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TV Review: 'The O.C.' provides lifeless look at rich teens

Sunday, August 03, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- Fox touts "The O.C." as "Beverly Hills, 90210" for a new generation, but the "90210" gang and even the kids on "Dawson's Creek" were more innocent than this spoiled, ill-behaved bunch.

'The O.C.'

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday on Fox.

Starring: Benjamin McKenzie, Adam Brody.

As soaps go, "The O.C." has its positive attributes, but the show is at its most enjoyable when it's focused on the family at the core. Anytime it strays into the world of the wealthy kids of Newport Beach in Orange County, Calif., it's almost painful because the characters are so detestable and yet bland.

"What are you doing putting my daughter in Calvin Klein?" a snooty mom complains when her daughter appears in a fashion show. "She was supposed to wear Vera Wang!"

The story begins when Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie) is peer pressured by his brother in Chino, Calif., into stealing a car. They're caught, of course, and while the brother goes to jail, Ryan is released. His do-gooder public defender, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), takes Ryan home to spend the weekend in his family's guest house.

Maybe it's just Gallagher's performance, but his altruism and interest in Ryan sometimes borders on the creepy. Aside from being a generic bleeding heart, there's no concrete reason for him to help Ryan.

Sandy's wife, Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), isn't happy to have a criminal in her house.

"You brought him home?" she says. "He's not a stray puppy!"

Kirsten makes the family's [begin itals] beaucoup [end itals] bucks as a businesswoman of some sort, although the pilot doesn't specify what her job is.

The show is at its best depicting the relationship between Ryan, essentially a good kid at heart, and Sandy's and Kirsten's son, Seth (Adam Brody). He's a bit of a nerd -- his father's son, perhaps -- who doesn't fit in with the big-cash crowd. He dreams of spending a summer sailing to Tahiti with a girl he's never had the guts to talk to.

Just in the course of Tuesday's premiere, Ryan and Seth develop a brotherly bond that's refreshing and not something you often see on TV, particularly between teenage boys.

Brody, who played Lane's boyfriend last season on "Gilmore Girls" (he'll be back for at least one more "Girls" episode to wrap up that story), is particularly effective at bringing some lighter, more comedic moments into "The O.C.," which threatens to take itself way too seriously.

McKenzie, at times, is prone to overdramatizing scenes, particularly when he first meets the Cohens' comely girl-next-door neighbor, Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton). He tries for a James Dean thing but doesn't quite pull it off. McKenzie, who looks a little like a young Simon Baker from "The Guardian," is more effective when showing Ryan's innate goodness.

It's interesting that Fox's fall show "Skin" -- about a pornographer's daughter who dates the district attorney's son -- almost feels more wholesome than "The O.C." The teens on "The O.C." party way too hearty for their ages, including drugs, booze and even a threesome in a hot tub. So much for Orange County's conservative reputation.

"The O.C." -- short for Orange County -- also has a soapy subplot involving a past relationship between Seth's mom and Marissa's dad (Tate Donovan), who's having a nervous breakdown that probably relates to the Securities and Exchange Commission suits who show up at his home for reasons that have yet to be explained.

Josh Schwartz created "The O.C." and wrote the pilot, which is directed by Doug Liman ("Go") and executive produced by McG, whose now-canceled "Fastlane" had a more distinct, fun look last season.

At a Fox press conference last month in Hollywood, McG said he's flattered by comparisons to "90210," but dismissed notions that the two series are overly similar.

"['The O.C.'] is a more accurate portrayal of what really goes on in these communities and what these kids are really up to while the parents are away," McG said.

Schwartz said pairing Ryan and Seth was a way to get two outsiders together.

"It was the idea of having someone living within this world, who also felt equally as much as an outsider as Ryan. These were two kids who both needed a friend," Schwartz said. "They both needed a brother and they both needed each other to sort of navigate through these social waters of Orange County."

Providing it's not canceled early on, "The O.C." is scheduled to air Thursdays at 9 p.m. this fall opposite "CSI" and "Will & Grace," where the tough competition will doom it unless it gains a substantial following this summer.

Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow said he's unconcerned about the pending time slot change.

"The audience is pretty smart. Bottom line is that if they like the show, they'll figure out a way to find it," he said. "We are just trying to plant our flag and we're planting it with a couple of shows that we think are capable of going underneath the competition."

Grushow said the network won't focus on ratings in the 18-49 age demographic on Thursdays this fall, looking instead at ratings among people age 12 to 34.

"We're The WB on Thursday night," Grushow said.


Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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