When Ryan Atwood, a tough, guarded, fiercely intelligent 16-year-old plunges headlong into the wealthy, privileged community of Newport Beach, he soon discovers that the ruling families of Orange County are every bit as territorial as the tough crowd with which he ran on the streets of Chino. For Sandy Cohen, the idealistic public defender who takes Ryan in; his wife Kirsten, the linchpin of O.C. society; their awkward adolescent son, Seth; and the beautiful troubled girl next door, Marissa Copper - Ryan's presence will forever change their lives. It looked like a standard teen soap on the outside, but once you scratched the surface of the glittery, sun-dappled Fox drama The O.C.
, you'd find underneath a number of surprisingly well-developed characters, fun plots that played around with their soap conventions, and some of the wittiest dialogue this side of an Aaron Sorkin show. The setup was pure high concept: hunky, brooding Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) was a good kid from Chino starting to go bad, and thanks to the interference of his lawyer, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), finds himself whisked away from the wrong side of the tracks to the mansions and manicured lawns of Orange County. Soon, Ryan finds himself living in the Cohens' pool house, involved with troubled rich girl Marissa (Mischa Barton), and bristling against the societal confines of his new home, as the people may be richer but they're just as screwed up as anyone else. Still, somehow, he manages to bring out the humanity of the superficial people around him, and they become all the better for knowing him.
Okay, enough with the Beverly Hills, 90210 scenario--what The O.C. turned out to be was the most addictive TV soap in recent memory, and one with a brain to boot. Smarter than Melrose Place, sexier than 90210, funnier than Felicity, and not as enamored of itself as Dawson's Creek, The O.C. reveled in clever and hilarious dialogue (the pilot episode earned a WGA nomination) and quirky, eccentric characters. Most noteworthy was breakout star Adam Brody, who as Ryan's geeky newfangled brother-type Seth practically stole the teen heartthrob mantle away from Russell Crowe-lookalike McKenzie. Barton was a bit of a blank as the troubled Marissa, but her best pal, the blissfully superficial Summer, was played by Rachel Bilson as the perfect supporting character in a dizzy farce. And the adults, especially Gallagher and Kelly Rowan as the supportive Cohens, grounded the other half of the show in you know, like, maturity. Not that The O.C. ever forgot the fun that was to be had in TV-land, as most every other episode ended with a fistfight or someone falling into a pool--sometimes both. Here was a soap you could purely enjoy without guilt. --Mark Englehart