Every night is prom night on 'The O.C.'
The O.C.
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What can you say about a show that is goofy and glossy and self-consciously ironic? That it fills a gaping hole on television for the kind of frothy soap that uses titillation to reinforce sweetly old-fashioned mores? That it's surprisingly addictive? That a year ago you had no idea who Benjamin McKenzie was and thought of Peter Gallagher as that actor with eyebrows you suspected of harboring--or being--separate life-forms?

Today, however, you may love The O.C. and wonder guiltily if drooling over an actor who plays a high schooler makes you a dirty old woman, or if it's okay because the actor is actually old enough to drink--hell, he can practically run for the U.S. Senate--and because the cast of Charlie's Angels II: No, Really, Running Around in Swimwear Is Empowering! has made dating younger men legitimate.

Or maybe it's me with those issues. Anyway, The O.C. seems like a perfect document of the Bush economy: It's been a while since we've seen a soap about rich people that didn't attempt to make a big statement about class warfare, which is actually a good thing here. Not that The O.C. isn't aware of American caste distinctions. In the debut episode, Ryan the foundling hood carried on about the coming economic crisis when the baby boomers hit retirement age--a demonstration that he was a poor-but-bright kid who would shine as a beacon of moral clarity in the fog of money blanketing the Orange County coast. His rescuer, Sandy, was another moral beacon--the outsider who married into money but dealt with the class implications by becoming a guilty liberal. At the start, we were given to suspect that these two brainy do-gooders would regularly bore and exasperate all those rich people who just wanted to be left alone to commit insider trading and adultery in peace.

Except that this show had the perverse good sense to make the rich people sympathetic and give everyone a sense of humor. On the episode where Ryan's emotionally fragile girlfriend-next-door tells him she loves him and he answers, "Thank you," the reliably ironic and deadpan Seth (Ryan's rich foster brother, played by Adam Brody) passes it on to his parents. They promptly toss back a hale, "Thank you!" when Seth calls out that he loves them. Even the designated rich bitch on the program--Melinda Clarke, last seen on TV as a diabetic dominatrix on CSI--is hilarious with the way she flings herself into the part of a poor girl determined never to go back to Ross's Dress for Less again.

And have I mentioned Peter Gallagher's eyebrows?

Despite the self-aware humor and gratuitously silly stuff--constant formal events as an excuse to show us the rich know when white tie is more appropriate than black! Rich women hitting Ryan up for the thrill of rolling a poor boy from Chino! Women stamping their pedicured feet when their embezzling spouse refuses alopecia treatments for a balding pony!--the show is fundamentally sweet at heart. When Sandy's mischievous sister-in-law sends Sandy and spouse Kirsten to a swingers' party, the two end up realizing they love being boring old marrieds. The teenagers all crave parental guidance, and don't bother to hide it. And the virtues of loyalty and forgiveness are extolled as people are bailed out of every conceivable peril: accidental arson, accidental Mexican overdoses, accidental cocaine busts, and accidental affairs with their almost-grandmother.

So I love this show because it's ludicrous and knows it's ludicrous, and that that's exactly what it wants to be. And I don't care that I've flipped over a teen show with Peter Gallagher and Peter Gallagher's eyebrows and possible-jailbait Benjamin McKenzie. Sometimes, love means never having to say you're sorry.

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