Sudser has auds awash in good cheer

In the beginning and on the surface, it was a glossy teen sudser set in the upper tax brackets of Southern California. Almost a year later, “The OC” has emerged as a critical and ratings darling for audiences who came in for the glamour, stayed for the family drama, and even learned new phrases such as “Chrismukkah” (a fused holiday for interfaith children.)

The duality of “The OC” was what appealed to exec producer McG.

“It’s about a beautiful facade with a corrupted interior,” he says.

That the show would come from the young mind of writer-creator Josh Schwartz was of no coincidence.

Supervising producer Stephanie Savage, and McG’s partner at Wonderland Sound and Vision, recalls that for the pilot, “very little changed from the first draft to what we shot.”

By casting Peter Gallagher first, the series sent out a message — adults would play as prominent a role as teen stars, thus distinguishing “The OC” from its predecessors “Beverly Hills, 90210″ and “Dawson’s Creek” with their famously absent parents.

The result: a show that skews across all four demographic quadrants.

“It wasn’t strategic,” says Schwartz, who cites “The Ice Storm” with its collision of parents and children as one of his inspirations. “But it was the right thing to do.”

“I never thought of this as a teen drama,” says Gallagher, who was won over by the writing. “Josh saw the wisdom of telling the whole story. It’s everyday life, with the occasional fistfight and gala party.”

More often than not, praise for the show has been as a “guilty pleasure,” a label the show’s team considers a mixed blessing.

“What shows aren’t a guilty pleasure?” asks Schwartz, but concedes, “As long as people are watching it and feeling pleasure, that’s good.”

Series’ self-referential writing was a quirk that began as early as the third episode, allowing viewers to feel like they’re part of a big inside joke.

“It’s fun for the audience,” says Schwartz. “They’re aware of the context of everything. They read Us Weekly, Page Six and message boards.”

Inside references aren’t all winking hijinks. In a moment of meta-artistry worthy of Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman, the season finale of “The OC” circled back on itself with scenes that referred back to the pilot shot by shot.

Schwartz explains that the device was planned early on to illustrate the viewer’s journey “with the characters and set them back where they started but completely different from where they were.”

Best episode: “The Heartbreak.” Seth and Summer have sex for the first time and Luke and Julie sleep together.

Most complex character: Captain Oats. “He’s more than just a plastic horse. He’s very aloof, but plays it close to the vest. There’s a lot going on there,” says Schwartz.

What should happen next season: “New words will be created. I’m trying to get ‘soapedy’ in there, too, which is what I call the show.”

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