Things got pretty rough in Newport Beach last year.
There were shootings and beatings and college rejections. Relationships ended, businesses collapsed, offices burnt down. Characters sought solace in alcohol, cocaine and scuzzy surfers. Characters got hit by cars, thrown from cliffs and even had to visit Albuquerque. Things got so rough that Adam Brody's Seth started smoking pot as an escape; a chemical avenue wasn't necessarily open to all viewers.
The fourth season of "The O.C." will be different, promises the show's creator, Josh Schwartz.
"I think last year decisions were made that were more inspired by ratings and so sometimes, all of a sudden, people are falling off cliffs or crashing cars or what-have-you as a way to try to, like, not get cancelled," Schwartz acknowledges. "And this year, given where we are in the schedule, worrying about ratings would be ... there's no point. That was really liberating and I think with that liberation came a sense of creative freedom."
Before that creative freedom can take hold, though, Schwartz and his writing staff have to deal with a major roadblock: When we last saw outcast hero Ryan (Ben McKenzie), he was cradling the dead body of on-again-off-again-on-again-off-again love Marissa (Mischa Barton). That's the sort of thing that puts a wet blanket on any attempted levity.
"I wanted to get the show back to an earlier place, try to get back to some of the humor and heart of the show that maybe wasn't as evident last year," Schwartz says. "Obviously that was a challenge because we were coming off this major tragedy at the end of the season and how do you do those two things simultaneously? Our guiding principle was that people grieve in very strange ways. That allowed us to start the show from an active place: How do we honor this character without it being depressing or just mopey?"
But how long can fictional characters be expected to sit shiva before it's time to get back to frolicking in the surf and casual sex?
"How do you decide?" Schwartz muses, only half-kidding. "How many episodes is the right time to grieve? I consulted my rabbi."
In truth, the magic number seems to be three. For younger viewers who were furious over Marissa's death, that may not be enough time. For older viewers, sick of Marissa's endless downward spiral, it may be too much.
"We've always had an interesting bifurcated audience in that sense," Schwartz notes. "There's the younger teenage audience and then there's the older audience that we have. People watch the show for different reasons, and I think the non-teenage audience probably felt a little alienated last year with the stories we were telling and the way we were telling them."
Schwartz approaches the new season aware that many people have already written the show's obit, particularly as it airs on Thursday nights opposite "CSI" and "Grey's Anatomy."
"Obviously, it's out there." he says. "Definitely, when you're in this time slot and you've only been ordered for 16 episodes, you're aware that that's a possibility."
Just as the possibility of a bigger episode order exists if viewers return to "The O.C.," the network has promised to warn the showrunners if cancellation is, indeed, inevitable, giving Schwartz and crew the chance to resolve things in a satisfying way. But he isn't prepared to think along those lines yet.
"I've gone Zen," he laughs. "I've surrendered to that. You can't do anything about it and every show has its own challenge ahead of it. I can't control that stuff and trying to chase that number. You start off wanting to do a good show and you end up just wanting to do a 10-share. And I think the place we've all gotten to this year is like 'Screw it. Let's just have fun and do a show that audiences will enjoy.'"
So what can Schwartz reveal about the season to come? Well, Willa Holland's Caitlin will be a new regular, as will Autumn Reeser's Taylor, who plays a major role in helping Ryan overcome his grief. Tate Donovan's Jimmy Cooper will return at some point, but the abruptly departed characters played by Chris Carmack, Amanda Righetti and Shannon Luccio will not (nor, thankfully, will Taylor Handley's Oliver). Another appearance by The Nana (Linda Lavin) seems possible. The Bait Shop is closed for good, but there will be at least one naked musical performance by guest star Chris Pratt ("Everwood"), whose initial six-episode role has already been extended. And Chrismukkah will return in a "very special" episode titled "The Chrismukk-huh?"
Schwartz just wants people to tune in.
"We're going to try to employ any-means-necessary. I'm ready to go door-to-door."
"The O.C." returns to FOX on Thursday, Nov. 2 at 9 p.m. ET.