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January 18, 2005

How I leanred to stop worrying and love The O.C.

It's formulaic, obnoxious, obvious, trite, contrived, clichéd, blunt, at times vomit-inducing, and so calculated that it threatens to become mathematical (plot course A and course B, introduce dynamic element, points conclude at point C and reverse), and…it's totally awesome. It's The O.C. And it's my new secret crush.

Before Christmas break, I looked down on The O.C. with scorn. Acquaintances told me they had become addicted to The O.C., and I smiled sadly and nodded, mentally removing Sally or Joey from my list of dear and close friends. When I witnessed the wide-eyed exuberance of an O.C. fan, I'd offhandedly mention my recent rereading of James Joyce's Ulysses or the latest indie band I was listening to, ensuring my elitist, intellectual status.

Little did I know then that in a matter of mere weeks, the show would reveal in me a driving vein of addiction whose throbbing drowned out the tearful pleadings of friends, family, and even Jesus. I had become an addict of The O.C., craving two consecutive episodes a night. Did I ever overdose? Frankly, I can't remember: It's all a blur of sandy white beaches, shiny fast cars, McMansions, and Mischa Barton's big, innocent doe eyes. Cut to me, curled alone on the couch, wrapped in blankets, the pastel colors of FOX's SoCal soap reflecting in my pupils. It's a sad sight that's all too common. Now that I'm home, back in Chi-town, part of me wishes to retrace my steps—follow the trail back to a point at which innocuous indulgence in a sugar-coated guilty pleasure swelled into an overwhelming, altogether uncontrollable obsession.

I can't pretend that The O.C. isn't trash. It is. But there's something special about The O.C.'s brand of trash. Could I have become as easily addicted to Days of our Lives or Malcolm in the Middle? Let's hope not. You can view the characters of The O.C. as a bunch of pretty faces slapped on cultural stereotypes that bounce off one another with the precision of elements in a deterministic universe, or you can view The O.C. as an almost mythological venture, dredging up legends, icons, and figures from a sea of pop culture.

Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie) is James Dean incarnate, sneaking a smoke in the first episode and running around fighting rich kids in the inevitable getup of a grey sweatshirt and leather jacket. Marissa Cooper, played by Mischa Barton (holy is her name), is the tragic Barbie doll. She's the troubled kleptomaniac/alcoholic/social chair of her high school. Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) is America's nerdy, Jewish conscience, offsetting arrogance and hubris with self-doubt and a high degree of self-consciousness, not to mention argyle sweaters. Yes, these are clichés, but The O.C. executes them beautifully, carrying them past mere stereotypes into the realm of myth, at once universal and specific to our generation.

But more on Seth Cohen. Originally, Seth is a social outcast, a complete dork who continues to play Magic: the Gathering late into high school. But as the season progresses, his character gets cooler, smarter, and funnier—and so does the show itself. The show's creators have clearly projected themselves into The O.C. through the character of Seth, as evidenced by his knack for comic banter, Converse sneakers, and his taste in music and books. For Christmas (or Seth's more politically correct "Chrismukkah") he buys two potential girlfriends the new Death Cab for Cutie album and Michael Chabon's The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Days of Our Lives? I think not.

The show has flashes of brilliance that reveal signs of true intelligence behind its glitz. The O.C.'s self-consciousness and twitches of irony border on (dare I say it?) the postmodern. At one point in the show, Marissa mentions offhandedly that she finds actor Russell Crowe unattractive, and if you look closely, you can see her and Ryan suppress smiles. Many voices in the media have referred to co-star Benjamin McKenzie as a young Russell Crowe. This self-referential moment is delightful, and the postmodern sentiment increases throughout the season. Furthermore, The O.C.'s take on contemporary teen life doesn't ring false, like when your father tries to use a slangy word (which happens often in the Cohen family). The show's creators clearly have a thumb on the pulse of young America, mocking MTV and Carson Daly while praising bands like Rooney and the Dandy Warhols.

I didn't mean to get all "cultural studies" on The O.C., but there you go. I'll admit that my philosophical justification for enjoying The O.C. is secondary to the pleasure derived from its pure entertainment value. Feel free to continue to hate The O.C.—go watch your art-house movies and listen to bands no one's ever heard of. The truly cool know how to blend highbrow and lowbrow culture. So I invite you to join hands with me in the spirit of postmodern glee, and come watch The O.C. Sure, it's trash. But it's awesome.