'The O.C.': So Over-the-Top It's Hit Rock Bottom

The dearly departed Mischa Barton and Benjamin McKenzie on Fox's once hip prime-time soap opera. Now in its fourth season, the show has gone from so-bad-it's-good to just, well, so bad.
The dearly departed Mischa Barton and Benjamin McKenzie on Fox's once hip prime-time soap opera. Now in its fourth season, the show has gone from so-bad-it's-good to just, well, so bad. (/ Fox)
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006

Barely into its fourth season, "The O.C." is hanging on for dear life.

Mired in low ratings, Fox's soapy teen drama -- which last season iced one of its stars in a pathetic bid for viewers -- has now resorted to turning one character into a kooky eco-crusader and another into . . . a cage fighter.

We have a better answer.

Pull the plug.

Besides, creatively, the show is so dead.

This week, in perhaps a last-ditch attempt to boost viewership, Fox moved the show's regular slot from Thursday to Wednesday, but not before its season premiere last week opposite "Grey's Anatomy" and "CSI" drew a woeful 3.4 million viewers -- this from a former hit that averaged 9.7 million during its 2003-04 debut season. Fox is airing the third episode tonight anyway.

It's been a slow, hard descent for "The O.C.," which became a pop-culture darling that made instant stars -- and tabloid fodder -- of its cast members and then-26-year-old creator, Josh Schwartz. (We also soon reveled in the real-life hookups, fashion faux pas and meta-drama among the show's hot young actors.)

The show had a formula that on the surface wasn't all that new. A rough-and-tumble outsider is taken in by rich benefactors in Orange County, Calif., who want to make a project of him -- because, hey, money does such wonderful things to people. The alcoholic mothers (there have been two) and derelict siblings (one brother, several sisters) were pure soap.

"The O.C.," though, had a spark of something else: It made fun of its pretty-boy jocks; its stock villainess faced disappointment after disappointment and, it turns out, wasn't so stock; it featured an ethnically mixed family (the show popularized the ultra-inclusive holiday Chrismukkah); and it had the cleverness to mock itself (even as it put a cappuccino bar in a high school).

What happened? Schwartz lost a handle on his show (news of the killed-off character was leaked by the star), and now writes the episodes less and less often. Worse, story lines were abandoned as quickly as they were introduced and characters expunged, and it was so obvious why: The writing wasn't working. Everybody was in on the joke, and the joke became "The O.C."

The flameout of Fox's savvy teen hit made for spectacular viewing. The first season was the best of so-bad-it's-good fun. No party could go down -- on the beach, in a mansion or in a motel room -- without punches or a hair-yanking catfight. It got so that just a mention of a coming winter formal or summer gala sparked giggles -- because, no doubt, someone was going to get decked and, we hoped, thrown into the pool.

Skeletal sot Marissa (Mischa Barton), master hostess of so many of these affairs, pulled full-on liter bottles of vodka from her designer purse at opportune moments. There were frequent modernist references to "The Valley," the teen soap that the libidinous kids on "The O.C." might have interrupted coitus to watch.

The missteps began early on. In a first-season episode, Theresa, the outsider's old flame from the slums of Chino, pops in, bringing drama with her. In a world where everyone drinks, sleeps around and takes drugs, only Theresa -- the show's lone minority character at the time -- became the teen mom.

By the second season, we sniffed more heavy-handed manipulation. "The O.C.," which had developed a rep for bringing the indie-rock likes of Sufjan Stevens and Bloc Party to the masses, started featuring the bands on the show, and it sure looked like an ad.

The death knell, though, was Marissa's second-season foray into lesbianism. Viewers scoffed, but not out of homophobia; rather, the show's hipness suddenly felt so forced.

From there, it got absurd. Summer (Rachel Bilson) is now a campus activist (she's such a literal tree-hugger that the writers seem to want to imply that environmentalism is a cheesy cause). Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) fights in cages. Marissa's sister, whose name is not even worth learning -- the show being doomed and all -- sluts around. And all that boozing and fighting has gotten most of the kids admitted to the Ivies.

It's all so silly and so false that it has the desperate feel of the end. So we'll say it now:

Peace out, "O.C." It was a party while it lasted.

The O.C. (one hour) airs tonight at 9 on Channel 5.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company