The brilliance of outsider bad boy Ryan Atwood - played on The O.C. by 26-year-old actor Ben McKenzie - isn't in his subtle complexity, his dramatic intensity or his emotional honesty. Nor is it the fact that, according to both television critics and teenage girls, he bears a passing physical resemblance to a young Russell Crowe.
Instead, the brilliance of Ryan Atwood can be summed up thusly: The man loves Journey.
"Do not insult Journey, all right?" he tells Seth, his best friend, as they speed to the airport with the car radio blasting, hoping to stop a girl from boarding a plane and leaving Newport Beach.
For anyone else on The O.C., which lives and dies by its hipster cred, the sin of admitting you like a 1970s rock band known mostly for its guitar-heavy power ballads would be simply unpardonable. This is, after all, a show that helped make indie bands like the Killers, Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie part of the cultural mainstream.
But with Ryan, it's simply part of the package. He's so uncool, he's cool, and yet he can say more by arching his eyebrow than Seth can in an entire monologue. While other characters thrive on The O.C. thanks to their wit, their good looks or their use of irony, Ryan continues to carry the torch for the unapologetic male. He doesn't specialize in witty one-liners and would never talk about his angst with a team of therapists.
Instead, he snarls at authority, falls for the ladies a little too hard, gets jealous when he knows he shouldn't, then punches people in the face and shrugs his shoulders. "You know what I like about rich kids?" Ryan once asked his one-time enemy, Luke, right before decking him. "Nothing."
Once upon a time, those qualities were considered the archetype for the American male. But somewhere along the line, the Frank Sinatras and Cool Hand Lukes ceded too much ground to the Tobey Maguires and Leonardo DiCaprios of the world.
Sensitive, sophisticated men like Seth started getting all the press. Nick Hornby and Chuck Klosterman became best-selling authors. The Fab Five from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy taught men how to cut their hair and get their backs waxed. Things simply went too far. One day, we awoke in horror to the image of Maverick from Top Gun jumping up and down on Oprah's couch, telling us he was in love with the girl from Dawson's Creek.
What Ryan represents is a return to our masculine roots, but with a 90210 twist. He's a cross between Dean Moriarty from Jack Kerouac's On The Road and the shadowy stranger in countless Johnny Cash songs who knows he's a sinner, yet he's trying so hard to be good. He's willing to fight if he has to, but tries to avoid trouble. Like Bruce Banner, he becomes the Hulk only when he's provoked. As long as you don't put your hands on his woman, you'll get along with him just fine. If you do, then like Harbor High School's dean of discipline found out recently, you're going to get punched in the face.
It's OK. You probably deserved it. Now go home and listen to Ben Folds and write in your journal.