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That time The OC took an alternate universe cue from It's a Wonderful Life

By Emma Fraser
The OC

There are certain times of the year when non-genre TV shows choose to bend the rules of reality. Halloween is one such occasion, when metaphorical ghosts transform into real ones. Taking it up a notch is the festive season, doubling down on miracles and scenarios that would otherwise seem outlandish or nonsensical.

Teen shows have a propensity for turning to genre when wanting to convey an allegorical message. Felicity briefly became Twilight Zone-lite when exploring the titular character’s romantic dilemma, while ghosts haunted Dawson Leery and his pals as they worked through relationship drama. There is also an element of throwing it all against the wall in a bid to inject some excitement into a longer-running series, which is how The OC transformed its annual holiday episode into an It’s A Wonderful Life-inspired outing.

According to Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), Chrismukkah is the “greatest super-holiday known to mankind.” Marrying elements of both Christmas and Hanukkah, Seth pays homage to his parents’ Jewish and WASP backgrounds by “drawing on the best that Christianity and Judaism have to offer.” The first Chrismukkah episode featured Summer (Rachel Bilson) in a Wonder Woman costume as a gift to the comic book-obsessed Seth, but it is the final season entry that truly ticks the sci-fi boxes. 

The OC

The OC began with Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) coming to live with the Cohen family after his public defender Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher) invited him to stay in their palatial Orange County mansion. A troubled but gifted teen, Ryan’s impact on this family is emphasized in “The Chrimukk-huh?” Pulling a Frank Capra, The OC imagines a world in which Ryan's path never crossed with the Cohens. Ryan isn’t visited by an angel called Clarence during his moment of personal crisis, dreaming of wings. Rather, while he is hanging Christmas lights, he gets into an argument with Taylor Townsend (Autumn Reeser) about their dating status and the two fall off a ladder simultaneously. Their hands clasped together signify something magical is about to happen. At the hospital, the doctor informs Kirsten Cohen (Kelly Bishop) that while neither exhibits a brain injury, they are stuck in a mysterious slumber.

Just like the slightly different version of the "California" theme song that opens this episode, the parallel universe looks a lot like the Newport Beach of their reality, but with some major changes. No one recognizes Ryan and his adopted family are no longer together, while Seth is the whiniest version of himself and his parents have divorced. Sandy is mayor, which leads to a fun photoshopped reference to the state's governor at the time. It is a nightmare scenario that Ryan can’t quite fathom. Luckily for him, Taylor had a sci-fi phase in 10th grade and speaks fluent alternate universe. She believes they have been sent there to fix something or someone, and they won’t be able to return home until their mission is complete.

The OC

A fade to white denotes the different timelines, cutting between the hospital in the real world and the Newport of Ryan and Taylor’s shared dream. Just like Jimmy Stewart’s Christmas Eve adventure, the world in which Ryan doesn’t exist is far worse. Financial ruin isn’t what troubles Ryan; instead, he has just received a letter from beyond the grave. This isn’t The OC doubling down on the genre elements with Mischa Barton reprising her ghostly-vom role from The Sixth Sense, but rather a case of delayed mail that packs an emotional gut punch. Barton left The OC at the end of its third season, after her character Marissa was killed in a car crash as she was leaving for a new adventure. Wracked with guilt, Ryan is stuck in his grief, unable to move on. Receiving this letter just before the accident informs his alt-universe endeavor.

Josh Schwartz’s adolescent characters are hyper-aware of pop culture, with Seth most often leading the meta-reference charge. In the real world, he explains to his father that the reason neither Taylor nor Ryan is waking up is that they are trapped in a parallel timeline. Sandy politely plays along, citing The Wizard of Oz while Seth lays out the scenarios they could be facing: "Could be like our world, only messed up. They’ve got to reset the balance. ... Or could be a world ruled by giant vegetables and they’ve got to topple the vegetable despot before they can come back." Meanwhile, Alt-Seth doesn’t blink when Ryan explains he is from a different version of Newport. In fact, he is overjoyed: “I always knew this would happen.”

The OC

Considering Seth’s love of comic books, it is fitting the final Chrismakkuh is one that leans into a plot device that has featured in so many superhero stories. Seth doesn’t take center stage, but to have the more skeptical Ryan experiencing peace during this holiday period is a true Chrismakkuh miracle.

Fixing the Cohen marriage and getting Summer and Seth together isn’t the reason Ryan is there; he needs to address the byproduct of his absence. He blames himself for Marissa’s death back home, but she isn’t magically alive in this Bizarro World Newport. In this universe, she died three years earlier in a Tijuana alley because Ryan wasn’t there to save her (as he did in Season 1). He doesn’t see this as much of a consolation, but Sandy points to this moment as to when everything fell apart, when "everybody got stuck.”

The OC

Grief and guilt are a potent mix, and Marissa’s letter heightens these emotions for Ryan. There is nothing more festive in television than a healthy dose of self-flagellation (for another example of this, see the Season 3 Christmas episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Forgiveness is sometimes a gift we have to give ourselves.

The letter turns back the clock to the day Marissa left, and its contents emphasize her personal reasons for departing, absolving him of blame. It is a neat way out — but it is the holidays, after all, so one can forgive the contrived nature of this message. 

The OC

Of course, Ryan and Taylor wake from their “bogus coma” — Taylor finally standing up to her awful mother is the act that frees her from this alt-universe — but they can't recall the details of this shared adventure. Nevertheless, they don't need to remember to be left with a sense that they've each overcome a huge personal obstacle.

Festive episodes give shows the bandwidth to explore the fantastical because the holidays are a time of year when make-believe comes to life. In embracing this aspect, the writers can explore character emotions in a way that would usually be off limits. Genre-bending narratives using a well-worn format such as this offer up a road-not-traveled scenario from a safe distance. We know Ryan and Taylor will make it back, and what better time to do this than during Chrismukkah? "It’s got twice the resistance of any normal holiday,” Seth once observed. "The Chrismukk-huh?" proves this holiday also has twice the magic.

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