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He's 'O.C.'s' fresh breeze

Infusing it with sly wit and detail, creator Josh Schwartz has raised the Fox drama above its prime-time soap trappings.

March 21, 2004|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

For one of the very few times in her media-saturated life, Paris Hilton is turning down a chance to appear on television.

What might be great news for the rest of the country proves mildly distressing to Josh Schwartz, the creator, producer and principal writer of Fox's exceedingly popular new drama series, "The O.C." Schwartz had written a small part in this Wednesday's episode for the all-pervading party girl, but Hilton's representatives are balking at his offer, telling Schwartz over the telephone that Hilton isn't interested in a self-parodying spoof.

"Paris Hilton won't play herself on TV," Schwartz says after he gets off the phone in "The O.C.'s" Manhattan Beach production offices. "Who does she want to play? Lady Macbeth?"

In the scheme of grinding out a weekly show tracking the affairs of stunning Orange County teens and their parents, the Hilton holdup is but a minor inconvenience. Many producers would forget it, cook up a different casting idea and move on. But Schwartz has written the part specifically for Hilton and repeats aloud the dialogue he has scripted on her behalf: "Orange County?" Hilton is to say after meeting the show's character Seth Cohen. "Ew."

It may seem a reach to describe a prime-time soap opera as having a vision, but "The O.C." has won over audiences and critics alike thanks to Schwartz's deceptively complex design, a scheme that demands tiny cameos like Hilton's be cast exactly right. Although the show employs a staff of as many as six writers, Schwartz will write, co-write or ghost-write about 21 of the show's 27 episodes this debut season, a level of involvement typically reserved for series supermen like Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing") and David E. Kelley ("Ally McBeal").

"The O.C." certainly overflows with scandal, wealth and sex, yet underneath all the prerequisites of its genre lurks dialogue so witty and references so obscure that the Writers Guild of America recently nominated Schwartz's pilot script for one of its annual screenwriting awards.

Over the course of a few days with the 27-year-old Schwartz, it becomes apparent that "The O.C." is distinguished by its relentless determination to balance soap-opera trash with pop-culture smarts. In the very same afternoon that Schwartz considers the means by which one more of his characters might try to kill himself and how to invent yet another love triangle, he also is correcting an actor's pronunciation of Azerbaijan and fighting with Fox to save a joke about the People's Choice Awards being rigged. As for Paris Hilton: Schwartz won't give up until he somehow changes her mind.

Giggles on the set

"The O.C." is primarily focused on the lives of four teenagers in Newport Beach, but during filming one recent day on a Manhattan Beach soundstage, it's actually three of the show's grown-ups who are behaving like adolescents. Production is already hours behind schedule, and director David Barrett is trying to stage a simple scene in the kitchen of the show's central family, the Cohens.

As soon as the cameras roll, stars Peter Gallagher, Kelly Rowan and Tate Donovan burst into hopeless giggles, take after take after take. Schwartz, watching from behind a bank of monitors, eventually loses his patience. "Go over there and kick some butt," he quietly says to Barrett, who quickly regains order. Schwartz then prepares for a meeting with senior executives at Fox up at the studio lot, where there's much less tension in the air.

Launched last August, "The O.C." is currently television's second-highest-rated new drama, behind "Las Vegas," attracting an average weekly audience of 9.3 million. The show is also a launching pad for alternative rock bands, with the first in a planned series of "O.C." soundtrack albums arriving March 30.

Part of the show's popularity can be traced to its surprisingly strong appeal to men, who typically avoid shows of this kind. Shows of this kind, though, don't typically have Schwartz's wry point of view.

At the show's center stand wisecracking high school student Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) and his parents, real estate developer Kirsten (Rowan) and selfless lawyer Sandy (Gallagher). In the first episode, Sandy takes pity on a misguided joyrider from Chino, Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie), inviting him to move into the Cohens' pool house. Ryan and Seth become friends, and then burn considerable hormones trying to hook up with local girls Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) and Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson).

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