- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

“The O.C.” has it, that intangible, irrefutable something that makes rival television producers go weak at the knees.

The Fox network show, such as “Dawson’s Creek” and “Beverly Hills, 90210” before it, has captured the wave of teen delirium. Beautiful people. Music of the moment. Fashion statements which quickly ripple through high schools nationwide.

It’s appointment television for those too young to vote but too old to care about the Olsen twins.

“The O.C.” follows a group of high school students making their mark in Orange County, Calif. Young, safely rebellious Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) is the show’s dramatic center, trying to rebuild his life under the firm hand of his new guardians (Peter Gallagher and Kelly Rowan).

The formula for this kind of show, which airs at 9 Wednesday nights, is hardly new. Overage actors play teens still angsting about homework and proms and spontaneously spout dialogue wittier than your average student could muster if he or she had all term to think about it.

The inevitable soundtrack album, to feature Phantom Planet as well as songs by Spoon, Jem, the 88 and Jet, is slated for a March 30 release. The CD, which should further cement the show’s hold on teens, will come with a code so customers can go online and unlock more content, including where each song was used on the show.

Tim Jackson, professor in the digital media broadcast division at the New England Institute of Art, says record companies are turning to television more than ever to sell their product in a marketplace reeling from soft sales and free downloads.

“Many more hits are broken on television than radio these days,” he says. “That’s been a sensibility for marketers for quite a while. They’re bypassing radio.”

Mr. Jackson says he gets updates on just how hip “The O.C.” is from his daughter and niece.

“In addition to brilliant casting, it’s created a dialogue for parents and kids. They actually do sit down and talk about it,” Mr. Jackson says.

Teens today talk more about religious diversity without having it impact the way they think about one another, he says, and they broach issues regarding homosexuality far more openly than past generations.

Reality television may get all the ink these days, but Mr. Jackson says “The O.C.” plots are governed by real issues.

“Reality is closing in on these shows, and the writers are getting good about the micro-details of teenage life,” he says.

Entertainment Weekly collectively named “The O.C.’s” cast as the “Breakout Star, 2003” and reports the show has granted the vintage sportswear company Original Penguin a new life.

The teen fashion destination www.fashionclub.com runs an “O.C. Style Report” on its Web site to keep tabs on its wardrobe drifts.

Some of the show’s fashion statements are shrewdly aimed at the cost-conscious set. A recent episode featured a Wet Seal jacket — a $20 value — with an inexpensive pair of flip-flops.

Alexandra Welker, the show’s costume designer, says the danger of designing for a show like “The O.C.” is that as soon as an episode hits the air its fashions could be passe. Ms. Welker shoots for outfits that are both of the moment and timeless.

“I’d hate for it to go into syndication and have people say, ‘That’s so 2003,’” says Ms. Welker, a veteran feature film designer.

Fashion may have its fluffy side, but what actors wear gives “a myriad of clues as to who they are, their sense of self,” she says. “My lead male, Ryan, is this outsider … I’ve had this strong directive to maintain that outsider status” through his ensembles, she says. “The clothes are very lean.”

Ms. Welker’s charges already have established a few looks that are infiltrating the consumer mind-set. She sees more young people today donning small T-shirts, and her characters’ thing for Ugg boots is already being aped in hip urban regions.

Not everyone is delighted with “The O.C.’s” rise to pop culture touchstone status.

Melissa Caldwell, director of research and publications for the Parents Television Council, says the program often exposes its young audience to morally questionable behavior.

The first episode alone, Miss Caldwell says, featured an unsupervised party in which drugs and alcohol were greedily consumed and one character stumbled onto a menage a trios. To its credit, she says, the show implied the hedonistic lifestyle portends danger.

Subsequent episodes haven’t been so nuanced.

That’s the balance the show often strikes, trotting out salacious behavior and then slapping it on the collective wrists. That tug of war resonates with young audiences, she says.

“Most teens are not raised in that permissive environment,” she says. “Their instincts are pulling them in another direction.”

It’s a safe bet “The O.C.” will have the lion’s share of young viewers at least through season’s end. But teen tastes are fickle.

Just ask any bored record store clerk stocking unsold copies of Britney Spears’ latest album.

Jon Hein, creator of the “Jump the Shark” Web site (www.jumptheshark.com), says Fox’s savvy marketing plan gave the show a great jump-start. “The O.C.” first aired in late summer, before the other new network shows could crowd it out. It’s too early for the show to “jump the shark” (Mr. Hein’s coinage, which means when a show begins to founder), but he says that with today’s diversification of programming schedules, the show’s demographic dominance might not last long.

“A new show can come at any time, and that changes the game a little bit,” he says. “To keep it fresh is tough to do, but [for now] this is the teen drama that people are watching.”

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