In my opinion, we are living in the new Golden Age of television. The reasons are twofold: a sharp increase in the quality of television writing and improved means of viewing series thanks to both high definition television and DVDs. The quality of writing is not just a result of a new generation of highly talented writers hitting the scene, but a tremendous broadening of what writers are able to achieve in the medium. Before shows like HILL STREET BLUES began breaking down the stand-alone episode format that had dominated television for decades, allowing a degree of character of development and a narrative complexity not previously possible, writers were saddled with concocting stories that had to be contained entirely within a 40 or 20 minute show. But beginning in the late 1980s and especially after shows like THE X-FILES, plots began breaking out of the 40 minute strait-jacket and an individual episode started picking up plot details from earlier shows, more often than not leaving much to be explained in future episodes. Though series like LAW AND ORDER and CSI continue to work with the earlier format, more shows than not now exult in the freedom of story arcs that carry over long stretches of seasons, juggling two or three or more narratives at once.
Of all the genres exploiting the new freedom given television writers, my least favorite has always been the teen or adult soap opera. I found all of Aaron Spelling's shows to be fairly unwatchable and was left cold by DAWSON'S CREEK. Despite this, I find THE O.C. to be a delightful exception to this role. What sets this series apart from its competitors is the sharp intelligence of the writing, a first rate cast that spans a wide range of ages, an unwillingness to pander in cheap pathos, and a mildly self-ironic stance towards the genre to which it belongs. The show manages to be genuinely funny, emotionally involving, and surprisingly moral all at the same time. I'm sometimes suspicious of why some people like it, but if some like it for the wrong reasons, there are plenty of very good reasons to like it.
The most immediate reason for liking the show is the absolutely first-rate cast. Benjamin McKenzie made an immediate splash on the show as Ryan Atwood, a good kid from Chino caught in a bad situation. Physically he bears a striking resemblance to Russell Crowe, a fact that received much mention when the show debuted and even commented on in one episode. Ryan and his date have returned from seeing MASTER AND COMMANDER, and looking him full in the eye says that she doesn't understand why anyone thinks that Russell Crowe is handsome. Of course, the audience is in on the joke. Ryan is befriended by the idealistic Sandy Cohen, a New Yorker who in his youth was much like Ryan. He brings Ryan home to his upper class home in a Malibu-like community, and almost by accident he, his wife, and son become Ryan's new foster home. Peter Gallagher, an actor I've rarely liked in the past, is absolutely outstanding as Sandy, and makes him my favorite character on the show. Through the first two seasons Sandy acts as the moral center of the show, so completely driven by his principles that at times even his familial relations are sometimes threatened by them. But his compassion and determination to do what is right are downright inspirational. He is one of the rare truly good characters on television. Kelly Rowan is superb as Sandy's wife Kirsten, and Adam Brody is even better as their son Seth. One of the great cool nerds on TV, Seth also exhibits perhaps the best taste in culture on TV (how often do truly great cultural figures like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, the Shins, Modest Mouse, and their ilk get mentioned on prime time?). Together Ryan, Sandy, Kirsten, and Seth make one of the most compelling families on TV. And women! No prime time television show would be complete without gorgeous women, and THE O.C. is no exception. Mischa Barton is not just a pretty face, though she is at least that. Tall, lithe, and blessed with the looks of a beautiful fashion model, she plays Marisa, more or less Ryan's love interest on the show. She is a good enough actress that she manages to make her character more interesting than equivalent characters on other shows, and the writers give her more opportunity to shine by making Marisa an individual who struggle more than most in coping with her problems. In the first two seasons of the show, she has struggled with alcohol, drugs, and sexual experimentation, and managing to be profoundly unhappy through it all. Equally interesting is Rachel Bilson as Summer, a cute but ultra-self-absorbed teen who could have been a one-dimensional character similar to Cordelia Chase in the first three seasons of BUFFY, but instead quickly develops into a more complex and interesting character (much as Cordelia did once she shifted to ANGEL) who has an inexplicable attraction to Seth (again, much as Cordelia was to Xander). To add to the BUFFY connection, the first time I saw Rachel Bilson was in the great Season Seven episode of BUFFY called "Dirty Girls," in which she plays (along with another Potential Slayer) a brief though memorable part as the object of a very funny sexual fantasy on the part of Xander. Summer is a great example of the way that the writers resist turning roles into stock characters. There are also a string of excellent performers in smaller roles, including Samaire Armstrong as Anna Stern, a competitor for Summer for Seth's attentions, and Navi Rowat, Ryan's ex-girlfriend.
I'm less thrilled by Melinda Clarke as Julie Cooper-Nichol, Marissa's mother and a character who would seem more at home on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES than THE O.C. This is typical of a larger problem: the show doesn't do nearly as good with unsympathetic characters as with sympathetic ones. If we are supposed to love them, we generally do, but if we are supposed to hate them, we do because they simply aren't likable. Instead of being great bad characters, they only manage to be off putting. Over two seasons I have failed to like Alan Dale as Kirsten's father, and Taylor Handley as the troubled and manipulative and utterly unbelievable Oliver Trask was positively awful. This is all a bit odd because many of the most memorable characters on TV have been evil or at least kind of bad. But THE O.C. has yet to produce a single excellent bad character. Perhaps that will be a project for Season Three.
My friend Tracy pointed out one other great virtue of the show to me. She noted that unlike most other series with strong teen elements, the adult story lines are at least as good. Stories involving Sandy or Kirsten or other adults are not mere throw ins, but fully equal to the kid story lines. I think this is in part responsible for the narrative richness of the show. It is not just a show for the kiddies.
As much as I have loved this show, there is still the problem with the genre. I mentioned that I don't like teen and adult soap operas, and part of the reason lies in the difficulty such shows have in sustaining narratives. A show like VERONICA MARS or BUFFY or LOST, where large-scale stories provide the framework for all of the narrative elements, have a huge advantage over a show like THE O.C. In these shows there is a sense of a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Veronica Mars in that show's first season was both trying to solve the mystery of the death of her best friend and exonerate her father from a series of false accusations. In Season Five of Buffy our heroine was attempting to confront a hell goddess bent upon killing her sister. In both of these instances the plot gave the series a unity that THE O.C. always lacks. Instead it consists of a host of smaller stories; good stories, but a multiplicity of smaller narratives that are not terribly unified. In the end, that is the only thing that keeps THE O.C. from rivaling my favorite series, the inability to tell a Big Story.
Nonetheless, THE O.C. is an exceptionally well-done series with a group of characters that are exceptionally easy to like. The first season was very good, the second season perhaps even better, and this leaves me looking very much forward to the third season.