Mainstream newspaper writers have gotten themselves and their readers in a lather about Fox TV's The O.C. It's a fraud, the critics say. Internet message boards have been lit up by OC natives—including Newport Beach teens—who insist they're nothing like the characters on the show.
The initial backlash caused the show's creators to distance their fictional OC from the real OC. McG and Josh Schwartz moved quickly to say that their Potemkin OC is a stand-in for just about Anywhere—so long as anywhere is packed with spectacular homes on zero lot lines, brand-new Mercedes G500s, 'round-the-clock raging keggers, model-quality teens who appear to be mid-20s and so many tragic financial/existential/pharmaceutical events packed into so little time it'd make a Kennedy's head spin.
It's a shame that those who brought The O.C. to the little screen feel a need to qualify their success (among teenagers. it's the top prime-time program in the country and the only summer-replacement show whose audience grew each successive week). For it's clear the knocks are unfair: The O.C. actually gets a lot more right than wrong.
If exterior shots of fabulous homes are actually outside Orange County it's because Newport Beach developers (we're thinking Capital Pacific and John Laing) build all the new houses in Southern California. Many well-appointed interiors intended to replicate those in Newport Beach's best neighborhoods look like something you'd see on the Philharmonic Society of Orange County Home Tour.
But in real-life Newport Beach, there are also a number of palatial pads with barely a stick of furniture in them because their occupants have dumped all their money into just owning the address, with a little left over to lease the Mercedes S500 sedan and Hummer H2 parked outside like Isamu Noguchi sculptures.
It's this self-destructive obsession with faade—this drive to live the Newport Beach life at all costs—that appears in four-color in Fox's The O.C. The fictional Jimmy Cooper (Tate Donovan) seems to be a nice enough bloke—he's on the A-list for all of Newport's high-society functions—but he's driven so hard by his wife, neighbors and himself to keep up with the Newporters that he's forced to scam his friends. (Hello, Eddie Allen!) It all comes crashing down on him—much as it did for such real-life Newport high-society types as Jim Slemons, who went from owning a luxury-car dealership, many wives (including a Playboy Playmate) and an $87 million fortune in the '80s to being so broke he was living out of his car in Honolulu two years ago. Or there was Danny and Susie Hernandez, a beautiful young couple who bought a multimillion-dollar mansion in Laguna Niguel and were soon granted a pass to Newport Beach's high-society in the mid-1980s. But within a decade, federal prosecutors had accused them of financing their lifestyle with the nearly $9 million Danny embezzled from the precious-metals company he worked for—money Susie laundered through a complex series of bank accounts. They both got prison time and had to apply for welfare for their two young children. The Hernandezes had been introduced to the social scene by Richard Engel and his former Playboy Playmate wife, Jolene, who bragged in 1991 of owning a fleet of 13 cars that included a Ferrari F-40 worth $600,000, flew their Lear jet to President Bill Clinton's inauguration a year later, and lavished their ample riches on local arts organizations. That was before the Internal Revenue Serviceaccused them of owing the government $11 million; they divorced and disappeared from the society pages. Or how about the saddest sack of all, Stephen A. Wagner, who embezzled $3.7 million from the Newport-Mesa Unified School District that employed him as their financial chief to pay for a lavish lifestyle that included luxury cars, fur coats and a double-life away from his wife and kids? He died of AIDS in prison in 1995 at age 43.
This obsession with the advertised life can't help but be passed down to children and played out once these kids hit their teens. It's a style of living that's laced with heavy drinking and drug experimentation—something The O.C. has been accused of exaggerating. But there are many parents who have obtained phony Newport addresses to enroll their children into the city's "better" high schools—only to quickly pull their kids out after running up against the rampant, real-world materialism, heavy drinking and drug abuse at Newport Harbor and Corona del Marhigh schools.
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The O.C.'s creators know well what goes on here, and they're not far removed from their teen years themselves. But if harping on that lifestyle was all there was to the show, it'd get boring real fast. Quite smartly, their underlying theme of fitting in and keeping up is addressed from far different perspectives. There's lead character Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie), a fish outta Chino's worst water who's hoping to turn his troubled life around in Newport Beach. There's the object of his desire, Marissa (Mischa Barton), who must choose between true love with Ryan (an outsider with limited potential) or sticking with another Newport millionaire-in-the-making. There's nerdish Seth (Weekly coverboy Adam Brody), the character who rings most true: he wishes he could be more like his surrogate brother Ryan so he can finally get the girl—especially if that girl is his boyhood crush, the hot but vacuous Summer (covergirl Rachel Bilson).
Even the show's subtleties are on target. Anyone who has been around a teenage girl lately can hear the exact same uses and inflections of a single syllable—"Ew!"—employed so brilliantly and with such Thai-language flexibility by Bilson. There are also idealistic and ashamedly wealthy professionals —especially in Corona del Mar—such as defense attorney with a heart of gold Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher, in need of a comb). Combine all this with snappy dialogue and one of those goddamn theme songs you can't get out of your head with even with the help of an exorcist (Phantom Planet's "California"), and it's no wonder The O.C. is a hit.
Yes, Newport Beach also has soccer moms and churchgoers and people who love their dogs. Good or bad, Newport Beach certainly does not represent all of Orange County's 436 communities. But as much as someone in, say, La Palma might protest that he's nothing like the people in The O.C., one must concede that Newport Beach is Orange County's political, cultural and charitable center. The county's richest and most powerful don't live at Disneyland, after all. They're big fans of Euro Disney.
Newport Beach has a unique aura that's as genuine as its magnificent coastline and as addictive as meth. For better and worse, that's what is flashed on television screens across America every Wednesday night at 9.