Before the CW teens started doing it so often that asking "Are you a virgin?" now feels quaint, teenage sex was mainly portrayed one of two ways on TV: as idealized, "I'm ready" love-making or grievous, "How could I have been so stupid?" sex typically resulting in an STI scare. Which is why The O.C.'s "Heartbreak" episode — a Season 1 gem set on Feb. 14 — felt so revelatory when it aired in 2004. It finally showed the kind of clumsy, embarrassing first time sex usually reserved for real life.
For those who haven't seen "The Heartbreak" in the 17 years since it aired, it picks up as Newport Beach is readying for the Valentine’s Day Singles Benefit to benefit who-knows-what. Following his split from Anna, Seth finally declares to Summer that she's "always" been the one for him, and the two spontaneously decide to consummate their relationship. Before Seth can get all weird and Cohen-y about things, Summer takes off her top. So far, so good. But cut to their next scene, and the young lovers are side-by-side in bed — not touching, barely talking. "I'm gonna go," Seth tells Summer; "Me too," she says, laying in her own bedroom. We don't see the sex in question, but Seth later tells Ryan he "was like a fish flopping around on dry land," which is enough to know that it was bad.
The episode aired just a few years after the end of 90210, on which sex was always serious and often life-changing. By the time Joey slept with Pacey on Dawson's Creek in 2001, the stakes were ratcheted down, but the gestalt of teen sex remained capital-D dramatic: in spectacular "I want it to be special" fashion, Joey tells Pacey she thinks they should use the condom in his pocket as a romantic fire crackles behind them. Things were more casual on One Tree Hill in 2003, but still cautionary. Lucas' first time ended in regret and a Very Special Episode pregnancy scare. It's The O.C. that at last depicted first times as they truly are: fast and uncomfortable.
The conversations this prompts on the show are equally relatable. When Seth cries to Ryan about blundering his first time, there's not much for him to say. “Do it again,” Ryan advises. The only way out of bad sex is through. Sandy then belatedly gives Seth "The Talk," navigating the narrow road between the Moralizing Father and the gross Attaboy Dad with ease. "We Cohens are very sexual beings," Sandy tells Seth, like a father who genuinely sees his son as a whole person. The sex itself is not aspirational, but the discussions around it — frank, helpful — certainly are.
When Seth and Summer do it again, it’s still awkward as hell — of course you can’t get magically better at sex from a pep talk. And then there's the big third act reveal: Summer was every inch the virgin that Seth was, and the responsibility for their bad sex is shared. Suddenly, the fact that she couldn't bring herself to say the word "condom" out loud makes sense. The two rushed into having sex with each other, they realize, but they didn’t rush into each other. There's no wondering if they wasted their first time on the "wrong" person; no arguments or breakups. Afterward, they simply slow dance to a Ryan Adams cover of “Wonderwall.” As far as television is concerned, it's as consequence-less as teen sex gets.
Lots of other stuff happens in "The Heartbreak," too, but nothing as seminal as Seth and Summer's first time. Imperfect as it was, it was the perfect start to what would become one of the most enduring teenage romances on TV.