The O.C. became last season's most pleasant surprise because of its refreshing tendency not to take itself seriously. The lighthearted Fox drama went a bit too far, however, with a non-cliffhanger finale nobody could take seriously.

The story line had the two young central characters, Ryan and Seth, leaving the tony community south of Los Angeles for parts unknown. There, of course, was no chance they would keep going. If they did, there would be no show.

The O.C.'s creator, Josh Schwartz, says those who find fault with this plot choice don't get it.

"It was never a question of whether Ryan would come back, but how. Also, how his leaving and the summer that has taken place with his absence, along with Seth's absence, has sort of torn this community apart and how they are going to have to rectify and rebuild once they return."

Schwartz had to take a shot at creating a magnet to pull back his audience for the second season. By the time The O.C. returns Nov. 4, it will have been off the air for almost six months. A programmer for a rival network said he couldn't understand the strategy of not scheduling summer reruns, since many viewers got to the series late after hearing strong word of mouth. Besides, he noted, The O.C.'s in-season repeats performed better than most serialized dramas, again possibly because newcomers were trying to catch up.

Even more challenging for the series is the fact Fox has moved The O.C. to a suicide slot on Thursday, against Survivor and Joey. Schwartz responded to the shift the way producers always do, offering all the reasons why his show will beat the odds. (Almost without exception, a year later when series in such situations wind up getting pummeled in the Nielsens, the producers confide they never believed what they were saying but had no other choice.)

"We have our fan base. I think they're going to come with us. I really do believe we're going to be able to build on that audience and expand. I think it's wide open."

Returnees will notice a slightly dialed-back O.C. this season, Schwartz said. The emphasis will be more on character development. "We are going to slow down the storytelling. There won't necessarily have to be a brawl at every black-tie affair."

Audience familiarity has reduced the need for over-the-top plotting to keep viewers interested, Schwartz feels. "I think people get the show now. I think they really embrace these characters and actors. Now we want to dig in and really get to know them even better."

One thing that won't change is the equal emphasis on mature-adult and young-adult story lines. There was a widespread feeling that if The O.C. caught on, the parents would gradually become invisible, as they did on Beverly Hills, 90210.

No chance, Schwartz said. "It was always going to be as much about the adults as it was about the kids. I think that this makes the show that much more interesting for more people."

Schwartz borrowed words of wisdom from Peter Gallagher, who plays family patriarch Sandy Cohen, to explain why the show will remain multi-generational. "Why tell only half the story?"

To downplay the adults, Gallagher said, "would deprive yourself of massive opportunities for drama and comedy. To present to the world [that] `teenagers are geniuses and the world would be a better place if it weren't for those pesky adults' wouldn't ring true."

The humor leavening the dramatic twists also is more reflective of the real world than episodic dramas generally are, Gallagher said. Without it, he might not have been interested in signing on. "When I was toying with the notion of doing a TV show, what always perplexed me was how they were devoid of any humor. How inaccurately that reflects most people's life experiences, I thought. Half of what gets you through the day is either taking delight in other people's misfortunes or laughing at your own ... and I am really funny."

Melinda Clarke, who plays vixenish Julie Cooper, discovered in a disconcerting manner how realistic the show is to some viewers. Julie's first-season antics included a torrid affair with the former boyfriend of her teenage daughter. At the show's wrap party, Clarke met a young fan. "As I walked by, he grabbed my arm and said, `I just want to say thank you. Because of you, I'm dating my best friend's mother.' The friend was sitting right next to him, rolling his eyes."

The flabbergasted Clarke said the only response she could immediately come up with was, "OK. I guess you're welcome."

For the rest of the night, Clarke said, every time their eyes met, he would mouth the words, "Thank you."

Gallagher witnessed the scene. "That's exactly how it happened. It was amazing."