On the Miskatonic University Podcast, at around the 1 hour and 23 minute mark of the August 4 edition, you can hear a skeptical discussion of H2’s pseudo-history program America Unearthed and my coverage of the show: “It’s sort of an angry blog. He blogs about it angrily.” No, not angrily—I blog somewhere between disappointed and outraged. But as I am about to discuss, it almost never happened at all. I almost became an entertainment journalist. Can you imagine?
This is somewhat off topic, but it has been ten years since The O.C. premiered on Fox, August 5, 2003. The teen-oriented soap opera became a pop culture phenomenon, and it also provided me with my first writing job after college, indirectly contributing to my current work. When I graduated in May 2003, I had hopes of entering journalism, but I quickly discovered that the news media were not interested in me. My hometown newspaper—in the town where I lived for two decades, mind you—told me that I wasn’t as qualified to cover local news as what they claimed were a line of graduates from Harvard and Yale desperate for entry level reporting gigs. TV and radio similarly informed me that more prestigious graduates were preferred.
In August 2003, I joined an online TV reviewing company that had plans at the time to become a pop culture clearinghouse. The company, which no longer exists, eventually merged with another company and vanished into the mists of the internet. My first assignment with the new firm was to review the pilot of The O.C., which I did shortly after its premiere. These were the days before Television Without Pity or The A.V. Club, and the company was, I think, one of the few places reviewing shows episodically at the time. If I recall correctly, they were experimenting with reviews and recaps at the time, having originally provided only a bare-bones episode summary before this. Exactly what “review” or “recap” would mean was still in flux.
I would tell you exactly what I said about the show, but the website is gone now, and my copies of my reviews are stored on CD-ROM in a box somewhere. (Remember them? It was ten years and about four computers ago.) I remember liking the pilot very much, and I thought that it came as close to a perfect one-hour teen movie as I had seen. I was concerned, though, that the pilot was so well-done that it left no more story to tell, and four seasons of essentially repeating the pilot confirmed this judgment. I don’t think The O.C. ever did anything that wasn’t prefigured or already dealt with in the pilot.
I reviewed half of the first season of The O.C. before I left the company.
There were two reasons for the split. First, I thought that to be worth reading, my episode reviews needed to go beyond simply summarizing the plot and instead offer some kind of analysis and insight. The company, however, found the act of analysis to be too negative, and they brought in a second reviewer to write a happier, most positive review. The new reviewer was a young woman still in her teens, and she gushed over the program in appropriately emotional terms, especially how hot the actors were.
The second reason was that I had more ambition than the company did. In September 2003, I proposed collecting together episode reviews, interviews, and ancillary material and packaging it together as a book, which I likened at the time to a Zagat’s Guide for TV shows. I thought that if successful it would be a lucrative way to recycle the company’s content and turn reviews into a secondary revenue source. I proposed serving as editor of these books and coordinating the additional content to supplement the reviews. Remember, this was before the iPad, Kindle, and eBooks, when most reading was still done in print. I also discussed the possibility of e-publishing such material.
My boss loved the idea, and I worked on coordinating some interviews with The O.C. cast, including show star Ben McKenzie, and the production team. It would have been my first big interview and a chance to produce something that larger publications might notice. Then the bad news came. Unfortunately, my boss’s boss (the company’s owner) felt that there was no market for such material and never would be. At the time there were no detailed guides to current TV shows in print, and who would ever need such a thing or be interested in reading more about a TV show? Apparently I was a few years too early. If only Lost had premiered a year earlier; then things might have been different. I’m sure you recognize my book plan as essentially the same one I’ve followed for all of my books since. The Cult of Alien Gods originated in a series of articles I wrote for my old website, and more recently my Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed books have done for alternative history programs exactly what I had proposed to do for The O.C. a decade before. Today, of course, TV tie-ins are big business, and you can find shelves of books devoted to The Vampire Diaries, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and more.
It quickly became obvious, though, that my idea of what a reviewer should do and how that content should be delivered differed from the company’s, and I exited the firm at the end of the year, right around The O.C.’s holiday break, if I recall correctly. I moved on and began work at the New York State Museum, where I worked on the new World Trade Center exhibit. The company continued to use my replacement reviewer through the end of the TV season, and I believe that’s right around the time they started making major changes to their online content, the first of many overhauls that led to the company’s eventual end. But it’s been ten years, and my memory is a little fuzzy.
My time reviewing The O.C. was not without its benefits, though. First, as a bona fide pop culture writer, I was able to use this credential to help convince Prometheus Books to take a chance on my Cult of Alien Gods the next year. Secondly, I learned through the grapevine (I won’t say how in case those involved are reading this) that the producers and writers of The O.C. had been reading my reviews in the early months of the show and reflected some of my criticisms in the direction of late season one episodes. Something I said in my review of the pilot must have struck a nerve because near the end of the show’s run, the Cohen family stage an intervention for Ryan (Ben McKenzie) in which they presented a PowerPoint presentation about the many ways he had improved their lives. In describing how the family was before Ryan came, they all but quoted word-for-word from my review of the pilot, including specific terminology I had used in describing the characters. In an interview later on, the show’s last executive producer (if I remember correctly…it might have been the writer) said that they had purposely gone back and re-read early reviews and online comments.
Therefore, I look back on The O.C. with affection. I’m still sore that cancelling the book cost me the chance to interview Ben McKenzie. That would have been much more fun than interviewing Giorgio Tsoukalos, which I had done the year before, and it could have opened some doors to a different line of work. Who wouldn’t have rather covered red carpet events than listen to YouTube rants about aliens? Ah, well, were it not for the failure of my O.C. reviews and book, I would never have returned to ancient astronauts and alternative history, and you wouldn’t be reading this website. Of course, if my plans had succeeded, I might have been a pop culture journalist and writer, and I might be making money off of it today. So my loss is history’s gain.
“Welcome to the H2, bitch. This is how we do it in cable television.”
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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