With its last episode scheduled to air February 22, The OC (Fox, Thursdays, 9 pm) has pulled the sort of desperate stunt that might have you considering the wisdom of taking the show behind the barn with a pistol. At the end of a recent episode, “The Shake-Up,” the big one hits So Cal, endangering the lives of the show’s three sets of lovers: Kirsten and Sandy Cohen (Kelly Rowan and Peter Gallagher), their son Seth and his girlfriend Summer (Adam Brody and the wonderful Rachel Bilson), and their adopted wrong-side-of-the-tracks kid Ryan and his girlfriend Taylor (Ben McKenzie and Autumn Reeser). It’s a cheap, desperate ploy for a show that’s lost its way.
NOT 90210: The OC never got the respect it deserved.
And it pains me to write that because The OC never got the respect it deserved, dismissed instead as an updated 90210 or something for brainless teeny-boppers to sigh and weep over. Although you’d be hard pressed to find another prime-time show that name-checked Michiko Kakutani or Julius Rosenberg, that presented its brooding hunk hero relaxing by reading Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire, or had a character who decorated her bedroom with a poster for Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. Granted, the show’s younger viewers probably didn’t get those references. But they were never thrown in to be superior to the material. The OC’s creator, Josh Schwartz, knew he was making melodrama, and for three seasons he and his writers and the exceptionally talented cast were terrific at it.
You could trace the premise back to The Prince and the Pauper, or just The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Ryan Atwood, a smart, sensitive kid who’s had nothing but bad breaks, is brought home by his public defender, Sandy Cohen, to a sumptuous house in Orange County. He bonds with Sandy’s comic-geek son, Seth, wins over Sandy’s suspicious wife, Kirsten, and wins the heart of Marisa Cooper (Mischa Barton), the troubled golden girl next door. Ryan gives Seth the friend he never had and the confidence to win over Summer Roberts, the girl he’s pined for since grade school.
The show shadowed star-crossed lovers Ryan and Marisa with the livelier, more comic Seth and Summer (a relief when Ryan and Marisa’s soul gazing got a little wearying). Not that that relationship always went smoothly either. Since this was melodrama, there were break-ups and betrayals and other partners — Marisa in particular was a magnet for losers JDs and the chronically misunderstood. But the show evoked teen angst from just enough of a distance that you could be affected by it without ever feeling that you were wallowing in it. It helped that these were smart-alecky, self-aware kids spritzing ironic (though not emotionally detached) dialogue. And it helped that the central quartet of actors was so good.
The monosyllabism that Ben McKenzie avoided in his portrayal of Ryan has overtaken him this season, and given the general decline of the show, that may be the fault of the writers and directors. McKenzie could be counted on to convey what was going on beneath Ryan’s stoic tough-guy surface. Adam Brody and Rachel Bilson have been a consistent delight. Brody has played Seth’s neurotic, hyper-verbal, self-centered nerdiness off his own good looks and come up with something like a teen version of the hipster neuroses that, in his early comedies, made Woody Allen a culture hero. Bilson, who has the show’s best timing, makes Summer’s feelings for Seth felt beneath her eye-rolling sarcasm. Her work has embodied the calibration between sentiment and irony that marked The OC at its best.
As for Marisa, let’s just say that both actress and character are enjoying sweet revenge. It was news to Mischa Barton when The OC’s producers, faced with falling ratings last season, told her they were going to kill Marisa off in order to recover what they saw as the show’s lost momentum. It made dramatic sense: Marisa was such a troubled character, the turmoil she attracted matching the turmoil inside her, that further story lines would have been repetitious.
SWEET REVENGE: Killing off Mischa Barton helped kill off the show, too.
But when you claim you’re killing off a character so a show can move forward and then in the following two or three episodes most of the other characters are too numb to get past it, you have a problem. Barton, who has been so much in the tabloids and now is all over the fashion glossies as the face of the Bebe chain, was never given enough credit for her acting on The OC, for the hard edge she brought to Marisa. Her absence has hurt the show immeasurably — especially with the introduction of Willa Holland, who may have the worst diction of any young actress working, as Marisa’s younger sister.