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An Appreciation of Summer Roberts: The O.C.'s Greatest Character

Women and Hollywood By Kerensa Cadenas | Women and Hollywood August 8, 2013 at 11:30AM

It's eerie to think that 10 years ago this week, I watched The O.C. huddled around a TV in my friend's parents basement. It was a show I had been anticipating all summer long--the promos promised teen angst, California sunshine, gorgeous people and glamorous parties--all of my ideal television elements.
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Rachel Bilson as Summer Roberts in The O.C.
Rachel Bilson as Summer Roberts in The O.C.

It's eerie to think that 10 years ago this week, I watched The O.C. huddled around a TV in my friend's parents basement. It was a show I had been anticipating all summer long--the promos promised teen angst, California sunshine, gorgeous people and glamorous parties--all of my ideal television elements. As a devoted teen television fan, I'm pretty accustomed to the formula by now and having dynamic and realized characters of either gender isn't always a given.

When The O.C. first aired in 2003, as creator Josh Schwartz mentions in his interview with Vulture, the show was doing things that weren't happening at the time. First, it was reintroducing the idea of the nighttime soap to primetime and it was one of the few teen dramas currently airing. Secondly, it was a teen drama that primarily focused on the male lead.

As an 18 year old, I was immediately hooked with the pilot which focused on a troubled kid from the wrong side of the tracks being immersed into the ultra-rich environment of Orange County. It had all the elements I wanted from the commercials, I was infatuated with emo-geek babe Seth Cohen and I wanted to be the gorgeously tragic Marissa. After the pilot, lesser shows could have easily copped out into typical teen stereotypes or only focusing on developing the male characters since they were actually getting the coveted teen guy audience watching.

However, The O.C. did things completely differently. It created one of the best and loving portrayals of a married couple with Kirsten and Sandy Cohen (Kelly Rowan and Peter Gallagher), the bromance between Ryan (Ben McKenzie) and Seth (Adam Brody) who never adhered solely to their initially proscribed masculine roles of "bad boy" or "nerd," and created one of the most realistic, wonderful female characters in teen television--Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson).

In the pilot, Summer doesn't register as more than the drunk, bitchy party girl best friend of Marissa. Clad in a bikini top and jean skirt, she utters a few lines. The most memorable being "Chino, EW!" after learning where Ryan actually was from. From the first viewing, it was hard to imagine her growing into much else. However by episode 7, when the group takes a road trip to Tijuana before school starts, the glimmers of Summer really start to show--she's a loyal friend to Marissa, her witty banter rivals that of love interest Seth and she has her signature "rage blackouts."

Summer quickly evolved into one of the most loved characters on the show. The bitchy party girl image was tossed aside for something more substantial upon dealing with Marissa's substance issues. In seeing her friend constantly spiral, required Summer to grow up and be the backbone of their friendship, time and time again.

Her relationship with Seth, while off and on, opened her up to looking at things from a different perspective. He was a person that she never expected to care for precisely because of the rigid social expectations high school can provide one with. They fight and banter but ultimately enriched one another for the better.

But really the most interesting aspect of Summer was that she always remained a contradiction. In season 3, she scores a 2300 on her SAT, better than anyone else, which she doesn't totally recognize. She's happy with her score and just as happy to go shopping with Marissa at the mall afterwards. After Marissa's death at the end of season 3, Summer goes to college in season 4. At Brown, she gets involved in environmental and animal rights issues. At first, she believes her newfound activism is a way to take herself out of her self-perceived shallow behaviors and also a coping mechanism for losing her best friend. After a break-in at an animal testing lab goes awry, Summer is expelled from Brown and has to head back home. There she tries to figure out how to balance both sides of herself--both the activist and the materialistic aspects. Upon reconnecting with old high school friends, Summer realized the magnitude to which she has truly changed. She still likes shopping and watching The Valley (the meta-show within a show) but wants to spend her life working on saving the environment and educating people about it.

Summer was a great character precisely because she evolved in a realistic way--from being a shallow, materialistic party girl into a politically savvy take charge bad ass. As she evolved, those aspects of her personality always remained--her take charge attitude was full force in pursuing Seth or running for prom queen and even after her political awakening in true Summer fashion, she still always referred to things with "EW!"

This article is related to: Television, Rachel Bilson, The O.C.


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