Josh Schwartz created Fox’s The O.C. at 26, making him the youngest person to create a one-hour drama for Network TV. Compare that with Aaron Spelling’s stately 67 years when he created the ’90s version of this show, featuring rich white kids and their troubled parents in Southern California, Beverly Hills 90210. In an interview with the Boston Globe, Schwartz comments, “I’m not a teen, but I’m not 50 either. I remember distinctly what it was like to be 16”. I guess that’s why Schwartz’s show and Spelling’s show are so… similar.
Both trashily addictive teen soap operas offer an outsider’s perspective of the glamorous lives of the filthy rich. 90210 had the Walshes, a rock solid Minnesota family who solved problems with hugs rather than drugs and plastic surgery. The O.C. brings us Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie), a good-hearted delinquent from Chino (depicted, like all towns where people don’t live in mansions, as a den of white trash) who is taken in by a Newport Beach family: public defender Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), his real estate developer wife Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), and their teenage son Seth (Adam Brody, playing a dorky, slightly less charming version of his character in Gilmore Girls). Ryan can’t resist throwing punches at cocky rich boys, but determines not to screw up his chance at clean living. This even though he knows he doesn’t “fit in.” Not to worry, because, as Sandy assures him, “No one does.”
Everyone feels like an imposter in The O.C.‘s all-white, all-straight Newport Beach. Sandy secretly wants to give it all up and move to Berkeley; Seth is a comic book geek who can’t talk to girls; and the Coopers next door consist of white collar criminal Jimmy (Tate Donovan); his wife Julie (Melinda Clarke), who lives in constant fear of being returned to her underclass roots; and their pretty daughter Marissa (Mischa Barton), who provided a cliffhanger for Fox’s World Series hiatus by getting trashed on pain killers and alcohol and passing out in an alley in Tijuana, Mexico.
In fact, The O.C.‘s primary appeal is its implausibility, which offers respite from the moral swamp of reality TV. It’s okay for fictional characters to be ridiculous and tacky. Though Schwartz claims that he wants his show to evoke the unique, fleeting beauty of youth, he draws in viewers through pure escapism. Whereas The WB’s teen dramas (i.e., Dawson’s Creek and its replacement One Tree Hill) insist that you think of teenagers as sensitive, intelligent people, The O.C. lets you see them as beautiful, skin-deep figments. It’s a guilty pleasure akin to gorging on fast food or listening to bubblegum pop — lots of us do it, but we don’t like to talk about it.
The O.C. takes place in that alternate TV universe where grandfathers show up with gorgeous 24-year-old wives who like to make out with 16-year-old boys (“You hooked up with my grandma?! Actually, that’s kind-of hot,” reflects Seth.) Character motivation is blithely moot. When Ryan’s recovering alcoholic mother (Daphne Ashbrook) visits briefly (apparently just to make sure she made the right decision when she abandoned Ryan; she did), the Cohens bring her along to “Vegas Night,” whereupon they are shocked and disappointed when she drinks and makes a scene. And Marissa never imagines that her boyfriend Luke (Chris Carmack) will fly into a jealous rage when she brings Ryan to events that she was supposed to attend with Luke, even though he does so, repeatedly. How liberatory it must be, to live without accountability or foresight.
It’s this freedom, more than the money and the ritzy cars, that constitutes The O.C.‘s vicarious pleasure. Still, it’s nice to feel grounded once in a while. And so, like 90210‘s Walshes, the Cohen family serves as an oasis from the rampant debauchery of this version of Southern California. But whereas the Walsh family featured cheesy father/son arm punches, father/daughter “you’ll always be my little girl”s, and a June Cleaver-ish mother, the Cohens-plus-Ryan are pleasantly off kilter. The parents are stable, loving, and intelligent and have held onto their youthful ideals. Kirsten rolls her eyes at her girlfriends’ gossip and Sandy surfs in the mornings and shows up at the debutante ball in his rumpled day clothes. This familial unit offers the perfect filter through which to observe the absurdity of life in the O.C. You can almost imagine watching the show with them on their giant television, pointing at the screen and turning to the four of them to shout, “My God, who behaves like that?”