Rich Kid, Poor Kid

The O.C. Fills a Vacancy at the Hotel California; Sucking Up the '70s

To O.C. or not to O.C.? That is the television critic's most pressing late-summer question. If you saw any of the commercials for Fox's glossy, aggressively advertised new drama about rich kids run amok in Southern California, you probably made up your mind before the first episode even aired. You either thought, "That looks like an offensive piece of teen-exploitation crap," or "Finally, something to fill the gaping hole in my life left by the demise of Beverly Hills 90210." Sure, some of 90210's fans turned to Dawson's Creek or Gilmore Girls, but those wholesome series lacked a certain glitz and tawdriness. In a daring move, Fox has placed The O.C. in the time slot opposite Gilmore Girls' summer reruns, effectively staging a showdown between two sensibilities: the ultra-girly, nonstop cultural-chatter of the G.G. versus the long, taciturn silences of The O.C.

Ryan Atwood, The O.C.'s central figure, may be the quietest leading man on TV (he's played by Benjamin McKenzie). From the very first scene he's portrayed as a sweet kid kicked around by circumstance: picked up by the cops after his thug brother embroils him in a carjacking, brutalized by his alcoholic mom's tattooed boyfriend, tossed out of the house. Despite Ryan's stony silence, he somehow inspires sympathy in his pro bono lawyer, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher)—himself a poor kid made good. Sandy is struck by Ryan's high school test scores (In the 98th percentile! Perfect candidate for upward mobility!) and decides to take him home to his Orange County (O.C.) mansion, where he lives with his wealthy wife and teenage son. Throughout the first few episodes, Ryan expresses no resentment or opinions—a teenage Chauncey Gardner from Being There, quietly allowing people to project their fantasies onto him. All we know of this kid is what we can gather from the flickering, vulnerable expressions that pass over his face.

The first clue that Ryan's not entirely empty-headed—and that there's something interesting to be gleaned from The O.C.—is his response to Sandy's clichéd speech about pursuing his dreams. "Where I come from, having a dream doesn't make you smart," Ryan mutters. "Knowing that it won't come true—that does." It turns out that The O.C. isn't just an extended music video/soap opera that hinges on the sex lives of pretty, privileged kids in designer clothes—though it does that with extreme gusto, out-cheesing Aaron Spelling himself. It's also a series about something else rarely discussed on slick TV dramas: the wounds of class. The whole premise of The O.C. is: What happens when deprivation meets privilege? Ryan's instant friendship with Sandy's nerdy, chatty son Seth (Adam Brody, an escapee from Gilmore Girls) suggests a fantasy resolution of the rich-poor divide—now almost a caste system in America, where there's less social mobility than in the old Europe. "We're from different worlds," Ryan warns Marisa, the beautiful girl next door who is fascinated by his strong, silent hunkiness.

A teenage Chauncey Gardner: the O.C.'s Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie)
photo: Shulamit
A teenage Chauncey Gardner: the O.C.'s Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie)

Details

The O.C.
Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox

A Decade Under the Influence
August 20, 21, and 22
8 p.m. on IFC

Holding Court
Manhattan Neighborhood Network Channel 57
August 25 at 9 p.m., August 31 at 7:30 p.m., and September 5 at 8 p.m.

The different-world-colliding plot goes back to the classics, of course, while on TV there've been sentimental predecessors such as Different Strokes, in which rich white folks took in poor black orphans. Ryan is a lot more photogenic than Gary Coleman, though, and all the girls think he's totally hot. Some of them also give him extra Brownie points for being working-class, equating poverty with moral superiority. Seth does too. Glib and ironic without meaning to be, emitting a constant stream of wisecracks and cultural references, Seth is attracted by Ryan's apparent authenticity and edginess. While Ryan prepares to run away from the Cohen's mansion to evade the clutches of child welfare, Seth, surrounded by a loving family and a fantasy home, babbles on about how much he loves On the Road: "I've always wanted to do that Kerouac thing."

Perhaps recognizing that shows like Buffy and Dawson's Creek pulled in plenty of adult viewers, The O.C. cunningly widens its focus to include quality time with the parents. Sandy and his blond, property-developer wife Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) are an intriguing couple: He gets to be a do-gooding pro bono lawyer while also reaping the benefits of her avid capitalist instincts. Their banter sometimes suggests an ongoing moral tug of war, as he tries to convince her to let Ryan live with them, and she sulks, "When did you become so self-righteous?" He responds sweetly, "I've always been self-righteous. You used to find it charming." That was back in the days when she was a patchouli-scented hippie chick who briefly jettisoned her moneyed upbringing and then returned to it, bringing Sandy with her.

Like Sandy, The O.C. likes to make little digs at the moral vacuity of wealth while also reveling in its luxury. "Welcome to the dark side," Seth quips as he leads Ryan into his first ritzy event, a teen fashion show to benefit a women's shelter. The camera obligingly pans across the smug, privileged faces of Orange County's social register. Moms have hissy fits because their catwalking teenage daughters are garbed in Calvin Klein instead of Vera Wang.

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