A reviewer could give away everything in the pilot of The O.C. (Fox, Tuesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.) and really give away nothing. He could say, for instance, that when disadvantaged teen Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie) gets busted for car theft, kicked out of his house in Chino, Calif., and brought to ritzy Newport Beach by his public defender, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), his weekend visit will become permanent. That when Ryan steps outside to sneak a smoke, he will run into the girl next door, his Troubled Future Love Interest. That the T.F.L.I. will have a Spoiled Rich Friend, a Mean Jock Boyfriend and a Dark Family Secret. That Ryan will have trouble fitting in with the posh crowd. That he will get mad and punch some inanimate (and animate) objects. And that it will all wrap up in an emotional scene set to a tender pop ballad from a CD on sale at a record chain near you.
This may all be very predictable, but that's not a problem. The O.C. (as in Orange County, where the show is set) is a teen soap, and we fans of the genre no more want it to avoid cliches than we want McDonald's to serve escargots. We just want it to let us live vicariously the lives of wealthy people while also looking down on them. A decade ago, Beverly Hills, 90210 flattered heartland viewers by testing the Midwestern values of the transplanted Walsh family in BMW-and-bulimia Babylon. The O.C.'s outsider premise is both older and more radical: when a poor kid in trouble moves to a pampered enclave, who will corrupt whom?
O.K., we know the answer to that even before we walk into the beachfront-mansion party with the cocaine snorting and the three-ways. But The O.C. uses another novel device that separates it from 90210: acting. The Ryan role begs for faux-James Dean histrionics, but instead McKenzie gives cool, understated readings to lines like "Where I'm from, having a dream doesn't make you smart. Knowing it won't come true--that does." Likewise Gallagher, as a street-smart lawyer from the Bronx who married money, and Adam Brody, as his nerdy, dryly funny son--who fits in even worse than Ryan in the socially savage O.C.--kick up their characters to two, even 2 1/2 dimensions. Director Doug Liman (Swingers) handles the stock scenes deftly: our first look at the Mean Jock (pulls up in SUV, kisses girl, flashes a cocky, aggressive grin) is a compact haiku of soap-character exposition. And it's refreshing, after years of exhaustingly self-conscious soaps in the Dawson's Creek mold, to see an old-school, un-ironic teen drama whose characters don't sling pop-culture bons mots like ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY interns.
Teen-soap diehards know there's only one place for this story to go, at best: a long trip through high school, college, receding hairlines and eventual appearances on The Surreal Life XXVI. But The O.C. looks to have enough heart, talent and wit to generate a few seasons' worth of luxurious suds. As Ryan would say, in the teen-soap business, being 100% original doesn't make you smart. Delivering a formula with so much style and believability that it feels new again--that does.
--By James Poniewozik