In time for sweeps, `O.C.' to feature girls kissing

Couple on show causes controversy

February 02, 2005|By Roger Catlin | Roger Catlin,HARTFORD COURANT

Poor little rich girl Marissa Cooper has been through a lot.

In the first season of The O.C., her parents divorced, she broke up with two boyfriends, hit the bottle pretty hard, was nearly forced into rehab, took up with a psychotic, resumed drinking, and became estranged from her mother and her new husband.

The character is getting more attention now, though, for a relationship with another woman that is causing controversy.

Producers of the show say a girl-girl kiss, which in the past as been a surefire ratings booster, was in the works way before the February sweeps, which happen to begin tomorrow, with another new episode of The O.C. (8 p.m.-9 p.m., WBFF, Channel 45).

"I think you'll see the way it's handled is very character-driven and emotional," Josh Schwartz, creator of The O.C., said late last year, when the story was developing. "It is not done for character exploitation. A character who is lonely and lost connects with a person who becomes a mentor to her, who happens to be a girl, which is not something she expected."

Of Mischa Barton, who portrays the model-like Marissa, Schwartz says, "She was game. She was fearless as an actress."

"You have to push the envelope as much as you can," Barton said last month of the show, whose ratings have fallen some in its second season since it moved from Wednesdays to Thursdays.

But at least one critic says The O.C. is pushing too hard.

Morris Reid, managing partner of Blue Fusion, a joint venture of Westin Rinehart PYT and Buzz Marketing, says the current story line of Marissa and the character Alex, played by Olivia Wilde, is an example of the show's "spinning out of control. ... This upcoming episode is not a story about teens coming out of the closet. It's a blatant attempt to boost ratings by plugging a girl-girl kiss scene."

The activist Parents Television Council has yet to weigh in on the controversy, though the conservative group has never been a fan of the show. Still, it hasn't made the "worst show of the week" designation since last spring's bachelor party for Caleb, which was cited for its "underage drinking, teen sex and pregnancy, prostitution, strippers and gambling."

Fox has not promoted the relationship in previews or in advance listings. And Barton says the network has been busy editing the girl-girl scenes in anticipation of controversy at a time when the Federal Communications Commission has been cracking down on networks.

"You have to consider a responsibility to the audience," Barton said at a Los Angeles party for Warner Bros. Television last month. "We do have a young audience. But you see this develop so naturally. It's funny and sweet; two girls like to find things in common. It's not too severe and intense. It develops naturally."

The Web site, devoted to the depiction of gays and lesbians on TV, calls the Alex character "one of the most realistic bisexuals we've seen on prime-time network TV," whose presence "is a significant development, and a long-overdue step in the right direction" for the medium. A poll of the Web site's readers found 89 percent think Alex and Marissa made a good couple.

Among regular fans on the official O.C. Web site, the response has been more mixed. ("Eeew," said one posting.)

Still, Barton says she's run into a lot of O.C. fans who are encouraging the relationship. "If I had a dollar for every teenage boy who said this is awesome," she says, "I'd be rich."

The future may not bode well for the two characters, though.

Wilde's character will be dropped from the show by the season's 15th episode March 3, the day after sweeps end.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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