The Fox network returns to its teen roots in fine style tonight with the premiere of The O.C., a drama about adolescent desire, angst and beautiful bodies set in the upscale enclave of Newport Beach in Orange County, Calif. (The county is the O.C. to which the title refers.)
While it's easy to mock the excesses of teen dramas - with their parades of hopelessly attractive characters who look 16-going-on-27 thanks to the real ages of the actors - you have to admire those who get the formula right. And just like the teen classics Beverly Hills, 90210 and Party of Five, The O.C. gets it right in the first few seconds.
The first image viewers see is that of Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie), a 16-year- old who helps his older brother steal a car and leads police on a wild chase before being brought under control. Ryan doesn't really want to steal the car, but his brother makes him.
That distinction establishes the character: Ryan is wild and a little bit out of control, but not bad like his brother who quickly disappears from the screen and the series. Ryan is a lot like Dylan McKay (Luke Perry) of Beverly Hills, 90210 - a modern-day, watered-down-for-TV version of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.
Ryan becomes teen viewers' point of entry to the privileged world of Newport Beach when his court-appointed attorney, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), decides he's worth saving. Cohen invites the teen-ager to live in the pool house located at his fabulous home overlooking the ocean. Ryan accepts the offer only after his alcoholic mother and her abusive boyfriend throw him out of the house.
All this happens in the first 10 minutes, and while it might strain credulity, on the symbolic level it plays like a dream - a dream that speaks directly to teen fantasy.
Just like Cinderella when she puts on the glass slipper or Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Ryan has been whisked in a matter of minutes from the bottom of the social class ladder to near the very top.
Furthermore, just like the Salinger kids in Party of Five, who suddenly found themselves without parents because of a car accident, Ryan no longer has anyone telling him what to do. The young man has gone west just like Brenda (Shannen Doherty) and Brandon (Jason Priestley) Walsh in Beverly Hills, 90210, and it looks as if he is about to be transformed by the promised land in which he has landed.
I hate the way network television takes the energy of such fairy tales and uses it to make teens into designer label slaves (witness the fashion show in tonight's pilot). Nonetheless, in the coming weeks, I'll be heading back to The O.C. to see how this poor boy fares in the land of the beautiful people.
What: The O.C.
When Tonight at 9
Where: WBFF (Channel 45)
In brief: Fox returns to teen drama with a remastered mix of the classics.