Teen drama 'O.C.' beats real Orange Co.

By CATHERINE SEIPP  |  Aug. 4, 2003 at 7:19 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Aug. 4 (UPI) -- I believe, in theory, that regret is a waste of time. Still...why oh why oh WHY couldn't the Orange County I grew up in have been just a little like the achingly glamorous "The O.C."?

In the new Fox teen drama, which premieres Tuesday, girls model evening gowns in charity fashion shows and then wander dreamily around in bikinis at Newport Beach mansions, which their parents have considerately handed over for the evening as a reward for all that hard modeling work.

In my own Orange County teen drama, which had a seemingly interminable and extremely boring run during the '70s, girls shopped the sale racks at downmarket malls while snacking on salty bits of gristle from Hickory Farms, then considered a gourmet food emporium. Bikinis were used not for dreamy wandering but for bodysurfing... which inevitably ended with your face in the gravel and the bra part around your neck as boys laughed and pointed and yelled "Bitchen wipeout!"

"The O.C." stars Benjamin McKenzie as Ryan, a Boy From the Wrong Side of the Orange County Tracks who hotwires a car and goes to live in posh Newport Beach with the family of his kindly public defender lawyer, played by Peter Gallagher.

Newcomer McKenzie, a Texan who recently graduated from the University of Virginia (he majored in Foreign Affairs and Economics), is so cute and charismatic that he's already being compared to James Dean and a young Russell Crowe.

He handles this acclaim with appropriate charismatic cuteness. "I'm just a kid who's on a TV show, maybe, at this point," McKenzie said, while chewing gum and holding a bottle of mineral water at the Fox news conference. "Listen, we're not doing Chekhov or Ibsen. This is a drama on Fox."

"Sorry!" he added hastily, after realizing that this is perhaps not the most flattering way to refer to the network. "I saw [Fox president] Gail Berman over there. Don't kill me please."

My Orange County starred various grease monkey drag-racers as the Boys From the Wrong Side of the Orange County Tracks...except they lived just around the corner and looked not like Russell Crowe or James Dean but like Meat Loaf or Jughead or an adolescent Ozzie Osbourne.

Since I knew nothing about cars, their charismatic cuteness involved teaching me one phrase I was instructed to repeat periodically so their friends wouldn't think I was a complete ignoramus: "Aw, you're full of s--, man! Grumpy uses dual dominators in his pro-stock Vega." I still have no idea what this meant.

When a girl drinks too much at an "O.C." party, she wakes up pristinely in handsome Ryan's beautifully decorated guest house quarters, where he has carefully placed her and then tucked her in - and that's all! - after finding her passed out on the driveway.

When a girl drinks too much at the Orange County parties I remember, she is placed in Meat Loaf's ancient battered van and driven home, where she has a hard time explaining that the enveloping smell of axle grease is from said van and not Meat Loaf or Jughead, and thus gets in big trouble with her mother.

Fun teen activities in "The O.C." involve sailing and surfing and of course modeling.

Fun teen activities in my Orange County involved dropping ketchup packages on people's heads from Disneyland's Skyway to Fantasyland. And now you can't do even that, as the ride was discontinued several years ago.

My Orange County teen drama, alas, would not be a hit. "The O.C.," however, probably will be. Besides its heartthrob star, the show has an unusually snappy pedigree, with feature film directors McG ("Charlie's Angels") and Doug Liman ("Swingers") as executive producers.

The other executive producer is head writer Josh Schwartz, who sold his first screenplay for $1 million while still at USC film school. "The O.C." makes the 26-year-old Schwartz the youngest creator of a one-hour drama for network TV.

The last time a teen drama revolved around a specific rich-kid locale was "Beverly Hills 90210," in the '80s. I asked the producers what the difference is between spoiled rich kids in Beverly Hills and spoiled rich kids in Orange County.

"Orange County is much more of a bubble," said Schwartz. "It's much more suburban and cut off from the rest of the world, whereas New York and L.A. are often considered in the same breath, in terms of what those kids are influenced by and the lifestyles they lead.

McG pointed out that "Beverly Hills 90210" debuted a decade ago "and maybe it's time for a freshened-up idea of what it's like to be a teenager in 2003."

Beyond that, the director noted that Orange County is "a community that has a vernacular unto itself. Also, when you grow up in a culture that's comprised of planned communities, you don't really have anything to claim as your own. You want to know where all the hip-hop records are sold? In white-bread, cookie-cutter communities."

"That's why you have a band like Rage Against the Machine from Irvine," McG added. "It's one of the most politically significant bands in contemporary culture and they're a bunch of guys who grew up in middle-income communities right in the heart of Orange County. You become infatuated with the hip-hop cultures of New York and London and places that have a little more history than where the oldest building in town is done by a developer looking to make the most money possible on a minimall."

McG was born in Michigan and moved to Newport Beach as a teenager. But he noted that he didn't look like the kids in "The O.C."

"I was five-foot-two, had an orange Afro and shoe skates," he said. "So I wasn't participating in this beautiful boys and girls dating one another lifestyle."

Still, he did live in Newport Beach. And that's where "The O.C." is likely to stay, with perhaps occasional excursions into nearby Irvine and Laguna. The Orange County I remember is Los Alamitos, Hawaiian Gardens, Seal Beach, Cypress, Stanton. Never heard of them? There's a reason.

The last time I went down there, to visit my family, we had lunch as usual at local institution Hof's Hut, home of the 3,000-calorie entrée and 300-pound customer.

I don't think you'll see any of these people on "The O.C." And as I looked around, I once again regretted my mispent youth and unglamorous neighbours.

But I have to admit, those cheeseburgers always were darned good.

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