‘We were pinned as the bitches’: the OC and 90210 stars reclaiming their voices

There is nothing new about a nostalgic TV reunion. In the last year we’ve seen televisual specials reunite actors from Friends, New Girl and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for emotional chats and table reads of episodes past. There are cast-led rewatch podcasts like Fake Doctors, Real Friends – hosted by the Scrubs stars Zach Braff and Donald Faison – or West Wing Weekly and Office Ladies (about the US Office). But, often, they are bathed in a cosy glow. They fail to lift the lid on the shows’ darker side. They avoid raising problematic issues that call into question the ethics of the industry they work in.

This is not true when it comes to the wave of podcasts that have brought together the casts of 00s teen shows. Years spent portraying the breakups, makeups, hedonistic parties and burgeoning sex lives of teenagers – in hits such as The OC and 90210 – have made way for audio series in which their casts discuss the good and the bad of adolescent stardom.

For 90210’s AnnaLynne McCord and Shenae Grimes-Beech, deconstructing their elite Beverly Hills high school characters in painstaking detail held no appeal. Instead, Unzipped is billed as the pair reuniting “older, wiser and more outspoken than ever”.

“We have a lot of opinions and we want to ask questions that will probably get us in trouble and have a conversation around them,” says McCord. “We were in that last wave before social media really hit and we were spoken for, rather than having our own voices, a lot of the time.”

Being able to tell their tale via a podcast is particularly important for these one-time teen stars, given that the 00s was the peak of tabloid mania, when young female celebrities in particular were chased by paparazzi and blogged about on sites such as TMZ and Perez Hilton. A perceived wrong move – anything from an outfit to a new partner – seemed like it could end their careers.

Grimes-Beech, who was 18 when she began filming 90210, describes the intensity of the time. “I had really gotten into a place of depression,” she says. “I felt like I was being watched all the time.” In one episode of the podcast, she describes “having the shit ripped out of us [by the press] because we were at the club”. By season two, she was a hermit. “I was like: ‘I’m just not going to leave my apartment. I will just be as boring as possible so everybody leaves me alone.’”

Today, however, the pair are playing the media at their own game. Knowing that people would tune in “because they were familiar with 90210”, McCord and Grimes-Beech’s first episode was a deep dive into their years-long feud. Meanwhile, countless headlines have emerged from the One Tree Hill podcast Drama Queens. Downloaded 2.5m times in the days after its release, it features Sophia Bush, Hilarie Burton Morgan and Bethany Joy Lenz discussing uncomfortable age gaps, “ssorg” kissing scenes (that is gross spelt backwards) and how they had to “turn up the sexy” to keep up with The OC.

There is, of course, another podcast that lets you peer into the world of The OC – only to realise that the cast weren’t too far removed from its wide-eyed, hormone-fuelled teen viewers, as they grew up before our eyes. Welcome to the OC, Bitches! is co-hosted by Rachel Bilson, who played the assumed airhead – and actual intellectual – Summer Roberts in The OC. She revisits the show alongside co-host Melinda Clarke – who played Julie Cooper, the mother of Mischa Barton’s character, Marissa. It is a look at the music, fashion, writing and iconic moments (Chrismukkah, anyone?) of the show, in which it becomes clear that Bilson remembers entertainingly little about the four seasons she spent working on it, appparently learning much of the trivia for the first time.

When I ask if there was ever a desire to leave The OC in the past, Clarke references her co-stars: “I know Adam [Brody] and Ben [McKenzie] have said publicly that they really wanted to distance themselves from the show.” (Brody said recently that he “cannot bear” to watch it, comparing his character Seth Cohen to a “chipmunk Vince Vaughn”). Indeed, a key feature of these throwback podcasts is listeners realising that the bonds between the cast aren’t as tight as we might have assumed.

In one episode, Bilson and Clarke discuss Barton’s open letter, published last June, in which she described how unhappy she was while working on the series. The pair say they were “confused” by her admissions. “I’m willing to hear what she has to say and actually have a conversation … everyone had a different experience,” says Bilson. Although they haven’t reached out to Barton personally, Clarke says that “there always will be an open invitation for her to come on the show”.

Another podcast looks at the complexity of being known predominantly for one role. British actor April Pearson’s Instagram Live series turned podcast Are You Michelle From Skins? leans into her association with the E4 series. She quizzes notable people – among them Les Dennis, the Harry Potter twins James and Oliver Phelps and other Skins actors – on life as “that person from …” She says that, when she admitted during a conversation with fellow Skins alumna Laya Lewis to feeling “unprotected” in sex scenes, the subsequent news reports, a statement from Channel 4 and an apology from the show’s creators were unexpected – and unwanted.

“It was two colleagues discussing their experience at work,” she says. “I felt like there was no sort of salacious gossip or something that needed to be expanded on … It was a decade ago.”

At the time – before intimacy coordinators and #MeToo – Skins was glorified and chastised for putting its teenage cast in eye-watering scenarios. But Pearson seems equally frustrated by the reaction to her admission. “We paint a rose-tinted picture of everything being fine. And then suddenly when someone says: ‘Actually, it wasn’t,’ it’s that kind of shock and horror.” (Although yet to be discussed on Drama Queens, One Tree Hill has had its own reckoning; 18 women, including the three lead actresses, have made sexual harassment allegations against its creator, Mark Schwahn.)

Is the fact that these podcasts are all hosted by the leading women of their shows a coincidence? Pearson thinks not. “The representation of women has not aged well,” she says of The OC and 90210. “Those are really good starting points for interesting conversations that other women want to listen to, and that will make them feel seen.”

It also spells a new chapter for an era often linked with diva behaviour and unattainable celebrity, allowing listeners to directly engage with the actors, perhaps for the first time. Clarke, whose character is at times a questionable mother, has noticed that fans who have become parents since they first watched the show see her in a new light. “[So many] people have said: ‘When I originally watched the show, I hated your character … Now that I’m older, Julie’s right.’”

“It’s interesting,” says Bilson. “Rewatching the show, you see that they’re really strong and independent and actually good examples in lots of ways, even though they were pinned as the bitches.”

As a result of gen Z connecting with Skins, Pearson – who “spent so much time thinking I’m the only person from the cast of Skins who hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar or appeared in Game of Thrones” – has found an unexpected TikTok fanbase. “I am a woman in her 30s who has half a million followers,” she says. She credits them for understanding Michelle as “a very impressionable young woman … [who] feels that the only way to be someone is to be attractive to the opposite sex”.

“I feel vindicated for the 15 years that I’ve spent having to stick up for a fictional character who people just haven’t been able to relate to. I think that’s completely down to the change in the conversation around women and how far we’ve come. I’m really happy about that.”

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