Yes, it was two-thirds yuppie soap, but Fox television’s “The O.C.” illustrated a slice of teenage life with an irony that’s refreshing in this time of paranoid clichés about “troubled youth.”
“The O.C.” – really “The N.B.,” because its elite Newport Beach setting never pretended to capture Orange County’s burgeoning diversity – resurrected the self-effacing Jewish humor of its predecessor, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and refined its warning: The adult world is too self-centered and messed up to face modern reality.
Pundits dissed “The O.C.” as another “troubled teen drama.” That validated the show’s subtler message. Just as critics blinded themselves to the rampant addictions, promiscuities and corruptions of the troubled grownups in the show, so America’s “experts” willfully ignore the adult disarray that generates teens’ worst troubles in real life.
Fortunately, “The O.C.,” like “Buffy,” never indulged the opposite fantasy: that teens would rescue society merely by youthful heroics. Rather, both shows suggested a dynamic merger that modern America vehemently rejects: a multigenerational alliance that combines the powers of adult experience and adolescent immediacy. And the Nerd shall lead them, informed by the only ethic fitting this world of change and confusion, which is paralyzing self-doubt.
In case you (admirably) shun TV, here is the show’s simple story line: Sandy Cohen, bleeding-heart lawyer-dad trapped in stifling beachside-mansion vacuity, adopts Ryan, delinquent white boy from (where else?) San Bernardino’s stucco ghetto. The show evolved from standard area code 909-meets-949 party bimbos and fisticuffs into a keen satire that ridiculed the bankruptcy of Orange County’s Old Right (represented by the evil, moneyed grandfather), Berkeley’s Old Left of Sandy’s nostalgia and California’s New Age pinheads.
“The O.C.” pilloried college retro-radical “Che” (“short for Winchester”), trashed psychologists and hard-ass educators (more homage to “Buffy”) and delighted in oddball affections. The comic-geek subverted the high school Princess Sparkle socialite to become his adoring geek-ess, the 15-year-old sophisticate adopted the crude Texas oilman as her father figure, and the alpha girl found romance with the delinquent after engineering her own demotion. Everyone was redeemable in a show that counseled tolerance as the sanest response to the weird and unfathomable. The daughter of a pill-popping mother assured her best friend, “A Vicodin love declaration is still a love declaration.”
Most radical was the show’s balancing of adult and adolescent. It grasped the reality that modern youth raise themselves – and that, given a bit of help, most do a pretty good job. In their permutation of nearby grownups, the teens practiced the new, improved drinking, drugs, sex, bi-sex, latte pickups, cage fighting, temp-marriage to French postmodernist and Thanksgiving at home with the homeless. What did you expect? Life today just doesn’t work the way it used to not work.
Sandy’s ultra-permissive parenting – defying modern America’s mindset that adults are entitled to act horribly as long as they crack down on teens – triumphed because of his own honesty and self-discipline. Sandy’s moral example shamed tough-love parents who sermonize to their kids and ship them off to cops and shrinks at the first sign they might be emulating their rotten elders. If we let kids act like us, how will we know we’re grownups?
Better insights into young people’s lives can be gained from observing the range of teens and adults in “The O.C.,” Stephen King novels and good fictional media than from the primitive stereotypes recycled by authorities in reports from Robert Wood Johnson, the National Campaign to Prevent This or That, CBS News and USA Today. You already know what line the next 100 official reports and news accounts on “youth violence,” “teen pregnancy,” “at-risk kids,” “underage drinking,” etc., will say: exactly what the last 100 said.
If “The O.C.” had been scripted by experts, every show would have been the same: Brainless teens corrupted by pop culture suffer a calamity after sampling forbidden adult pleasures, requiring intervention by wised-up parents deploying no-nonsense professionals.
Thankfully, fictional media, serving diverse ages and classes, can’t get away with indulging the one-dimensional, one-sided demeaning of young people marketed by officials, experts and the news media to flatter grownups and sell special-interest agendas. Good fictional media can’t survive by reducing complicated, real-life emotions and behaviors to yes/no lines on surveys, thus sweeping inconvenient adult misbehaviors under the rug and jeering at teens about how awful they are.
“The O.C.” was canceled after a quick four seasons, because it no longer impressed the demands of its mostly young audience of millions that it remain fresh and worthy of attention. “These teen dramas just go on forever,” joked the unsparkling ex-princess before boarding the Greenpeace bus in the show’s final episode. Not in real life, or even TV. Just in Washington.