'The O.C.' -- It's a teen soap that parents can like, too

January 11, 2004|By Susan Reimer

HOT GUYS. HOT GIRLS. Skimpy fashions. Beaches, money, mansions. And drama, drama, drama. The O.C. has it all. And it has me hooked.

The teen suds series from Fox -- an amped-up version of 90210 -- is a hit, and it isn't just the kids who are pushing up the ratings.

It is a guilty pleasure for us grown-ups, too, the likes of which we haven't had since thirtysomething replaced Dallas as must-see TV for us.

"The O.C. has something for everyone in the family," said Fox spokesman Scott Grogan. "This is a multi-generational cast of characters."

As it was with Miami Vice, location is the real star of The O.C.. It is set in Newport Beach, in Orange County, Calif.

The show, which airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox, looks like what the rest of the country thinks Southern California looks like.

Enormous oceanfront homes, beautiful teens from dysfunctional families driving their own SUVs to parties where they binge-drink and snort cocaine.

Trim, athletic fathers and trim, athletic mothers in faded marriages, fueling their status-obsessed lives with piles of tainted money.

Enter Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie), a brooding, tough-luck delinquent abandoned by his alcoholic mother and taken in by his public defender, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher).

Ryan is a fish out of water in the opulence of Newport Beach. A fight breaks out every time he enters a room, making The O.C. acceptable viewing for teen guys, too.

He is the flip side of Sandy's born-at-the-wrong-time, geeky son, Seth (Adam Brody), and the two are already drawing young Russell Crowe, young Tom Hanks comparisons.

Ryan's love interest is the elegant and smoldering Marissa (Mischa Barton), a basically good girl with bad girl impulses. She steps down off of her most-popular-girl pedestal to be with Ryan.

Seth is mad for Summer (Rachel Bilson), a certified Valley Girl, who can't believe she is drawn to an also-ran like Seth. She says "Ewwww!" a lot.

Barton is 17 but looks 27. The rest of them are 20-somethings who look like teen-agers.

I wouldn't know, but supposedly the teen audience finds these characters "authentic."

The O.C. survived a six-week hiatus caused by the baseball playoffs and came back strong in October, and Fox has ordered lots of new episodes from its 27-year-old creator, Josh Swartz.

How big is The O.C. ? It has hit all the high-water marks. There are Internet chat rooms, viewing parties and drinking games tied to the show. (Ryan tosses out one of his trademark sideways glances, one drink. O.C. soccer moms gossip in a sauna, three drinks.) I'm no Nielsen, but my 17-year-old daughter not only watches every one of Fox's multiple broadcasts, she watches the same episodes bootlegged on the Internet.

"The guys are hot. The girls are so pretty, I love the clothes. And there is so much drama. I love the drama," she says.

"Nothing happens in my life. I need the drama of O.C.. I'm obsessed."

And she loves Peter Gallagher, the likable liberal dad who has such a tight relationship with his son.

"He is, like, so sweet and funny."

That an adult character would register with the kids -- and that one would remember his name -- is remarkable. This show is hitting on all cylinders.

And it is a hit with me, too.

"We knew it was a good show," said Grogan. "But we are surprised at the multigenerational appeal."

The O.C. doesn't have the preachy morality of 7th Heaven. And it doesn't have the angst of Dawson's Creek.

But I think it hits the right mix -- of brooding and playfulness, of wisdom and cluelessness, of judgment and stupidity -- that exists in our teen-agers.

McKenzie, who plays the moody Ryan and is starting to get mobbed in the street, says women fans tell him they watch it with their daughters.

I'm the one who saw it first and recommended it to mine. The O.C. is no Bible-study class, but it is one those opportunities television is so good at providing for teens:

That is, you don't have to make all the bad choices yourself in order to learn the consequences of them.

For me, the appeal of The O.C. is a little different. It is just a guilty pleasure.

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