Pop Culture

Don’t be ashamed to love ‘The OC’

Explaining the appeal of “The OC” is difficult. Imagine trying to explain to someone why you sometimes find yourself staring at nothing in particular, eyes locked, unwilling to move because it feels so good.  That’s what FOX’s frequently melodramatic, often overwrought, pseudo-soap opera is actually like: it’s insurmountably pleasurable to stare at but hard to justify.

But there’s more to “The OC,” whose second season premieres Nov. 4, than most give it credit for. Although a quick glance reveals an image of another southern California-based, zip-code-named FOX drama reflecting off of “The OC”’s surface, below that mirage is actual depth and intelligence. It’s an HBO series masquerading as a WB drama airing on typically shallow FOX.

This is a series about high school that knows those who are popular in high school peak then and never really go anywhere. This is a series about the fraud that is high society life.  And this is a series that celebrates and captures the family in a way that no other drama except “The Sopranos” has managed to do.

The premise is simple: a troubled, brooding teenager who deals with practically everything by punching is rescued from his existence by charitable lawyer Sandy and his skeptical but sympathetic wife Kirsten.  In the wealthy community of Orange County, Ryan’s Chino-bred presence is unsettling, except to the Cohen’s teenage son Seth, who instantly bonds with Ryan over video games and develops a full-on hetero crush after Ryan defends him. Mostly, they become friends because Ryan is the first person beyond Seth’s parents to acknowledge his existence.

Seth is the real star
The secret here is that Ryan is not the star; he was an excuse to get us inside the Cohen’s house, and to drag Seth out of that house. Played by Benjamin McKenzie, Ryan is a catalyst that stays in the foreground so that we’ll appreciate the background even more. For all its platitudes and eye candy, “The OC” is actually subversive: masquerading as a poppy soap opera, it’s subtly a complex drama/comedy. Reveling in the melodramatic relationship between girl-next-door Marisa and Ryan while holding up geeky Seth as the hero, the series exposes its teenage viewers to a new type of cool. And despite all of this, the show still has flawless, bright FOX aesthetics and a soundtrack that makes mainstream, corporate-sanctioned stars of its formerly non-mainstream performers.

Seth Cohen is only uncool in his high school, upper-class world; in ours, he’s what we idolize in the pages of Spin and Radar. That’s the joke: Most people Seth encounters don’t get him, but that’s because they don’t realize that he’s way ahead of them. A straight teenage amalgam of Carson Kressley and Jon Stewart, he dresses in impeccable hipster clothes, looks hot, has better taste in music than every top 40 station music director in the country, and throws out witty, pop culture reference-filled one-liners.

Most of Seth’s lines, which expose the writers’ intelligence and the generation of the series’ 28-year-old creator, are worth the 44 minutes alone. But the best exchanges are those between Seth and his dad, Sandy, who’s played by Peter Gallagher. Not believing they’re father and son is nearly impossible, as they play off each other with equal amounts of love and uneasiness. “This is going to be awesome,” Seth says as he’s about to take off to Tijuana with Summer, the girl he’s been secretly in love with for years. “She’s hot stuff, son,” Sandy says. “And now it’s ruined,” Seth intones. Adam Brody’s performance here is flawless, and while the writing gives life to his character, it’s mostly in the careful delivery.

Seth has an equally awkward teenage-adult relationship with his mother.  Shortly before Seth calls Kirsten “Waspy McWasp” while explaining the rationale for his holiday Chrismukkah, Kirsten says, “We didn’t really know how to raise Seth,” and she’s only half-kidding. In an unbelievable but acceptable leap, Ryan quickly and comfortably slips into this family, which is fraught with problems but is uncompromisingly deep in its genuineness. Whether it’s Sandy’s jealousy over their next-door neighbor Jimmy, who also happens to be Kirsten’s high school boyfriend; Kirsten’s issues with her controlling and emotionally distant father; or Sandy and Kirsten’s protectiveness, the only punches the series pulls come from Ryan.

Importance of the adults
The Cohen family finds itself as much on the outside as Ryan does.  Kirsten secretly loathes her catty, shallow, hypocritical friends; Sandy is a public defender bred in the Bronx who finds himself living a foreign life because of his wife’s family’s money. Compared to most of the other characters, the Cohens are four-dimensional, leaping off the screen and connecting to us, while the others are two-dimensional cardboard cutouts whose 2x4 stands are occasionally visible.

Mischa Barton’s Marissa, in particular, is a walking, shrieking, overreacting, overdosing, shoplifting cliche—and her mother, Julie, is even worse.  Still, their stories, while frequently contrived and occasionally frustrating (a midseason plot involving a psycho stalker named Oliver still irks many fans), are genuine in the sense that the characters’ reactions and interaction is very real.

In one of the wrier twists, the series pulls the popular characters into the periphery and forces them to be outsiders, rather than taking the easy way out and letting Ryan and Seth become instantly popular. We see little of school or society life, other than those people who come into direct contact with the Cohens. And while “The OC” treats the teenagers’ storylines with respect, the real seriousness comes from the adults, in their interactions with their kids and with each other. Whereas the adults were absent from dramas such as “Felicity” and “Dawson’s Creek,” here they’re integral, dealing with similar problems but with greater depth, and allowing the audience to be unabashedly composed of teenagers and their parents.

Yet despite pushing into this occasionally deep territory, “The OC” maintains a glossy, attractive surface, working on multiple levels to become whatever you want it to be. The show never strays far from lighter moments, and it’s also not afraid to make fun of itself, to recognize that what it’s doing isn’t really serious.

“Enough with the whole moody scowl thing,” Seth tells Ryan, who tends to replace vocabulary words with facial expressions. It’s easy to see Seth saying the same thing to those who act like “The OC” has nothing to offer them.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.