Breakups That Broke Us is a weekly column about the failed celebrity relationships that convinced us love is dead. 

By Isabel Jones
Updated Mar 24, 2020 @ 10:00 am
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When I heard that First Couple of The O.C., Rachel Bilson and Adam Brody, had broken up in real life, I felt true despair. Did I personally know either of them? Nope. Did I know literally anything about their relationship other than that it was now over and it had started at some point in the show’s first season? Negative. And yet the bond I felt to these people (proctored via a small TV screen in my poster-strewn childhood bedroom) was incredibly strong.

As a middle schooler in the year 2005, TV was life. I owned a collection of over 20 DVD season box sets lined up alphabetically along my shelves. I was a socially awkward and painfully uncoordinated tween living in a town that seemingly revolved around track meets and soccer games, but I didn’t mind missing out on a party or extracurricular because I had something better: The O.C.

The opening bars of Phantom Planet’s “California” were like a lullaby for my neurotic 11-year-old mind. The feelings of social anxiety that weighed on me every day at school would fade away as I gave in to the familiar drama faced by my Newport Beach besties: Ryan (Ben Mckenzie), Marissa (Mischa Barton), Seth (Adam Brody), and Summer (Rachel Bilson).

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These four teens (most of whom were played by actors who were well into their 20s while filming) were the coolest people alive. They made self-referential jokes! They wore overpriced Lacoste polos! They had sex! Yes, I was aware (to some degree, at least) that my best friends in the world were fictional characters, but they felt so damn real. Adding to the suspension of my disbelief was the fact that the actors who played the series’ core couple, Seth and Summer, were dating in real life.

Seth was the hot, funny comic book nerd, Summer the prom queen with a sense of humor and a heart of gold. Together, they were this Jewish Oregonian’s ultimate fantasy of the ensuing high school years (me being the hot comic book nerd — hold the “hot” and the “comic book”).

When their relationship moved offscreen as well, I failed to see a divide between the quirky rich SoCal kids and their (likely similarly wealthy) real-life counterparts. I mean, I knew little to nothing about the actual actors (this was B.I. — before Instagram), and I knew everything about their characters. I imagined that Bilson and Brody used a bagel guillotine to slice their morning breakfast while discussing the power of Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows; I imagined they left set, played Death Cab for Cutie on their iHome and puzzled over future plotlines; I imagined they laughed together over Brody’s culturally relevant quips at a local Jamba Juice. There was safety in the real-life extension of the fictional world I inhabited after school most evenings.

Here’s what was actually known about Bilson and Brody: They shared a pit bull named Penny Lane and an affinity for stripes. Period.

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Co-star relationships rarely ever work — The O.C. even poked some meta fun at the idea in the show’s first season when Summer met her teen soap opera idol, Grady Bridges, and found out he was dating his co-star (“Wait, you two are dating? God, don't you think that's a bad idea? I mean, what if things don't work out and you guys break up? I mean, isn't that bad for the show?”). The ironic gag turned into a prophecy. After nearly three years together, Brody and Bilson split in late 2006 (and reportedly agreed to share custody of Penny Lane). “It was a typical romance and they just grew apart,” a source told People at the time. Mere weeks after the breakup made headlines, The O.C. was canceled, its fourth season its last.

I’m not sure which news hit me harder: Bilson and Brody’s end, or The O.C.’s. Both sort of coexist in a moment of terror I remember facing while curling my hair (with my flat iron, early aughts girls represent), the evening news a faint murmur in the background. I heard “The O.C.” and “canceled” and audibly gasped. As though the breakup of my favorite living couple (barring my parents, maybe) wasn’t enough, now my favorite show would be leaving me to navigate middle school alone.

It turned out that I was able to maintain my fervent fandom without a new episode each Thursday, or a real-life couple to root for (but that’s a different story).

For years later, I hoped against all reason that Bilson and Brody would reunite. But not unlike me and my DVD box set collection, the actors moved on — Bilson to Hayden Christensen, and then another hot, funny nerd: Bill Hader; Brody to fellow teen drama alum Leighton Meester.

In the summer of 2019, the universe blessed us (read: ME) with a glorious, albeit blurry, reunion:

If only in my mind, the ballad of Seth and Summer plays on and on.

Breakups That Broke Us is a weekly column about the failed celebrity relationships that convinced us love is dead.