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This Is How We Do It In the O.C., Bitch

In Comedy Central's vastly underrated Project Greenlight parody Contest Searchlight, Denis Leary asserts with a completely straight face that Peter Gallagher is the greatest actor in New York City. The ostensible joke was that this was Peter Gallagher we were talking about.

Peter Gallagher and his eyebrows have been yoked together in the public imagination since about 1989 ("Sex, Lies and Videotape.") At one time, this could have been unfortunate, as I was too busy staring at the upper third of his face to notice whether Gallagher could actually act. Now, however, Gallagher has finally happened into a role that seems tailor-made for him and his eyebrows. As The O.C.'s well-meaning Sandy Cohen, a public defender who married extremely well, Gallagher uses those eyebrows to telegraph self-deluded earnestness. It works perfectly.

Sandy Cohen is the plot device that sets The O.C. in motion: not only does he pluck teenaged hood Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie) off the mean streets of Chino and transport him behind the Orange Curtain, he also represents the moral compromises OC elitists have to make to stay in their smug little community. Sandy's an idealist who can afford his self-righteousness because his wife bankrolls it; as a result, he's better at talking about his morals than he is at applying them. Anyone who knows about Orange County's reputation as a Republican stronghold can appreciate the irony in limousine liberal Sandy's characterization.

However, The O.C. is a soap opera, so you don't need to spend an hour pondering the semiotics of Sandy Cohen. You can spend time wondering when Tate Donovan got old enough to believably play the father of a teenaged daughter. Donovan, who plays next-door neighbor and financial charlatan Jimmy Cooper, is married to shallow Julie (played by Melinda Clarke, whose portrayal is wickedly intelligent) and parenting a troubled teen who also happens to be the love interest of outsider/juvie Ryan. It's also worth noting that Jimmy apparently has a long and occasionally romantic history with Sandy's wife Kirsten (Kelly Ryan).

Remember, this is a soap: everyone has to be connected to everyone else, or we wouldn't have any plot complications.

The biggest complication is Ryan, whose obvious outsider status will make him a lightning rod for everyone else's issues with social class and morals. Fortunately, Ryan's up to the task; McKenzie plays him as a wary, smart kid with a healthy sense of humor, and aside from one asinine scene in which he frets about Social Security, he's likable. I don't know whose idea it was to have McKenzie underplay Ryan's prole-at-the-black-tie-benefit scenes, but it was a good one: we already expected Ryan to be cautious about negotiating a tony social event, so showing him as constantly and discreetly on his guard is just right. The real stranger-in-a-strange-land moments are those in which Ryan bonds with Sandy and Kirsten's son, Seth. The kid is sheltered, good-hearted and socially awkward; he's also perceptive enough to know he'll never be able to crack the high school social code, and sensitive enough to let that knowledge hurt him. Adam Brody plays Seth to perfection, and his chemistry with both Gallagher and McKenzie make all those male-bonding scenes much better than they have any right to be.

The O.C. is shaping up as a guy's show: what interactions we see among the girls are as petty as anything on Melrose Place and the parent/child interaction between Julie Cooper and her daughter Marissa will inevitably inspire the girl to write a spite-fueled memoir during her creative nonfiction class in college. This may change over time -- if Sex and the City had any lasting influence, it's in proving that depictions of women's lasting friendship will pull in viewers. However, until The O.C. wises up, it's a little off-putting to watch the women preen while the men get all the real fun.

Lest you think the entire show is actually a trenchant look at parent-child relationships, class issues and adult compromise, let me assure you: there is still plenty of silly, soapy fun. There is a fashion show in the premiere, after all. There's also a classic jocks vs. nerds thing going on, which is how Seth and Ryan get crunchy beatings while the show's chief teen nemesis Luke (Chris Carmack) taunts, "Welcome to the O.C., bitch! This is how it's done in Orange County."

It is worth pointing out that Luke is about as street as B-Rad in Malibu's Most Wanted.

The show's unintentional humor quotient is high (I've amused myself for days with variations on Luke's little quip), but it's not without its deliberate charms. And yes, you can see every plot twist coming. However, the actors -- among them Peter Gallagher, who may or may not be the best actor in New York -- make the ride to each inevitable development entertaining. The O.C. is frothy fun with a surprisingly solid center. Given the dismal execution of other recent prime-time soaps (Pasadena and Titans, I'm looking at you), it's delightful to find one that manages to get nearly everything right.


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