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Deep in the shallow end of L.A.

August 01, 2003|HOWARD ROSENBERG

California has image problems this summer: famously enduring budget burn down and revving up for a goofy recall election with grim prospects for the future.

And then there is Los Angeles.

New York will always have Gershwin and rhapsodies from shows like HBO's "Sex and the City," right? While our favorite town is known for road rage, star maps and (these days) Kobe Bryant.

Hardly a day goes by that someone on television doesn't make fun of the unfairly maligned, vastly underrated, rich-in-history, panoramic-but-fascinating sprawl that is L.A.

And no wonder. There are no fatter urban targets anywhere than our storied weirdness, from televised freeway chases and cell-phone gridlock to a falsely perceived cultural barrenness that evokes lunarscape to much of the nation.

TV's shallow, gratuitous prime-timing of L.A. doesn't help, rarely capturing the mystical aura behind the Hollywood sign or the ethnic traditions and remarkable mingling of cultures. Plenty of series are set in this metropolis, few getting beyond the crime, the sunshine or the "Twilight Zone" patina of la-la land that years ago epitomized ABC's briefly aired comedy "It's Like, You Know ... "

Most of these shows settle for cliches like those magnified in "The O.C.," a new Fox entry whose arrival Tuesday night bongs in the 2003 fall prime-time season with an hour of Southern Californians as rigid as surfboards. As weekly drama, it's comically bad.

The setting is Orange County, which in this rendering might as well be Disneyland. Instead, it's splendorous, beautiful-peopled Newport Beach where, Fox publicity informs us, "everything and everyone appears to be perfect."

But yikes, for "beneath the surface is a world of shifting loyalties and identities, of kids living secret lives hidden from their parents and of parents living secret lives hidden from their children."

As for dogs and cats living secret lives hidden from their owners, creator-writer-executive producer Josh Schwartz has to save something for midseason.

Now look, there's trash and there's trash, as Fox, a prolific auteur in this arena, affirms again and again. First-rate trash is art. It's to be embraced, preserved like a Da Vinci and celebrated, even if viewers sometimes don't quite get the message.

Not enough of them swooned in 2001 to the seductions of Fox's worthy but short-term "Pasadena," whose exquisitely lush stereotypes and seething animosities depicted with high style the dirty job of being moneyed, especially among a lofty nobility toppling from the weight of its own obsolescence.

All right, big deal, they left out the air pollution and sweltering Pasadena summers. But the series scored as a vivid, atmospheric fresco of decadence and money old enough to be moldy. It knew what it was -- corn gussied up as class -- and flaunted it.

Yet now, with pretenses of grandeur but from the wrong side of the tracks creatively, come the mostly nouveau riche and rotten of "The O.C."

Speaking of L.A. stories, it's closer in tone to Aaron Spelling's fleeting NBC clunker "Malibu Shores" than to his former middle-brow Fox hits, "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Melrose Place."

Unlike the movie "Clueless" and even its inferior ABC/UPN sitcom spinoff, moreover, there is no satire or sharply observed tale of manners visible through the gloss of "The O.C.," whose caricatures roll in with the surf and sea breezes.

Give it credit for restraint, though. Its car chase does not begin until 24 seconds after the opening credits.

The story's trigger is 16-year-old Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie), a rusty hubcap from Chino whose arrest for helping his older brother steal a car ultimately lands him in a gated seaside villa when his softhearted pro bono lawyer, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), takes him in for the weekend, much to the dismay of his filthy rich wife, Kirsten (Kelly Rowan).

Ryan is a prince down deep, yet laconic, mumbly, surly, defiant and misunderstood while trespassing in this alien L.A.-area society of chic airheads that he impregnates with the wisdom he has somehow culled from living as a semidelinquent.

Read James Dean, fronting for the restless 1950s generation in "Rebel Without a Cause." Although Dean was middle-class in "Rebel," the attempted rip-off here is palpable. And Cohen's geek of a son, Seth (Adam Brody), is nothing if not spun from Sal Mineo's disturbed rich kid in "Rebel," attaching himself like a money belt to Ryan, who also attracts the eye of Marissa (Mischa Barton), the beautiful girl next door. She has her own problems. Her mother is a mindless fashion freak, her father tied to shady financial dealings that have the feds on his trail.

Well, that's Orange County for you.

The premiere's centerpiece is a big charity bash and teen fashion show. "Whatever are you doing putting my daughter in Calvin Klein?" a snippy mother complains to the coordinator. "She was supposed to wear Vera Wang."

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