The OC: Cali is where they put they mack down

Fists clenched like a caged animal...There was a point, probably around 1996, when “Party of Five” and “Melrose Place” were the glimmer twins of prime time twentysomething trash TV. From dorm rooms to boardrooms and all the bedrooms in between, 18 to 35 year olds were yattering and worrying in equal amounts about the murky familial sweetness of the former and the sleazy chum of the brazen, backstabbing latter. Of course “Beverly Hills 90210” was still doddering along with veteran tenacity. But perhaps because we’d largely grown up with its cast, “Beverly Hills” seemed like a weird plastic Coppertone spin on our own lives, amp’d with bling, boob jobs, and Dylan McKay. There was escapism there, but it wasn’t satisfying like the protein shake of heartwarming melodrama and shit eating base desire that “Party” and “Melrose” proffered. Culture has accelerated in the time and seasons since, and everyone has less patience. The boardroom corporate fat cats won’t wait for their dorm room target audience to glom on to a show, and the scant few promising offerings (“Freaks and Geeks”; “Undeclared”) are canned in favor of low concept, high yield reality programming. Some of these have their charms. But with all this 21st century television hateration and holleration, what we really need is some melodrama in our lives. And to that end, Fox has done it again. Welcome to “The OC,” bitches.

“The OC” does share “Beverly Hills”‘ ringer-as-voice-of-the-audience construct. It’s half a season in and Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) is enjoying his pool house digs as the adopted son of Sandy and Kirsten Cohen (Peter Gallagher and Kelly Rowan). But he’s still Chino to the rest of Newport Beach, and still spends most of his time in public glancing from beneath his bangs, fists clenched like a caged animal. This angle is as overplayed as Coldplay. Luckily it’s just a framework to hold the load of gratuitous hookups, awkward walk-ins, and sparkling, stinging dialogue that make the show worth something.

Its underlying messages about the collective flaws of humanity rich and poor are heartening. But when Kirsten’s foxy hippie sister shows up, and Ryan’s doe-eyed girlfriend Marissa (Mischa Barton) starts a sashay with a glowering goblin of a fellow therapy patient, and our man Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) draws on Ryan’s tough-ass Chino chi to make moves on his dream girl Summer (Rachel Bilson), only to get more than his snarky Death Cab for Cutie-listening, PS2-playing ass bargained for when impossibly cool and cute new girl Anna (Samaire Armstrong) wants some Seth in her life, too – that’s when we all sit up, take notice, and start talking about a TV show like we haven’t seen a real one – a real good one – since Sydney got killed on her wedding day.

In real life, the idea is to crosshatch honest sincerity with witty repartee, in order to be the best social beings we can be. Unfortunately, our internal writing teams take frequent breaks. In their absence, we fumble for the perfectly-worded phrase and flub would-be slick voicemails. Our disheveled bed heads just look greasy and sad. It’s the banter that matters, and when TV does it right, it makes us jealous, loyal viewers. “Sex and the City”? It’s unclear whether John Corbett or Ron Livingston’s Carrie’s Boyfriend characters were ever anything less than casually handsome, offhandedly cool, and chock full of precision statements augmented with a wink and a smirk. The entire cast of “Ed” speaks in a witty, erudite jargon that’s totally foreign and utterly enviable, and the Gatling gun speech of “Gilmore Girls” is like Mamet without the shivs and swears. “The OC”‘s writers share this back and forth fascination. They fill the margins of their show with cool curly cues of reference, but filter them through the fractured speak of real life.

The Cohen family – Sandy, Kirsten, Seth, and Ryan – rip on each other as much as they offer support. “I always knew you were a late bloomer, honey,” a drunk Kirsten tells Seth when both Summer and Anna converge on the Cohen’s Thanksgiving feast. For his part, Seth just wants someone to acknowledge his Christmakah holiday, even as he cuts on the very same James Deanisms of Ryan that got him in this pickle in the first place. Seth’s a geek in the archetype-driven writing of Hollywood. But “The OC” pegs his geekness to indie cool, and lets Brody play Seth as being self-aware. He’s not stuck eyeless and mouthless inside his geeky teleplay prison. Sure, he’s never spoken to Summer, though she’s his unrequieted love and they’ve gone to school together their whole lives. But when confronted with the beguiling brunette in his boudoir, Seth laughs it off and makes a crack about his toy horse. “There’s my bed, by the way,” he says in passing. It’s in this way that “The OC” positions its people between rich fantasy, character cliché, and moment-driven bits of reality. An entire universe of overacting exists in the forest of Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows. But all his Sandy Cohen wants to do is surf and kiss his wife. Seth’s response when he catches them making out? “No sex in the champagne room, Mom and Dad.” This is banter. This is smart. This is not “According to Jim.”

By now, “The OC” has moved from summer fling to friendly winter neighbor. However, it’s still in an embryonic stage that allows it the freedom to actually be good. Fox realizes it has a hit on its hands, something with the kind of intangible pop culture cache that can’t be bought and doesn’t play Simple-minded pranks at Sonic. But it’s this very realization that has the potential to kill “The OC.” The show returns to the airwaves tonight after a holiday layoff. Those arch richies in Rooney will guest star – Phantom Planet must’ve thought contributing the theme song was publicity enough. And the web of way out storylines that were hinted at with swinger parties, gay dads, and big business all have potential to flatten and grey out, reducing their current squirm-worthy melodrama to simple – boring – melodrama, the kind sock-rocking preteens eat up. In other words, “The OC” can still be reduced to “One Tree Hill,” if Fox or its creators get nervous. Let’s hope they don’t. America’s one percenters need programming, too – trashy, tough love stuff that’s great for bedroom gossip and email strings, and has nothing to do with Bratz dolls or “Average Joe 2.”

California, here we come.


15 thoughts on “The OC: Cali is where they put they mack down”

  1. Damn it Johnny, I’ve been resisting this show for so long and now I’m going to have to watch it because of your kick ass article. Thanks a lot.

  2. That show rules in spite of itself. Plus it’s full of all the middlebrow, not-quite-mainstream music a boy could want. But I’m prettier than all those bitches.

  3. I know I’m getting old when i can’t work up the energy to give a damn one way or the other about this show. (unlike Party of Five, back in the day)

  4. I haven’t been watching the OC either…because I just can’t get into it. Almost all of my friends never miss a show but I found myself bored after about a half hour of an episode. So I stopped bothering. Adam Brody is pretty hot though, I think that’s why I lasted half an hour.

    PS. Damn that Christmukkah! You would not believe how many times I heard that during the last week of school, it was getting stupid. Sheesh, it’s OK to wish people a happy Christmukkah, but when you mention the “Christmukkah break” every fifteen minutes…teenage lemmings.

  5. HBO has killed regular TV for me. If anyone can honestly tell me that there’s a network show that would fly on HBO Sunday night, let me have it. Something tells me The OC ain’t playing after an hour of Six Feet Under.

    And lest anyone think they can say ER, there, I’ve already said it.

  6. Sab, you’re obviously right. But I think that HBO has so widened the creative divide between it and the networks that there’s really no competition. I do make reference to “Sex and the City” in the article, but I’m only placing it and “OC” in the same category if I’m talking about packets of smart writing. The programs’ wildly varying boundaries make it impossible to compare them on a broader level. The same goes for every single offering in any of network lineups. “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” are technically both comedies, but they’re not competitors. Similarly, the clodding theatrics of “The Practice” can’t even walk up Tony Soprano’s driveway. But I think it’s this very same separation that lets the network shows compete comfortably with one another. Sure they’re losing viewers to HBO, lots of viewers. But the people they’re losing are the one percenters of which I speak in the article. We all know there’s a huge chunk of America that thinks “According to Jim” really is where it’s at entertainment-wise. This chunk did not watch “Angels in America”, nor does it want to see Larry David be a hilarious neurotic asshole every week. That chunk is buying what the networks’ advertisers are selling. But “The OC” offers the same one percenters that left for HBO a network show that’s under-the-radar smart. It’s trashy and cheesy like mainstream TV, but has the balls to try and subvert that style with self-referential slyness. Sure, if “The OC” was on HBO, we probably would’ve seen Summer’s boobs by now, and that would rule. But it’s not, nor will it ever be, so can’t we just enjoy that it’s trying to be just a little bit cool in a big pile of hot, steaming shit?


  7. I love the fact that Luke (post-gay dad outing) has become Steve Sanders. It’s dumb and simple and easy, but it’s still funny. And remember, in its final season(s) Steve Sanders was the only good thing about 90210.

    By the way, Tivo makes network TV a lot better. It’s worth it.

  8. I’ve heard a few other people say the same thing about Luke. As cliched as his vacant, beefy, philandering boyfriend role was, people seem to think his rebirth as a vacant, beefy, aggreeable simp is even more cliched. I think it is, too, but also think that his character’s just treading water until he hooks up with Summer. It HAS to happen.

  9. Good God, those HBO shows are overrated. Six Feet Under started out promising, in the end is just as soap-opera-ey as OC. Lee Siegel once said all you have to do to turn porn into art is add something about death.

  10. Johnny, I love that whenever we discuss pop culture, you always being me to the same revelation about myself. I’m a snob who can’t stand “trying to be just a little bit cool in a big pile of hot, steaming shit.”

    Anyway, I’m going to give The OC a chance. I so loved Melrose back in the day…

  11. I have lived in Newport Beach, in the same house, my entire life. I’m sure that if I lived anywhere else, I might be drawn into it. But I don’t, I live here, and the OC is the most false, incredibly retarded swill i have ever seen.

    You want to see wealth? You want to see unbelievable beauty and glamour everywhere you turn? You want to see one of the most gorgeous spots on the earth?

    Actually come here. It’s beyond belief. THE OC has nothing on the real Newport Beach. There’s no comparison.

  12. I admit that when I first watched the O.C. I had my doubts, its promos made it look like the same old teen soap schlock, that Beverly Hills 90210 once had been. Much to my chagrin, the show is actually very well done. The characters are not so much interested in moralizing as they are in doing what they feel is right (even if it carries some irreversible consequences). The characters I thought I would hate, I’ve actually grown to love. Ryan is by far my favorite character, he’s adorably smart and absolutely gorgeous. And then of course, there’s Seth, the resident comedian. I absolutely love him and his witty one-liners and quips. He’s like a Chandler Bing for a new generation. Surprisingly, even the adults on the show, who are so often reduced to talking scenery, are given a chance to flex their acting chops. If you don’t watch the O.C. you should, but be careful it’s addictive.

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