“Back Where I Started From”: California in Some Recent Television Series
“The dust of gold is in the air.” Carey McWilliams, California: The Great Exception (1949)
Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton): “Who are you?”
Ryan Atwood (Benjamin Mackenzie): “Whoever you want me to be.”
The O.C. pilot episode, 2003
The first words between Marissa Cooper and Ryan Atwood are spoken in sideway glances and blowing smoke. The characters pose, divided by a driveway on a suburban cul-de-sac, as if a fashion photographer had directed them to re-enact a famous meeting between James Dean and Natalie Wood from Rebel Without a Cause. The words they speak recall a less adolescent and less tentative encounter between a much more causeless rebel, Marlon Brando, and Mary Murphy in The Wild One. All three scenarios promising “outlaw” romance are set in California. While McWilliams’s remark seems rather romantic, in context it is put to the service of defining the way California appears as a wondrous vision that is also part deception and trickery. When The O.C. arrived on the cultural scene in 2003, California and its rebel youth had already been strip-mined for their metaphorical value many times over. Yet the program revives both by sprinkling a bit more gold dust over the landscape, with its catchy credit tune “California, here I come, back where I started from” played against a montage that includes an image of a somewhat scared and sullen Ryan looking out a car window as he leaves working-class, inland Chino for Newport Beach as well as views of tawny beaches, surfers riding waves, hillside mansions, and golden sunsets.
Yet The O.C.‘s resurrection of the golden state by resituating it in a setting of wealthy, gated communities in Orange County–rather than in the (then) middle-class L.A. homes depicted in Rebel or the central valley small-town of The Wild One–is telling and it inspired the creation of two other television programs in the same setting, the “reality shows” Laguna Beach and The Real Housewives of Orange County. The short essay that follows is a reflection–far from exhaustive–on the image of Southern California and its mythologies as presented in these programs, as well as in Veronica Mars, which provides a contemporary dystopic vision of Southern California and a (probably unintended) response to these other series.
“Whoever you want me to be.”
If the gold dust McWilliams detected in the California air, is at once a dispersal of magic that screens out the illusionary basis of the magic’s promises, Ryan’s response to Marissa summons up the contradictory paths of California’s mythic identity politics. As many cultural historians have pointed out, one of the most prevalent myths of California–sometimes meant to encompass all the American west or to be confined in particular to “Hollywood”–is the belief that it is a place for starting over, creating oneself anew. Yet, California is often scorned as a breeding ground for “phoniness,” narcissism, and a psychological insecurity that encourages conformism. Ryan’s “whoever you want me to be” is both sign of his starting over anew and his willingness to construct an identity cut to the measure of the fantasy of a young woman he might desire. The O.C. has never really delivered on the combustibility of this contradiction, but the iconicity of the pose fueled its beginnings as a series. And this tension between breaking out and being confined to the identity that others have created for you, or that you have created out of a desire to please or be accepted by others, is central to all the programs under examination. In one episode of The Real Housewives of Orange County, the middle-aged Vicki goes home to her high school reunion in Illinois, desperate–much to the displeasure of her mother–to show off the physical and psychological transformation achieved in her new life in California. The group of high school seniors in Laguna Beach anticipate the departure from the town and the clique that college away will provide them (we get to see a painful college rejection for one girl who most decries the “phoniness” of her own Laguna peer group), yet their every action and remarks on camera underscore the difficulty of achieving separation from the identity Laguna Beach provides them (in one episode some of the kids go to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico for their spring break–the place they stay is almost indistinguishable from the poolsides back home, and indeed, this city is a “sister city” to Laguna Beach’s neighbor, Newport). The heroine of Veronica Mars has fallen from the grace of the “in crowd” at her high school in (fictional) Neptune, a town somewhere on the coast between San Diego and Los Angeles. While this has given her the opportunity to break free from conformism, she chafes and rebels against their continued assumptions about who she is. The tensions I have been describing, of course, are typically associated with myths, not only of California, but also of high school. But as Rebel Without a Cause demonstrated, the settings of California and high school can mutually reinforce one another, and these programs attest to the lingering power of that mutuality. As William A. McClung has suggested, Los Angeles (and Southern California in general) has served as “an international object lesson in human immaturity, a kind of theme park of adolescence.”
Sex, Class, Race, and the Myths of California
Perhaps the surprising popularity of the The O.C. character of Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), the self-consciously neurotic son of the couple that serves as Ryan’s guardians, prevented the program from investing much in the contradictions in Ryan’s rebel pose. Relatively quickly he adopts the Cohen’s bourgeois values and despite a fistfight every now and then, he has become one of the more responsible, level-headed characters in the program. Almost without exception, any trouble that Ryan gets in ultimately only demonstrates to the Cohens et al the degree to which he has been misunderstood or scapegoated (he was right about psycho Oliver, which justified his violence; he was forced to steal that car, etc.). While this tendency allies the program with classic melodramatic patterns from 19th century novels and theater as well as 20th century film in which some of kind of closure is achieved when innocence is recognized for what it is, the shifting power relations among many of the characters–Julie Cooper (Marissa’s mother played by Melinda Clarke) or Luke (Marissa’s former boyfriend from season one played by Chris Carmack) is bad in one narrative arc only to become good in the next–is more familiar from the strategies of serialized melodramatic television, with its repetitive, often circular narrative patterns. Yet, with a California specificity. These characters, in particular, Julie, are not so much misunderstood as they are riding the waves of not just genre, but of California’s boom and bust cycles of class. Julie’s journey from trailer park soft porn performer to wife and mother in a mansion to trophy wife in an even bigger mansion to widow in a trailer park to doctor’s girlfriend in a mansion again is a compressed and heightened version of sex, class and real estate politics in southern California.
While The O.C. narratives make sense of these fundamentally television melodrama upheavals by appealing to the verisimilitude of what is assumed to be outrageous and excessive California-ness, Veronica Mars, equally melodramatic in its own way (e.g., exhibiting much more genre hybridity than The O.C.), actually connects the dots between the history of power relations in California and shameful personal behavior. Rather than chalking up embezzlement, real estate scams, and even attempted murder to the characters’ rides on the wild waves of California boom and bust cycles–and therefore allowing them to escape final blame–Veronica Mars is all about recognizing moral cause and effect and assigning blame. This should suggest that the series asserts the possibility of stable meaning, but its founding myth is violent and brutal and few people or institutions support justice. Veronica (played by Kristen Bell), in her voice-over narration, introduces Neptune as a city with no middle class–only haves and have nots (the rich and those who work for the rich or in other service-oriented jobs). In the first episode, we learn that her best friend has been murdered, her mother has left, and she has been date-raped; as the series progresses, the enemies turn out to be software millionaires, Hollywood stars, real estate brokers, city mayors, corrupt police, ignorant and prejudiced school administrators. Actually, all of these types of individuals and the institutional powers they represent have a significant place in the history of power in California, but they are also mythic figures in hard-boiled literature, film noirs, and the rebel youth narratives alluded to earlier.
Where Mars intersects the myths with the realities of California power is in its narrative interweaving of social dynamics and political stakes that cannot or will not be grasped by any one group or individual–except by Veronica, but often only belatedly–but which encompasses them all. In contrast, in the pilot episode of The O.C., Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson) provides the catalyst for Ryan’s first fist fight with wealthy O.C. boys with her “Ewww!” exclamation upon finding out that Ryan is actually from Chino, not the visiting Cohen cousin from out of state. L.C. and her friends in Laguna Beach drive to the fashion district of downtown L.A. and turn up their noses at the Latino markets which display their wares on the sidewalks (imagine!). Laurie, the divorced “real wife” of Real Housewives misses the “security” of the gated community she lost when her marriage ended. These three programs participate in varying degrees in their characters’ “othering” of racial and class difference that apparently exists “out there” in Chino, downtown L.A., or the rental and cheaper housing markets of Orange County. None of these series has had African-American, Asian, or Latino characters (at least permanent characters). This is despite the fact that Orange County’s Westminster has the largest concentration of Vietnamese anywhere outside of Saigon, and Santa Ana has one of the largest concentrations of Latinos in Southern California. From its first episode, Mars has been attentive to how “othering” is an act with political consequences–one that is engaged in, with uneven resources and effects, by every group in the community, and that is behind, and subsequently reinforced by, legalized strategies of city planners, real estate developers, and politicians.
The first episode of Veronica Mars, in addition to introducing us to Veronica’s personal (familial and romantic) problems, also sets up the wealthy white’s scapegoating of Latinos, and the Latino’s pressuring (through a kind of mock lynching) of an African-American witness to one of their crimes. The second season added a plotline–one among many!–involving one character’s drive to “incorporate” Neptune. Incorporation has a long, convoluted, and important history in Southern California politics and development. Mike Davis has argued that incorporation became a way for California towns bleeding into the edges of L.A. or Long Beach to opt out of supporting those cities through tax revenues, while contracting their county services. Davis points out that incorporation (as well as caps on property taxes through Prop 13 and regressive tax revenues, such as sales taxes) has supported white and industry flight out of Los Angeles into Orange County and the “Inland Empire” (on which Chino borders), increasing the strain of services available to non-white populations left in L.A. and other cities, while zoning policies favor single-family dwellings (not to mention the creation of gated communities). Veronica Mars positions Neptune’s potential incorporation in relation to the pedophilic past of the policy’s main booster, mayoral candidate and sports team owner Woody Goodman (played by Steve Guttenberg), and both are brought down in part by the efforts of Veronica and her father. The dilapidated apartment complex the Mars live in is at once symbol and reality of their exclusion from the circle of wealthy whites in Neptune, an allusion to the rental units literally and “legally” zoned out of wealthy enclaves in Southern California, and a mythical place for Veronica to plan her surveillance and revenge over her enemies.
Back Where I Started From
If Southern California does serve as a theme park of adolescence, these shows–especially Laguna Beach and Real Housewives–are perhaps spectacles from which we are supposed to experience schadenfreude. But they suggest the ride of youth is as much a “ride back to” as a present moment. All the series are imbued with a kind of melancholia about the past. From The O.C. credit song which designates California as “back where I started from,” to Veronica Mars’s credit song that declares “we used to be friends,” there is a past which haunts and threatens the future. Perhaps the single most compassionate line I’ve heard in a reality program in this regard was in Real Housewives: 18 year-old Shane, the son of former playmate wife Jeanna, upbraids his sister and Vicki’s daughter for deriding Vicki and her cosmetic procedures to look like she did when she was sixteen, by suggesting to them “maybe she was happy in the past.” Surprisingly, what we don’t have yet is a television program (or perhaps that is 24?) envisioning another myth of California–the apocalyptic state where the past (e.g., exploitation of the land, class and race warfare, etc.) catches up with the present. When we do, perhaps we can say about it, paraphrasing Marlene Dietrich to Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, “California [as a metaphor] has no future, it’s been all used up.
 William A. McClung, Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 65.
 Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 1990)
1. The O.C.