With its beautifully filmed shots of beautiful people mingling along beautiful California beaches (backed by the kinda beautiful strains of "California" by Phantom Planet), it was apparent from Fox's previews that "The O.C." would at least succeed as a guilty pleasure.
Now, three episodes into its trial run at 8 p.m. Tuesdays (it will move to Thursdays in November), the question becomes: Is "The O.C." actually any good?
The show lends itself to mixed feelings. While executive producer Josh Schwartz's resume is a little thin, it seems he has at least watched a lot of TV, as the stereotypes are in ready supply. For example, one look at Luke (Chris Carmack) and we know he's the jerk boyfriend of the girl-next-door who will feel threatened by the new kid in Orange County. Another producer is McG (the "Charlie's Angels" movies, "Fastlane") and there's no way to put a positive spin on that.
On the other hand, Doug Liman ("Swingers") directed the pilot and Jane Espenson ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Firefly") wrote the third episode.
And while there's no against-type casting involved, the cast is outstanding. Newcomer Benjamin McKenzie gives a smoldering yet understated turn as put-upon inner city youth Ryan. "Where I come from," he tells his lawyer after getting caught stealing a car, "having a dream doesn't make you smart. Knowing it won't come true ... that does."
And we finally get to see Mischa Barton (as Marissa) and Adam Brody (as Seth) in starring roles. Barton, the cute 11-year-old kid in 1997's "Lawn Dogs," has somehow managed to age 15 years in the past six. Brody, with his unique voice, is a master line reader. After Ryan punches Luke and they scram on their bikes, Seth gleefully shouts, "That was awesome!" and the whole sequence comes off as plausible.
Granted, both actors come from superior series -- Barton from "Once & Again," Brody from "Gilmore Girls" -- but the upside is they'll get more screen-time here.
Title: "The O.C."
Airtime: 8 p.m. Tuesdays
Starring: Benjamin McKenzie, Mischa Barton, Adam Brody, Peter Gallagher
Created by: Josh Schwartz
Veteran actor Peter Gallagher ("American Beauty") takes a potentially awful role -- the nice lawyer who takes the troubled youth under his wing -- and makes it work. The fact that he's not upstaged by his eyebrows should be proof enough that Gallagher is a fine actor.
I enjoy the unforced development of the relationships, be it parents-and-children, new friendships or budding romances (the only exception is the cliched good guy-bad guy clash between Ryan and Luke).
The series springboards from the premise that Ryan has no place to go after his deadbeat mom kicks him out of the house. But "The O.C." is at its best when it sets the plot aside. During most of the second episode, Ryan, Seth and Marissa hang out and chat at an abandoned construction site, and it genuinely feels like we're watching the bonding of new friends.
Contrast this with the early episodes of "Dawson's Creek," where the Dawson-Pacey friendship didn't feel genuine. Additionally, "The Creek" was obsessed with who was dating whom (sorry, I stopped caring after the first three years). "The O.C." is content to show the boy-girl intrigue without chatting about it all day, instead giving us corny-yet-irresistible montages like Marissa riding on the back of Ryan's bike as Ryan displays a rare smile.
The big question is whether "The O.C." can shed its predictable plotting. The writers tried to shock us by having Luke turn himself in to the police, but it felt a little like they were saying, "Hey, here's a surprise for you." The storytelling feels a little phony so far.
I'd love to see Marissa and Seth pair up down the road -- she, the good-hearted mean girl who never noticed the boy-next-door; he, the sensitive geek who's been too busy obsessing over the mean-hearted mean girl, Summer (Rachel Bilson). They have more in common than they think.
Marissa: "... 'On the Road,' that's my favorite book."
Seth (face falling): "Mine, too."
As an added twist, Marissa's dad has borrowed a large sum of money from Seth's mom, and there's no way that can turn out well.
Espenson, who also will write for "Gilmore Girls" this season, can be counted on to give the characters more depth. Marissa in particular could use a showcase episode. If great characters are added to a formula that already includes a healthy supply of bikini-clad girls and background songs with "California" in the title, "The O.C." could be more than merely OK.
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