I was largely brought up on Australian soap opera. Neighbours, Home and Away, even Heartbreak High. Pretty standard manufactured drivel, for the most part, despite the latter of those shows having slightly more to offer. On the other side of the world you had US shows like Beverly Hills 90210 where everybody was too pretty and too cool to be in the least bit believable. It was a sure fire hit and most of these shows really suckered my in when I was in my teens, but it wasn't long before the style over substance formula of many 'glossy' daytime US shows wore me down and I was put of the derivative nonsense for some time.
The best part of a decade later and I hear about the O.C. It sounded like another glossy, glamorous, too perfect to be true piece of fluff. I avoided it like the plague, laughing derisively as Channel 4 and E4 tried desperately to plug it and the comparably glossy One Tree Hill day and night. They weren't going to sucker me into watching this show. Then I read a review of the first season of the O.C. and, within twenty-four hours I had ordered it. By the end of the week it arrived and by the end of the following week I had finished watching it and was already climbing the walls wanting the second season to be released forthwith. I cannot explain how compelling and enjoyable this warm U.S. drama is but believe me - because I was a true non-believer - let these pretty, imperfect characters into your life and it won't be long before you find yourself addicted to a truly great show.
Setting the scene, the O.C. is about a rich community in the small town of Newport, Orange County, where everybody appears to have everything they want. Of course, if you scratch below the surface you soon realise that almost none of them are happy, despite how much they try to buy contentment. At the heart of the drama we have the Cohen family, headed up by Sandy (Peter Gallagher), a public defence barrister with a heart. He's a good man and he's pretty cool to boot in the grand scheme of soap dads. He's married to Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), a glamorous and loving wife who happens to be he eldest daughter of a bigwig called Caleb (Neighbours' Jim Ramsey and the Vice President from 24 season 2, Alan Dale) who owns most of Newport. Sandy and Kirsten have one son, Seth (Adam Brody), a very atypical soap character - a comic-book loving captain of sarcasm who represents one of the most prominently cool nerds in soap history. Also in the household we get the rebellious Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie), an outcast from Chino who Sandy takes pity on and allows to stay with them. Through Ryan, Seth discovers a new kinship and gains a significant amount of confidence, while Ryan learns how to better deal with his bottled-up emotions.
The first season largely revolved around Ryan, seeing him arrive and be taken in by the household, Sandy and Kirsten go through a rough spot in their marriage and in their careers and the two boys getting to know the local ladies - most importantly neighbours and best friends Marissa (Mischa Barton) and Summer (Rachel Bilson). Ryan has to go a long way to prove that he is in the same league as Marissa but, after her father Jimmy (Tate Donovan) goes bankrupt and her shallow plastic mother Julie (Melinda Clarke) shacks up with the mogul Caleb (quite openly for his money) Marissa is left having to learn that maybe money and status do not rule her life after all. Seth similarly has an uphill struggle with the cute-as-a-button but eminently clueless Summer, pulling out all of his comic superhero stops to try and win her heart over. Cut lots of break-ups and make-ups, jealousy and passion, love and hurt with a season finale that basically sees almost everyone go their own separate ways - leaving lots of broken hearts in the wake.
Although you do wonder quite how they are going to put things back together, it is obvious from this kind of show that all of the main characters are going to go back into their correct place in the grand scheme of things within the first few episodes of the new season. Ryan and Marissa are back to their on-off off-on relationship, Seth is still battling with his affection for Summer and Sandy is still trying, despite the odds, to keep the whole family together. We get several new characters to confuse the situation yet further - Marissa has a thing for the pool-boy, Summer dates a perfected version of Seth, Ryan takes an interest in his science lab partner and Seth gets involved with a sassy young blonde. A quarter of the way into the season and they all seem to be happy in their respective new partnerships, but you just know that all those buried feelings for their true loves are going to come boiling over and leave the newcomers with broken hearts.
Aside from the Ryan-Marissa/Seth-Summer permutations, the biggest ongoing story arc follows the grandfather Caleb, who is under investigation for bribery and corruption. Potentially more serious than many of the other more romantic storylines, it provides an undercurrent for quite a few episodes, smoothly leading into an unusually complex plot involving some of the new characters and some very old, hidden demons. Before long we find the adults in a much more desperate and serious situation to any of the kids with Caleb feeling more outcast and alone than ever, Julie at her most manipulative, Ryan's convict brother arriving, Marissa finding it hard to deal with her emotions and Sandy and Kirsten's marriage hanging in the balance. It is difficult to know just how much detail to go into without giving too much away, suffice to say that if you enjoyed the first seasons then this is just more of the same - and that is not, in any way, a criticism. Sure you could plot out the similarities between both seasons and be shocked by the repeated romantic storylines but, to be honest, each episode and each story manages to seem fresh and entertaining despite all this. It is a tumultuous ride across this 24 episode season, perhaps not as exhausting as the latest season of 24, but still more than enough to leave you emotionally spent. In my opinion though, it's well worth it.
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