had to serve the melodrama part.

So it was Peter Liguori who was pushing you away from the comedy last year?

I'm not going to say anything bad about the guy.

Hey, you're off the air in a few days. What's he going to do?

Yeah, what's he going to do? Put us in a terrible timeslot and not promote us? No, seriously, he's a good guy, and he let us do the season this year that we really wanted to do, and do all 16 episodes, so I appreciated that a lot.

You know the Jeri Ryan story, right?

I've heard bits and pieces second-hand, but what's your version?

The third season got off to a weird and wacky start. After we'd already broken the first six or seven episodes -- which I'm not saying, by any means, were genius -- we were told we had to go bck and insert a new femme fatale in the show, from the first episode, and that the model was, if she was available, Nicolette Sheridan. And it was like, "Oh boy, where do we go from here?" Third seasons are tricky and I think maybe it became a little bit trickier, and we got a little bit thrown off balance.

It didn't seem like the kind of story you guys did.

It was tonally wrong, and we probably should have been focused on things like not making the Johnny storyline suck. All of a sudden you're scrambling, and I was not as focused as I probably should have been.

How could you have made the Johnny storyline not suck?

What it was intended to do initially was one thing, I don't remember anymore, but I've learned that if you're in a storyline that's not going well, end it fast.

(Later, Schwartz e-mails me to add, A note we got last year which was fairly indicative of the POV there was: "This is FOX, not FOX Searchlight." Thus, Johnny was hit by a car.)

I was surprised that, after you finally rid yourself of Johnny, you kept Volchok around, even into this season.

The show always needed the sort of harder-edged storytelling spine to it, that was a little more laced with melodrama, you need antagonistic energy. I think it worked the most successfully with Trey, and Volchok brought a little bit of that dangerous bad boy energy into the show. Ryan needs somebody to punch.

In season two, you had Sandy and Kirsten flirting with Kim Delaney and Billy Campbell, in season three there was Jeri Ryan and the hospital storyline; how hard was it to write interesting material for what's supposed to be an extremely happy, functional married couple?

It was a challenge. We were really lucky that we had great actors with great chemistry. The initial impulse was, let's keep them happy, but happy people in a happy marriage is a tricky thing to write in a nighttime serialized drama for Fox, so you start trying to trouble the marriage in ways that hopefully makes it stronger in the end. This season they've been strengthened and really fun and those perfect parents again. You want to service the actors in storylines, but the principal audience was a young adult audience, and I don't know how much they cared about the state of their marriage.

Well, getting back to what you said before about different parts of the audience watching for different reasons, what sense do you have of the effect Marissa's death had on that young adult audience?

It's so hard to tell. Quite honestly, the show was struggling last year in the ratings. I've been very upfront about the fact that I wasn't as focused on the show as I was in the past or the fickleness of the teenage audience. But I feel like any story that gets written about the show, it gets frustrating. You can't write it without talking about the scheduling. At its height, without the benefit of "Idol," had 7 and a half to 8 milion viewers -- even only 10 million with "Idol." It was never this huge across the board smash hit, and with every timeslot move, we lost 20 percent of our audience. There are big shows that start with 20 million viewers and get moved and lose 20 percent of their audience, and they can afford that. When you start with 7 and a half million viewers and you move, you're in trouble.

It's impossible to extrapolate what creatively cost us with viewers. Outside of the scheduling, it's so hard. I'm sure some people stopped watching because (Marissa) wasn't on the show. It was a risk of us making a move like that in an attempt to reinvigorate the show, but you can't say that that's the whole enchilada.

To rehash, your reasons for killing Marissa?

It felt like you can get locked into a little bit of a formula, dynamics that start to get predictable. To a lot of the audience, the Ryan and Marissa romance felt like it had played itself out, short of a happy ending, and that we had done everything with Marissa that was conceivable, including redemption, which is where she was at the end. She never struck me as the sort of character who would sail happily into the sunset, going back to her first appearance passed out drunk at the door to her house. It felt like the most fitting end for her.

If you had to pick an episode to show someone what "The O.C." is about, what would it be? "The Escape"?

That's a perfect example, because it did all the things that the show did, when it was firing on all cylinders. It was fun, it was dramatic, also real at times, sometimes silly. I also look at other episodes: the Valentine's Day episode from season one, the season one finale, "The Rainy Day Women."

Getting back to some other absent faces, did Tate Donovan want to leave, or did you run out of things to do with Jimmy?

Again, we're trying to tell enough kid stories and make sure we service Sandy and Kirsten, and at a certain point, something's gotta give. We felt like we couldn't service Jimmy.

And Caleb's death?

Similar type of thing. This was a character who we didn't think would be a part of the show and he became a major part of the show for two seasons. We felt his death would have major repercussions. It sent Kirsten into decline, made Julie single and poor.

Whatever happened to the Kaitlin spin-off where she was in boarding school?

I was about 17 episodes into the first season, and I was asked to go up into Rupert Murdoch's boardroom. Rupert wasn't there but all the head honchos at Fox were there, and I was asked, with a fair amount of pressure, to do another show. I was shown a schedule where, if I did this, "The O.C." would remain on Wednesdays at 9 and the new show would be on Tuesdays at 9 after "Idol." Who wouldn't want to do that? It wasn't wise of me to do that, I had plenty to learn about the TV business, but I said, "Okay, I don't want it to be a spin-off." I was worried about cannibalizing the show too soon, and spin-offs usually fail. Everyone signed off on that fact, I went off and worked on a pilot called "Athens." It was a big honor, it was going to keep "The O.C" behind "American Idol." Then I turned in the script and everyone said, "So how do we turn it into a spin-off?" It became a protracted battle not to make it a spin-off. Then I arrived at the upfronts to announce the new show and they said "The O.C." was moving to Thursdays, that was a perfect storm of its own. When it felt that was the only version of the pilot that was going to move forward was one I didn't believe in, I said, maybe as a compromise, we'd have discussions about a Kaitlin boarding school drama, and then Gail Berman went to Paramount, and those discussions ended.

After the show became so successful breaking bands, you introduced the Bait Shop in season two, and then it went away. What happened?

We used it for two years. I don't know, at the end of the day, if it was as interesting to the people at home to watch bands play as it was for me, but it was a good destination, and we got a lot of mileage out of it. I'm sort of restless, we do a storyline and I'm, "Okay, let's move on." That wasn't the only thing we dropped after a while.

Well, my thesis on the show -- and feel free to shoot holes in it -- has always been that your restlessness was what made the first season so great, and what made you struggle later on. You did the Seth/Anna/Summer triangle in, like, three episodes, where another show would have dragged it out for a year and a half, and that was great, but it meant that you had used a whole lot of material by the time season two began.

All the things that made the show a blast also meant that it was going to burn really really bright and really really fast. That's appropriate. I think four years for a young adult drama is a good amount of time. I don't believe shows should run forever and ever and ever. I have two pilots now, and if we're talking in four years, I'll be a very happy man.

The rate of speed of pop culture today makes it so it's not a necessity for shows to run forever. Some of my favorite shows about young people -- "My So-Called Life," "Freaks and Geeks," "Undeclared" -- didn't even run for a full season.

So we burned through a lot of stories, that was a lot of fun, but going into the second season, our attitude was, six episodes into the first season, we already had a drinking game, the rules of the show had been codified. And I thought, "Let's go into season two and change it up, let's not have Ryan hit anybody, split up our couples and surprise people by moving the show in a new direction." We tried so many new things at once, and we may have overthought it. I'm proud of that choice, but it was a lesson to be learned in that crash course in television.

Do you feel like you've learned enough that you'll be in better shape if either or both of your pilots go?

Famous last words, right? I'm sure there are new mistakes for me to make that I have even yet to know exist. It's been an amazing sort of on the job training, and to be able to do that while working on a show that was able to have the impact it had on the audience while it was on was amazing. We were shooting the finale, in Pasadena, on location, and there were all these kids gathered at the bottom of the street, crying, begging the cast for pictures, and I thought, how remarkable that there's still this passionate audience on the next to last day of filming.

What are you going to be doing on Thursday night?

Watching the show. It'll be a last celebration, I'm really proud of the episode. It'll be really satisfying. When it goes off the air, I'll make myself not read about the show anymore, and look back on it for the amazing experience that it was.

8 comments:

Alan Sepinwall said...

I've turned off the word verification for the time being, since people were e-mailing me to say they couldn't comment.

Anonymous said...

Great interview.

I think it's funny that Josh keeps talking about the Jeri Ryan incident. That certainly wasn't the worst storyline the show ever did. And at least it gave the adults something interesting to play. It was certainly better than the "evil Sandy" arc they tried last year.

I think his comments about learning to move on quickly when a storyline isn't working are interesting. Particularly because in the firt season it really seemed like they were determined to prove that the Oliver storyline was a good idea when everyone clearly hated it.

I think one of the mistakes the show made was introducing so many character who, as Josh says, weren't intended to stay around for very long. They just seemed like cheap obstacles thrown in and it was hard to get invested in them when we knew they'd be gone soon. Worse, the characters people DID respond to (Anna, Haley, Trey) were written out because the producers weren't willing to sign them as regulars.

And I don't understand the "Fox Searchlight" comment. I don't know what writers originally had planned for Johnny, but I find it hard to believe it was something of independent film quality. And that was definitely a case of the writers keeping a character around too long who no one cared about.

Niffer said...

*sigh* And so it ends.... Ironically, I didn't want to watch the show after my boyfriend told me about it. But, because it's set in CA, he watched, and I got sucked into the fun. So I've seen almost every episode - it's just the first few that I missed. Time to check out the DVDs.

Out of curiosity - was it really just the young'uns that watched the show? I'm 35 and I know a few thirtysomethings who watch it.

rachel said...

"This is Fox, not Fox Searchlight."

That's just classic. While many would argue that Josh made a lot of rookie mistakes, by doing too much too soon, I disagree, as that is what made the show as great as it was during the first 2 seasons. High schools shows should never really run for a long time (because of all of the obvious reasons) and considering the current tv landscape it's surprising the show ran for as long as it did.

However seasons 1 and 2 are in a class by themselves. Even on the 4th or 5th viewing I still laugh.

I am looking forward to his 2 new pilots (i know one is supposed to be like grosse point blank). Let's see how NBC (and their wonderful promo department) and the CW handle the shows next year.

Daniel said...

Have I mentioned how much better Schwartz was with you than with me?

Oh. I have?

Grumble.

-Daniel

J said...

Great interview. I think the show could easily have survived if Fox changed its position in the lineup. The Thursday night slot it has been in is tough.

Anonymous said...

Interesting.

But I still have to think that Josh didn't appreciate just how many people had invested themselves in the Ryan/Marissa storyline. Certainly all the obsessive fans I know are huge Ryan fans and he is what has kept them watching for the last 3 seasons. Too much focus shifted off him and on to other characters in season 3.
And lets face it - while Seth/Summer were cute - they were not the stuff that kept you glued to your seat. Only Ryan had that sort of pull.
But it's all water under the bridge now. Mistakes were made by Josh and Co (re storylines) and mistakes were made by Fox and co (re timing and interference) but it seems that the only people that didn't make mistakes - THE CAST - are the ones who lose out in the end. And all because of other poeples mistakes.
THese characters were great and the show had the potential to go on for years but the puppeteer seems to have dropped the strings.

Yeechang Lee said...

"I think it's funny that Josh keeps talking about the Jeri Ryan incident. That certainly wasn't the worst storyline the show ever did. And at least it gave the adults something interesting to play. It was certainly better than the "evil Sandy" arc they tried last year."

Totally agreed. Jeri Ryan is a talented actress and her storyline was, while not the best subplot, way, way, way better than "evil Sandy" or Rebecca/Carter.