On paper, it seemed like a home run.
Beautiful, young rich people with problems; a brooding juvenile from the wrong side of the tracks; a wry Jewish kid who felt alienated by his surroundings; sex, betrayal, death, wealth, drugs, drama; and water polo. Yet, when The OC premiered on the US's Fox network in 2003, the network had low hopes for the teen soap.
For one, it debuted as part of Fox's summer programming, traditionally a dumping ground for re-runs, wrestling and long-running shows on their last legs. Secondly, the show starred three unknown young actors: Benjamin McKenzie, Adam Brody, and Mischa Barton. (Summer Roberts was initially meant to be a bit player in the series before Rachel Bilson quickly proved herself to be indispensable.)
Although the romance of Ryan (McKenzie) and Marissa (Barton) was central to the show's early appeal, it was Adam Brody's offbeat neurotic emo Seth Cohen who became the show's beating heart. Brody's ability to carry a soap opera wasn't apparent to anyone at first, least of all the network that aired the show. He wasn't even on the original promotional poster.
While Seth Cohen quickly became the show's breakout character, it was Mischa Barton who became far and away the biggest celebrity.
Barton attended parties around the world, capitalising on the show's fame, and her newly acquired status as a fashion icon. She was named Entertainment Weekly's "It Girl" during the first year of the show, and quickly became a paparazzi favourite.
"I was living a jet-set lifestyle," she explained, years later. "There were a lot of enablers around, people to fly you around and to make it all possible.
"It was a train I could not get off of. When you're young, you can do it, but after a while, it's going to come crashing down on you."
Her waiflike figure also became the target of scorn from critics and gossip columnists, who suggested she represented an unrealistic and unhealthy role model for young teenagers obsessed with the show.
"I was really young and just had not filled out at all," she told People. "Not everybody stays the same body type. It was always, 'She's too skinny, she must be sick.' Then it was, 'She's too big.' I was never the right weight."
By 2005, Barton was sick of the media scrutiny, and the growing feeling that The OC was getting progressively sillier. Despite its cult status, the stars' growing fame and a voracious teen audience, ratings were dropping and the show was perennially at risk of cancellation.
The finale of the third season saw the program adopt a soap opera staple: the violent, untimely death of a beautiful young character. Having been run off the road by a vengeful ex-boyfriend, a car flips and explodes, but not before Ryan carries Marissa clear of the flames. Realising this is her curtain call, the pair look into each other's eyes one final time, and she dies in his arms. It was a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare, or at least 90210. It did not go down well with fans of the show, who felt cheated.
Creator and showrunner Josh Schwartz argued such a death "was always in the cards", labelling her "an inherently tragic heroine".
"Part of the Ryan/Marissa story was him trying to save her from a fate that she couldn't be rescued from," he explained, although he admits, years after the fact, he still questions his decision to kill her off.
Barton was somewhat less poetic.
"My character has been through so, so much and there's really nothing more left for her to do," she told Access Hollywood the week the finale aired.
MARISSA'S HARROWING RIDE
She wasn't wrong.
Season one of The OC had seen Schwartz burn through storylines at an incredible pace, partly in fear that the rather unorthodox program wouldn't make it past the first season, and partly due to inexperience. At 26, he was the youngest showrunner in American television history.
The first season saw Barton's character fall in love with a tearaway, help raze a mansion, battle alcoholism, overdose on pills in Mexico, catch her boyfriend Luke cheating twice (once with her mother), lose her virginity, get caught shoplifting, become the hostage of an unhinged gun-wielding therapy patient she befriended, get blackmailed by her mother and, in the finale, be suddenly abandoned by her new boyfriend, who may or may not have impregnated another woman. All this action happened within a calendar year.
By season two she had embarked on a bisexual relationship, endured an attempted rape on a beach, and shot somebody. By season three, they was nowhere for Marissa Cooper to go.
"We were burning through story so fast," Schwartz admitted to MTV some years later. "That made it really fun for audiences who were watching, but that made it challenging for us when we had to come back in following seasons. But that first season, I think that was part of the fun of the ride. We just went for it."
Although fans were outraged at Marissa' death — many commentators retrospectively cite it as the moment where the show jumped the shark — Barton herself was happy to have a dramatic exit.
"I was really excited that I get to die, to be honest," she told Newsweek. "I've done pretty much everything else with the character. It was better than one of those lame farewells."
She's also made clear it was her choice to leave.
"I think I just got to the point where I was like, 'I'm not sure I'm enjoying this anymore,'" Barton told ABC in 2016.
"I just felt like I was in a machine and I couldn't really get off. So it was time to step back."
At the time of her departure, rumours flew that she had been fired for being difficult on set, charges that both Barton and Schwartz deny. Still, comments by Schwartz suggest the decision may not have been solely Barton's.
"It was a 100 per cent a creative decision for the show," Schwartz said, "and it was born out of both feeling creatively like it was the direction the show needed to head and also, quite frankly, a function of needing to do something big to shake up the show at the end of that third season."
Schwartz also freely admits the decision was also a ploy to ensure the show would be picked up by Fox for a fourth season, after three years of diminishing returns. "But Mischa showed up every day and did her job and did a great job and worked really hard, so it had nothing to do with her," he said.
Despite all parties' insistence that her departure wasn't acrimonious, stories of onset dramas followed her during her post-OC years.
Speaking to People in 2013, Barton admits she didn't handle the instant fame that came with the show. "Almost overnight it was like this switch has been turned on," she explained. "It was like this fascination switch on all of us, aimed especially at me."
As the show quickly defied expectations and became a phenomenon, the pressure fell onto the shoulders of the four young stars. "Everybody was depending on me," Barton said. "I asked to get out of (promotional) jobs all the time, and the response was, 'No, you have to.' There's an attitude that you can't say no."
BARTON'S 'TERRIFYING' POST-OC BREAKDOWN
After Barton left The OC in 2006, things went downhill in her personal life. In her career, she was making quite considered film choices. She played alongside Parker Posey, Paul Rudd and Danny DeVito in indie flick The Oh in Ohio in 2006, and garnered praise in 2007 for her performance in Richard Attenborough's final film Closing The Ring.
She was busy in 2007. Virgin Territory was an expensive flop that aimed somewhere between American Pie and Twilight, but she scored a massive UK box office hit with St Trinians, a comedy based on a classic British comedy strip. The film starred Russell Brand, Colin Firth and Rupert Everett, and remains one of the biggest UK box office successes of the past 30 years.
In 2007, Barton was also arrested for drink-driving and driving without a licence, and was ordered into rehab by the court.
In July, 2009, things really got out of control.
Barton's parents and friends attempted to stage an intervention, scared she was in too precarious a state to appear in New York for an appearance. She took a bunch of sedatives to deal with this, and woke up a few hours later in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Confused and erratic, she threatened and fought staff members, and tried to leave. She was strapped to a gurney, after which she threatened to take her own life. She was committed to the psych ward for four days under section 5150 of California's Welfare and Institutions Code, which permits temporary involuntary psychiatric hold.
"It was terrifying. Straight out of Girl, Interrupted," Barton said.
She admits now to having "a full-on breakdown" because she was overworked and depressed.
"I was never suicidal. But one slip of the tongue in a heightened moment and you find yourself in that situation," she said.
She entered the ward "deeply hurt" and left realising the extent of her condition. "I accepted this was time I needed to be away from work, my family and all the pressure. I had been through the wringer," she said.
She later declared it as an "eye opener".
She bounced from Paris to London to Hollywood and New York, taking various low-key roles in theatre, modelling and independent films. In 2013, Barton launched her own line of clothing, cosmetics and accessories, named Mischa's Place, and won over the Los Angeles Times the following year with her "standout" performance as an "alluring, broken young woman" in the drama Starcrossed.
Most of her work since 2010 has been in independent horror films.
"I literally became obsessed with that genre," she said of this shift. "Suddenly I got really into all this automatic writing, paranormal sh*t; real stories of people who have been haunted. I don't know why; a switch flicked, and I really wanted to do these creepy movies."
She continued to stumble in her personal life. Last January, police responded to a disturbance call to find Barton in her backyard, ranting and yelling incoherently about the end of the world. She was taken to hospital, as the video circulated the gossip sites. "I was informed by their staff that I had been given GHB," Barton said in a statement a week after the event.
The following month, Barton found herself in further trouble when she drove a removalist truck into a condo. She is still embroiled in legal battles with U-Haul over the crash, who have seized the items she had in the truck at the time of the accident.
MISCHA'S NEXT MOVE
All of this drama, however, pales in comparison to Barton's latest move.
Now, you'll have to bear with us for a minute while we explain this. Mischa Barton is set to star on reality show The Hills: New Beginnings, which is (deep breath) a reboot of The Hills, which was spun off from Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, a reality show inspired by the popularity of The OC.
This is a bold move for Barton in that it marks her first leap into the world of reality television, a world that bolstered the socialites she once partied with: the Hiltons, the Kardashians, Nicole Richie. The crucial difference of her being an actor first meant Barton was one step removed from the aforementioned celebrities, but now she is letting the cameras in, so to speak. She is leaning into the perception of her as a socialite. Or maybe she is just down to taking previously spurned offers on such reality shows.
It's probably a brilliant career move. While she claimed to have been possessed by the run of independent horror films she starred in recently, it's likely her dip in status that drove those career choices.
The Hills: New Beginnings will attract loyal viewers of the original, and voyeurs interested in Barton. It will arguably be the highest profile thing she does for her career since The OC.
It also might be a good move to let the public get to know her. If anyone thinks of Barton's personality at all, they picture only the tabloid headlines and the TMZ videos and lump her in with the Olsens and the Lohans. The show might be a chance to reshape this image.
It's a far better career move than ploughing trucks into buildings, or starring in yet another low-budget horror flick. After all, Barton's life is probably very interesting. I suppose we're about to see.
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