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I admit it: I followed “The O.C.” fervently during its first season, when Ryan was still a tough guy from Chino, Seth was still a videogame-playing geek, and Marissa and Summer were still hard-drinking, unattainable rich girls. (Plus, the theme song was rather catchy.)

Even though I stopped watching during the second season, when plotlines started getting preposterous and other TV shows found their way into my heart, I tuned in last night for the last hurrah of the Cohens and the Coopers.

Despite missing three years’ worth of character and story development, I found myself easily absorbed in the finale, which was light-hearted, touching, and surprisingly poignant. Gone were the backstabbing, the affairs, and the gossip. Instead, the softer and mature sides of each character were highlighted.

Post-earthquake, everyone’s future in Newport Beach is uncertain, especially as Ryan prepares to attend Berkeley College, Seth and Summer prepare to move in together, Julie plans for her wedding to a man called “The Bullit,” and Sandy and Kirsten prepare for the birth of their daughter and consider moving out of their house.

Everyone in the episode comes together, offering rare moments of honesty, sacrifice, and support for each other. While visiting UC Berkeley, Ryan and Seth also visit the first house the Cohens lived in, the house they were the happiest. Though they fail to convince the same-sex couple living there to sell, the boys are not discouraged.

Meanwhile, Julie Cooper and Kaitlin share a tender mother-daughter exchange. In a rare moment of honesty, Julie reveals the real father of her upcoming baby while Kaitlin shows genuine concern for her mother’s future.

On the wedding day, Julie shares another heartfelt moment with Summer. As Summer wonders if she is making the right decision to live with Seth, Julie confesses she regrets having married so young, never attending college and pursuing her own dreams. After she advises Summer to pursue her own life first, Summer gifts her with a locket holding a picture of Marissa. Both share a tearful moment that even brought me to tears because the scene was genuinely moving.

Back in Berkeley, the four Cohens are trying their best to buy their original house when Kirsten goes into labor. In Newport, when Julie discovers her best friend won’t be at the wedding, she makes a thoughtful, emergency decision to have the wedding at Berkeley. While in the middle of the ceremony, the real father of Julie’s baby interrupts the wedding and offers a chance to alter Julie’s future, but she decides to stay single.

Afterwards, in a huge moment of sacrifice, the same-sex couple agree to sell the Berkeley house after seeing how much history and memories the Cohens had with it. Summer decides to pursue a temporary life of environmental activism, at Seth’s encouragement, and Seth moves to Providence on his own. Ryan takes one last tour of the Newport home, his mind flashing back to all the memories he associates with each room and with Marissa.

Flashing a few years forward, we see more of what happens to each character: Seth and Summer finally get married in a Jewish wedding ceremony, Julie graduates from college, Sandy is a professor teaching law, and Ryan has a steady management job at a construction company. To bring the show back full-circle, we see Ryan noticing a young rough-and-tumble boy who is a reminder of his past life. In a “pay it forward” moment, Ryan asks the boy if he needs help, and the tumultuous four seasons of “The O.C.” end on a hopeful, satisfying note that offers the inspiration of being able to change your own life and make it better for the future.

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