Luke Ward started life on The OC credited only as a guest star, an All American tough guy jerk dating Marissa Cooper, the troubled rich girl neighbour of the central Cohen family. He had two core functions to perform on the show, both of which required garden variety jerkiness performed to an extremely high level.
Firstly he had to bully Seth Cohen, a task so routine that he outsourced it to a pair of lower level associate jocks during the party at the end of the pilot. Ryan’s rescue attempt gets us the iconic beach fight, “Welcome to the OC, bitch”, and sets up the awed hero-worship dynamic between Ryan and Seth. During that scene we also see Luke, business shirt open, abs beautifully lit by the fire, macking on young Holly Fischer – thus disrespecting Marissa and opening the door for Ryan And Marissa’s relationship. He gets a lot done for the show in about 45 seconds.
So pilot-Luke is this buffoonish cypher, just a stack of prime lean beef who exists only to facilitate the evolution of other characters. But after The OC got picked up Schwartz decided there was more to his bro-ed out demeanour than met the eye. He becomes their buddy, which still makes no sense at all, and eventually gets to show the sensitive side that lurks inside all TV bullies when we find out his dad’s gay later in the season. This is all fine, but to me peak Luke will always and forever be his performance during ‘The Third Wheel’, when the gang go to see the Strokes-y strivers Rooney at some nameless downtown LA venue.
The show’s writers had figured out Luke worked great as Tatum-esque comic relief by this point. Here he was working to offset to the soap-y earnestness of the Summer-Seth-Anna love triangle and the high stakes drama of millionaire teen junkie Oliver Trask’s era. Trask was the show’s best villain, but all that stuff would’ve been way too heavy without Luke’s newfound appreciation for music, particularly that of Rooney, in this episode.
The gang hit the club and fail to gain entry, thanks to some Trask-related screwup, which enables them to stand outside and gaze upon the reasonably legit-looking crowd wandering into the show. Luke is wearing this brilliant Miami-after-dark ensemble, all pale pastels and beach-y prints. He’s not in any way self-conscious, more a popular kid at the nerd convention, just revelling in it all. “Dude! Dude! Look at that freak!” he yells to Seth. It’s wonderful.
There’s a killer moment backstage, in the tense posing of the pre-show green room environment, where he serenades the scene with one of his original compositions: “The first time/ I saw your eyes,” he croons, “I knew we would get it on, yeeeah”. It was around the time surfer-songwriters like Jack Johnson and Donovan Frankenreiter were breaking out – Johnson had won the ESPN Action Sports and Music Awards’ ‘Surfing’s Music Artist of the Year’ Award (a real thing) in ’01 and ’02. Rugged ripped dudes all over the world were taking up their axes and emoting, so it wasn’t all that improbable.
The climax comes during the show itself, where Luke – attending his first ever concert – falls in love with the moppy chuggers of Rooney and their still-quite good single ‘Shakin” (around 2.55 in the clip below).
It’s a beautiful moment. The characters are all doing weird stuff in response to the music – Trask a smug boardroom nod, Marissa wobbling her head side to side as if trying to prevent it falling clean off her shoulders. This is all probably quite accurate. I would be terrified if there were footage of anything I’ve ever done at a show, and can only imagine the many betrayals my body will commit during this Wednesday’s T-Pain gig. Likewise, there are probably many Luke Ward’s at shows – for some reason I imagine Pearl Jam concerts are just 20,000 people who look and act exactly like him. That doesn’t take away from just how much he gives.
The room basically has its house lights on, but no one seems to mind, and they’d fix this problem when The Bait Shop opened in season two. He does this great dance which involves lots of pointing at the ceiling, the way most religious rugby league players do after tries, only with much more vigour. Impressively, his singing makes the music significantly quieter, and he yells “ROOOONEY” with more uninhibited enthusiasm than any real life Rooney fan ever did during their time on this earth. The expression on his big handsome face is pure human joy – he’s dancing like no one’s watching, and singing like no one’s listening, even though the entire venue has to be.
In an episode which sees Summer find out about Anna and Seth’s relationship (bummer), Trask arrested for something drug-related (double bummer), and Melissa decide that means she has to double down on helping the little weasel out (triple bummer), no scene burns quite so brightly as Luke’s performance at his first rock show.
Over the years to come there would be a number of implausibly huge bands playing tiny venues full of rich high school kids. But The OC‘s first band scene is still it’s best, the show’s musical high and the finest use of Luke Ward, comic genius we would ever see.