The holidays are going to be different this year. It’s a fact, unfortunately, as state governments have all loosened these restrictions through the summer, and it has come back to bite us in the butt.
Since moving here, I’ve spent nearly every holiday in Orange County with my family. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter - they are the only family I have out here in California that isn’t my chosen family, and now I get the chance to see my cousins grow up and be there for the holidays that we didn’t get to spend together as I grew up in Texas. I get to see my grandmother, and spend these holidays with her.
This is the first year ever that is just not safe to do that. Even through fires and storms, I’ve made that trek down south. Even as millions of Americans are flying out of town for the holidays, it’s not safe for me to drive a little over an hour to Orange County to see my family. I could bring the virus to any of them in Huntington Beach, or I could bring it back with me due to that city’s refusal to adhere to most restrictions. Mostly because of those other Americans disregarding CDC recommendations that we all stay home for the holidays. That we avoid our family gatherings at Thanksgiving so that we are safe at Christmas and New Year’s, and for next year’s holidays.
I know technology doesn’t replace the feeling of hugs and being surrounded by people you only get to see once a year due to busy lives, doesn’t replace sharing stories and jokes over a table and a meal, but Zoom and FaceTime are there for a reason, and it’s time to use them to our disposal. Even if it’s just sharing a piece of pie virtually.
Just down the road from where I would’ve been spending this holiday is Newport Beach, and I can still visit that part whenever I want - albeit fictionally. As American as disregarding recommendations and putting our fellow people in danger, there are television episodes that put their characters in their own Thanksgiving conflicts, and my favorite one is in the first season of The OC, “The Homecoming.”
The OC premiered when I was a freshman in high school, and ended the same year I graduated. It was my high school show. It was soapy and oftentimes terrible, but that first season - where Fox kept adding episodes to their order that the showrunner and writers weren’t prepared to write - is truly remarkable. It helped bring back the primetime teen drama, it was just before ratings started to dip, and ended just before the Writer’s Strike that hurt so many other shows during that time. I hardly actually related to any of the characters, but I loved them all the same, mostly because my own family was located just up the street in Orange County - and I knew that the Newport Beach and Chino Hills shown in the series were not that way in real life.
The show is centered on Ryan Atwood, a teenager from a seedy part of town and a family that doesn’t really care about him. Ryan gets adopted by his one time lawyer Sandy Cohen and his wife Kirsten, who live in Newport, after his mom and her latest boyfriend abandon him. The Cohens already have a son, Seth, who has been an only child and an outcast in his school because he’s the nerdy kid. Okay, maybe I related to Seth the most.
“The Homecoming” is, of course, the Cohens’ first Thanksgiving with Ryan as a part of their family, and the first time Ryan goes back to Chino since the first two episodes of the series. He gets a call from his brother Trey, who is currently in jail for stealing a car, and is asked to come visit. While Ryan is doing that, showing his new girlfriend Marissa his old neighborhood, the Cohens back in Newport are dealing with their first world problems of uninvited guests and Seth trying to make out with two girls that he likes without either girl finding out. Spoiler alert: they both find out.
It’s incredibly soapy, but charming. Every actor plays every scene without the sort of disingenuous twinkle that some of those soap operas can get. They treat it seriously, because the adults are all serious actors. Peter Gallagher, Tate Donovan, Melinda Clarke, Alan Dale, Kelly Rowan - a laundry list of great and under-appreciated talents that carry the show when things get too teenager-y. And they all look like they are having fun with the material. All of the over the top drama is balance by comedy as the characters lament about how ridiculous their lives are. It’s self-aware in a way that most dramas like that weren’t.
This episode is 17 years old (god, it’s a teenager itself) and I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve watched it. The jokes are still good, the characters still lovable or loathsome, the drama still juicy. Even as I know every beat, every commercial break, it’s a source of comfort. It’s a Thanksgiving I never had, this type of drama, and I’m thankful for that in itself. While I love looking into the window of this fictional Orange County - I am thankful for my own version. The episode itself is even about keeping the things you love in your old life, like Trey and his ex-girlfriend Theresa, and settling into your new life, with your chosen family.
So even as I settle with the fact that I cannot spend time with my actual OC family, I am able to spend time with my fictional OC family - thanks to technology and streaming services like HBOMax. I will FaceTime my grandmother and talk about our plans and tell her how much I miss her and wish I were sitting next to her in Huntington Beach, and I will watch “The Homecoming” probably more than once in the coming 24 hours, while I have dinner with my boyfriend, and his mom and brother - the side of my family that I can spend time with.
After this year of trauma, of incredible hardships and drama in real life, I am thankful that we’re all healthy and able to spend time with each other. That we’re safe, and cared for, and that I am able to step away and watch a little bit of fake Thanksgiving too.