Suburban Funk

Photo by A. RapoportTwo years ago, Fox launched a soapy nighttime drama called Pasadena, all about a wealthy SoCal family and the dark secrets they held while somehow managing to look fabulous and live even fabulouser. It aired exactly four times before the network canceled it due to flat ratings. Actually, viewership was so low, Fox never bothered to announce the cancellation. If anyone asked about Pasadena, they'd just say, "It never happened—and the same goes for Family Guy … whatever it is."

One year ago, Fox launched a flashy cop show called Fastlane, about two undercover Los Angeles detectives with access to a warehouse of confiscated bling, posing as playas and working for a skanky lieutenant who smartly accessorized tube tops with shoulder holsters. It aired for a full season before the network canceled it due to flat ratings and insider complaints that the show glamorized consequence-free crime, sex and violence, thus infringing on Fox's higher-profile NFL Sundays.

Lessons offered: the primetime California soap—once upon a time defined by the likes of Beverly Hills 90210and Melrose Place—is dead, and music video/movie director McG (Charlie's Angels and its sequel, Charlie's Angels 2: Full Frontal Lobotomy) shouldn't make anything for TV more than four minutes long.

Lesson taken away by Fox: pick up another nighttime SoCal soap, get Newport Beach-bred McG involved as an executive producer, launch it in August when nobody's looking, then plan to move it later in the fall to Thursdays opposite bulletproof ratings behemoths CSI and Will & Grace. Sly like a . . . well, not so much.

Given all this, The O.C. is surprisingly better than it should be. Since Fox's early kick-off date will have it temporarily vacating the schedule long before the rest of the net's fall lineup bows in October, it's definitely better than it has to be. Not that you'd know it from the press synopsis:

Orange County is an idyllic paradise, a wealthy harbor-front community where everything and everyone appears to be perfect. But beneath the surface is a world of shifting loyalties and identities, of kids living secret lives hidden from their parents and of parents living secret lives hidden from their children.

Sounds suspiciously cut-and-pasted from Pasadena; maybe the blurb will be re-recycled when Fox introduces the sure-hit potboiler serial of 2005: Tarzana. The O.C. has more WB-worthy teen appeal than Pasadena did, mostly in the form of dreamy-smart-kid-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie), kicked out of his Los Angeles dump of a home by a white-trash stereotype of a mom and her abusive drunken boyfriend (is there ever any other kind?). Ryan's taken in by Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), a pro-bono public defender with ideals, great hair and a businesswoman wife (Kelly Rowan) who makes the real money to pay for their Orange County lifestyle. The significant others of idealistic, great-haired alt-weekly writers will surely relate.

No sooner does Ryan share a late-night smoke with the insanely-hot-but-sweet-girl-next-door (Mischa Barton) than the culture-clash sparks fly, the society-dividing likes of which have not been seen since at least last week's Gilmore Girls rerun. The gorgeous rich kids of "The OC" (who actually refer to it by that 'hood moniker, crazy teens) don't take kindly to the gorgeous poor kid, but dammit, he's got nowhere else to go! And did you not catch the part about the insanely-hot-but-sweet-girl-next-door?

Still, The O.C. is more than just Everwood in a higher tax bracket. McG's trademark over-the-top visuals are absent, his sole contribution seemingly the TRL-centric soundtrack; the dialogue is snappy and pleasantly real; and the cast is largely free of dead weight, almost too good for this—particularly Gallagher, always the coolest cat on any screen. Must be those hyp-mo-tizing eyebrows.

Best advice: Take advantage of The O.C.'s summer run but don't expect it to be around in 2004.

The Oc debuts on Fox Tuesday, 9 p.m.


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