The lives of the rich and beautiful are common terrain for soap operas—prime-time, daytime, or otherwise—but unlike Beverly Hills 90210 and its ilk, Josh Schwartz's addictive series The OC doesn't take its zip code for granted. Though a full-blown class critique would strip away precious reserves of glamour, wealth runs through the show like toxins in the bloodstream, infecting every relationship and subtly tipping the balance of power. Schwartz isn't Douglas Sirk, nor does he aspire to be, but money makes his world go 'round, and his characters are always keenly aware of their status. In Schwartz's hands, the conservative enclave of Orange County, California exists in some pop-savvy universe between Edith Wharton and Guiding Light, where a hornet's nest of vengeful snobs and damaged debutantes treat outsiders to their own special hazing rituals. It's little wonder that the new kid, a dirt-poor delinquent from neighboring Chino, has less to fear from the streets than from the beach parties, charity balls, and cotillions thrown by the Newport Beach elite.
In this environment, where boredom creates its own reason for melodrama, Benjamin McKenzie experiences instant culture shock when public defender Peter Gallagher whisks him away from juvenile detention to a coastal mansion. Having come from a hardscrabble background and married into wealth, Gallagher recognizes some of himself in the downtrodden kid, and he convinces his wife (Kelly Rowan) that they should become McKenzie's legal guardians. The news thrills their son Adam Brody, a precociously witty outcast in need of a comrade, but the rest of the community isn't so welcoming. Trouble follows McKenzie wherever he goes, especially once he sets his sights on next-door neighbor Mischa Barton, an almost otherworldly beauty who's pledged herself to resident jock/tool Chris Carmack. When Barton's father (Tate Donovan) gets nabbed in an embezzlement scheme, her parents' marriage begins to fray, and only McKenzie can stop her from sinking into booze and pills.
It may take a couple of seasons for The OC to settle into the arbitrary backstabbing and two-faced villainy of Melrose Place, but for now, a gallery of well-sketched, reliable characters keeps the trashiness in check. There are still the obligatory alliances (natural and unholy), weekly scandals, and hook-ups that run like musical-chairs games, but everyone at least behaves with consistency. With his hard glares and puppy-dog looks, McKenzie's James Dean-meets-Russell Crowe poses get a little tiresome; roughly half the episodes involve him getting into fistfights, and he's invariably in the right. Aside from Gallagher's breezily assured portrayal of a freewheeling idealist, family man, and surfer, much of the show's humor and soul emanates from Brody, who rivals Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Nicholas Brendon for winsome, quipping geekery. And, since The OC's cultural references and terrific college-radio soundtrack suggest Schwartz's personal allegiance to Brody's character, it's a hopeful sign that future seasons will take their cues from him.