Last week, Fox’s glorious teen soap opera The O.C. returned to its tender beginnings, bringing back together its two teenage couples, the radiantly funny and sexy pair of sparring lovers, Seth and Summer, as well as Ryan, the working-class kid adopted into Orange County opulence, and Marissa, the spoiled-to-her-eyeteeth princess who fell for him. If the show’s second-season story lines of lesbian romances, illegitimate daughters and sleepovers at the mall prompted fans and critics to howl (unfairly and predictably) that the show has “jumped the shark”-and what twist on any show doesn’t prompt that charge nowadays?-then the reunion of the original foursome suggested a return, or at least a bemused tribute, to The O.C.’s roots.
But the wide-ranging popularity of The O.C., among teenagers and adults, the in-crowd and the outsiders, owes as much to its whip-smart humor as it does to its emotional accuracy. O.C. creator Josh Schwartz’s beguiling combination of the two has allowed The O.C. to subtly restore the romance lost in an era of detachment-by both engaging a self-mocking tone and gently undermining it with true feeling. At its best, the show positively revels in the bittersweetness of the teen years.
The O.C.’s very first episodes-when Ryan Atwood, the Chino rebel, is adopted by the good liberal Jewish public defender Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher) and his to-the-beach-house-born WASP wife Kirsten (Kelly Rowan)-were an invigorating shot of melodrama. Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) burned down a house, bonded with the Cohens’ picked-upon only son Seth (Adam Brody), beat up a lot of water-polo players at beach parties, transferred to an exclusive private high school, and snatched away the school’s reigning princess, Marissa (Mischa Barton), from its reigning athlete hunk, Luke (Chris Carmack). That description sounds like unintentional camp. But Mr. Schwartz had the nerve to play it straight, to try and capture something of the overwhelming rush of emotion in teenage life.
The show has never been frightened of or embarrassed by emotion. But it has also never been afraid that adding humor to the mix would defuse the emotions. As much as for any other reason, fans of The O.C. watch it for Adam Brody’s neurotic-comic riffs, Benjamin McKenzie’s nearly subterranean deadpan, the lickety-split exchanges between Mr. Brody and Mr. Gallagher that turn Seth and Sandy into father-and-son vaudevillians. The real fun of the show is that it’s a witty, well-crafted, winningly acted and sleek version of the endlessly appealing subject of teen romance. But it also consistently undercuts the clichés that dominated teen movies and TV movies for decades. The O.C. is another example of a teen culture that, in movies and television at least, has made abject self-pity and demonization of adults a thing of the past.
The rejection of those traditional clichés starts with Ryan, our J.D. Virgil, whose immersion in the travel-brochure paradiso of the poshest of SoCal suburbs turns teen soap into canny class comedy. One of the reasons that The O.C. is one of the most enjoyable things on TV right now is that the show is refreshingly unhypocritical about the fun that money affords. It’s not that the rough-and-tumble, blue-collar Ryan immediately goes hog wild for the shiny perks available to him as the adopted son of a rich family, or that all his problems are suddenly solved. It’s that he seems to realize, as those around him don’t, how much easier life can be when you don’t have to worry about things like rent or grocery money. Ryan isn’t Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, the outsider who’s tolerated in upper-class circles as long as his working-class roots don’t show. And he’s surely not Clift in The Heiress, the silver-tongued seducer out to fleece the rich for whatever he can take.
For one thing, Ryan can barely get out a sentence. As played by Mr. McKenzie, in whom an off-the-beat wiliness lurks behind blockish, cleft-chin good looks, Ryan is the traditional inarticulate teen hero recast as shrewd observer. Mr. McKenzie knows how to make the slight hesitation in Ryan’s responses, or the character’s habit of widening his eyes in a sidelong glance, a way of registering how absurd this sheltered lifestyle looks to a street kid. The role could easily have been the latest in a long line of James Dean imitators-the kid who’s not really bad, just misunderstood; whose inarticulateness is a mask for his shyness; who’s really sensitive beneath the rough exterior and just needs love to bring his inner softy to the surface.
All of those traits apply to Ryan, except that, as was the case with Dean and his imitators, The O.C. isn’t selling Ryan as a teen Jesus, anymore than it’s selling the adults as the Pharisees. Ryan’s bad breaks-a family of boozers, felons and general screw-ups; the working-class poverty that doomed him to a life of low-paying jobs or, if he chose, a life of marginally better-paying crime-are just that: bad breaks. The O.C. holds itself separate from teen culture’s indictment of the hypocrisy of the adult world, which has been the convenient scapegoat of teen drama from Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass to Dirty Dancing and the heyday of John Hughes.
It was Buffy the Vampire Slayer that first made a grand, tragic joke out of the teenager who felt that the world was on her shoulders; in Buffy’s case, it was. Saving the planet from demons and each season’s sweeps-timed apocalypse was, in creator Joss Whedon’s vision, an exhilarating version of the feeling kids have that they alone have been chosen as special recipient of information about the way the universe really works. The horror-movie extremity of the situations rinsed away the bathos of teen isolation and allowed the poignancy-and the humor-to come through. Buffy and her counterparts in the movies, characters like Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You or the teens in American Pie, were largely self-sufficient and well-adjusted, living their own lives, paying heed to the world of parents and teachers but not entirely ruled by it. These kids grasped that the world was unfair, and that it wasn’t rotten, corrupt adults who had made it that way.
Not every bit of teen drama followed suit. Shows like Dawson’s Creek, with its mixture of pandering and faux sensitivity, or the simp-fest Felicity (“Intensity,” as MADtv called it) felt dated the moment they hit the airwaves. What feels true to this moment is a show like Veronica Mars, anchored by Kristen Bell’s portrayal of the teen sleuth as a wised-up Nancy Drew with no time for adolescent gush.
If there were any proof needed that The O.C. isn’t out to flatter the teen characters, it’s in the portrayal of Ryan’s lost (and, as last week’s episode implied, maybe future) love Marissa. In the role, Marissa has gone from the poor little rich girl who had every reason to resent her conniving mother, Julie Cooper-Nichol (Melinda Clarke)-for trying to sabotage her relationship with Ryan, then for sleeping with Marissa’s ex-boyfriend Luke-to the girl who, though she would do everything to deny it, seems more and more like her mother’s daughter. It’s not just the way Marissa is content to avail herself of her stepfather’s money while not even bothering to be civil to him; it’s the ugly capacity she’s exhibiting for using people. In last week’s episode, Julie told Marissa’s new lesbian girlfriend, Alex (Olivia Wilde), that she was merely “this week’s version of the lawn boy.” The reference was to Marissa’s ex-lover, a gardener (which infuriated the status-conscious Julie); the implication was that Marissa was deliberately picking partners for the sole purpose of getting back at her mother.
Marissa and Alex are clearly headed for the bust-up. Yes, lesbianism may be just an experiment for Marissa (as it is for a lot of adolescent girls), but what’s fascinating is how the Marissa-Alex romance has been used to demonstrate Marissa’s immaturity, starting with her shamed hesitation in telling her friends about it (a hesitation she didn’t show when she got the opportunity to flaunt the affair in her mother’s face). The romance has shown Marissa’s pampered inability to deal with the mundane parts of life most people have mastered: doing the laundry, contributing to the rent, cleaning up your place. Something like panic flutters across Ms. Barton’s face when she’s confronted with empty beer bottles in the living room.
In some ways, Marissa has always been the odd character out here, the least well-adjusted of all the show’s kids. Looks-wise, with her long neck, large eyes and prominent cheekbones making her jaw seem narrow beneath them, Ms. Barton is the teen queen as earthly cousin to E.T. It’s part of the show’s subtle refutation of teen clichés that Marissa’s teen alienation is presented instead as a spoiled rich girl’s selfishness.
Nowhere does The O.C. have more fun overturning adolescent icons than in the portrayals of Ryan and Seth. If Ryan is the show’s smart update on the James Dean rebel-the rebel as deadpan cultural anthropologist observing the attractive and unusual life forms and customs around him-Seth is the show’s Benjamin Braddock, a role that was designed to flatter teen and post-teen narcissism as much as Dean’s wounded-outsider routine. For all the ways in which The Graduate made upper-middle-class materialism its target, it didn’t acknowledge that its hero, and the young movie audiences who cheered him, were perfectly content to mooch off that materialism while condemning it as empty and soulless. It was sitcom Antonioni, wallowing in the lush ennui it pretended to criticize.
Like Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin, Seth is the rich-kid only son who’s gotten so accustomed to his plush surroundings that he takes them for granted. The difference-and it’s a big one-is that he’s not alienated, from either his surroundings or his parents. Seth communicates with a combination of a stand-up comic’s neuroses (and we’re talking about the early 60’s Woody Allen/Shelley Berman school of stand-up) and the spiel of a transparent con man. His endless prattling, continual worrying and surface self-absorption drive everyone around him crazy. He’s got so much rachmunis for himself that he’s a little abashed to find not everyone else does, too. But there’s real love for his family and friends in his routine. Seth is the show’s charmer, the character all its fans love unreservedly.
Adam Brody may have done more for the self-esteem of young Jewish males than anyone since the heyday of George Segal and Elliott Gould. He’s sexy and witty and unexpected in the same way. He takes his lifestyle for granted, but he’s a world-class worrier, his neurosis as much a part of his wardrobe as his Le Tigre shirts. Mr. Brody’s Seth Cohen is a hipster nerd, the wimp who becomes a winner thanks to the confidence his adopted brother Ryan instills in him, and the fact that the ardor which he carries for his adored Summer (Rachel Bilson) pays off. Summer is his heart’s true desire, his Wonder Woman, his Beatrice. Were she to ask Seth what he needs to survive, he’d answer her, “My Death Cab for Cutie CD’s, my comic books and thou (and maybe some moo shu pork).”
Rachel Bilson and Adam Brody are an inspired comic-romantic team. With her full, smeary lips and compact curves, Ms. Bilson is luscious to look at, but what makes her truly yummy is her ace comic timing. Summer is the opposite of her best friend Marissa; selfish and shallow on the surface, Summer’s a sweetheart underneath, and when the safety mechanism of her perpetual wisecracks gives way to the soft voice she uses to say “Cohen” in their most intimate moments, its her Indian love call, a dream girl’s whispered come-hither.
The O.C. devotes almost as much time to the adults as it does to the teens. Sandy and Kirsten, parents to their adopted son Ryan and their biological son Seth, aren’t simply guest stars; they’re characters in their own right. As the WASP golden girl and the Bronx-born Jew who won her heart, Kelly Rowan and Peter Gallagher are believably married. Which is to say they are both harried, still in love (and that includes sexually), and still weathering the occasional clash in sensibilities, in their case between his save-the-world ethic and the wariness that’s the result of her rich white upbringing. At first, it seemed that Ms. Rowan was too conventional to win the viewer’s affections. She has proven to be a terrific straight woman to Mr. Gallagher, who plays Sandy’s Jewishness as a legacy that’s somewhere between Dissent and the Catskills. Sandy woos his blond bride with savvy romantic patter, and Mr. Gallagher’s delivery melds the softness of his eyes with the sweet irony promised by his arched eyebrows.
To see how The O.C. gets contemporary family life right, you need look no further than the inevitable breakfast scenes at the Cohen home that recur in nearly every episode. Dispensing with the dinner-table conclave that was a hallmark of sitcoms from Father Knows Best and beyond, The O.C. gives us the new-style family get-together, a rushed morning meeting with everyone on their way to school or work, not even bothering to sit while they gulp coffee and wolf down what they can manage of a bagel before hustling themselves out the door. When they get back together in the evening- if everyone is finished with his or her day-it’s usually for take-out. Kirsten can’t cook, Sandy really does, and besides, everyone is usually too beat to reach for anything but the menus. Most people may not be able to afford take-out every night, but no one has to be rich to identify with the mixture of hyperactivity and exhaustion that characterizes family life on the show.
Of course, not all the adults are good guys. This is soap, and soap requires villains. Kirsten’s real-estate tycoon father Cal (Alan Dale), who looks as if his body had been engineered by NASA and behaves as if his morality had been engineered by Enron, treats Sandy as a do-gooding upstart not worthy of his princess, and he’s convinced Ryan is a street-smart hustler who wormed his way into his family’s affections for his-Cal’s-money. Cal’s wife, the gold-digging Julie Cooper-Nichol, is the high-priced demon slut every soap needs. She cuddles up to the people who can do her the most good, and the joke of that is that she’s all angles. Julie is the gal from the wrong side of the tracks who latched onto the good life like a small woodland creature grabbing at the nuts it will need to survive the winter. It’s one of the show’s best jokes that Cal ends up with a wife who is everything he fears in Ryan.
Those villains aside, The O.C. is so blithe in its dismissal of the “kids good/adults bad” opposition that it’s as if that tired dramatic conflict had never existed. That’s probably one of the reasons the show is a cross-generational hit. But more than that, there’s something reassuring-for any viewer-about seeing the rituals of teen romance in place. The basic situation The O.C. describes holds true: Kids still fall for each other, still break up for good reasons or bad reasons or no reasons at all. Even here, though, there’s a refusal of the cliché. When these kids break up, they don’t ignore each other in the halls, as is probably still the case with real-life high-school romance. The O.C. has given us the rather mature sight of its teen characters (even more than its adults) treating their former partners as people after their breakups, with all the bittersweetness that entails. For all its irony and humor, the show ends up taking romance very seriously, and in a sunny, hedonistic atmosphere Brian Wilson would recognize. These kids don’t have to wait until they’re older for the bliss of romance, like the lovers in the Beach Boys’ great “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” did. The sting of the show is they don’t have to wait for heartache either.