Revived ‘OC’: Hot scripts, tough slot

Commentary by Josef Adalian

The kids are more than all right as “The OC” enters its fourth, and possibly final, year peeking behind the designer curtains of the rich, moody and multigenerational denizens of Newport Beach.

Based on a review of the initial four episodes of the season — the first of which premiered Nov. 2 — Josh Schwartz’s sudser seems to be in fine shape after a much-criticized third season. The scripts are snappy, the plots make sense, the acting’s solid, the music is appropriately indie.

So why is Fox throwing away one of its few remaining drama franchises by airing it Thursdays at 9 p.m. opposite megahits “Grey’s Anatomy” and “CSI”?

It’s not as if net has an abundance of drama hits.

“House” and “24” are legitimate smashes, while “Prison Break” is doing fine. But all of Fox’s new one-word crime hours — “Justice,” “Vanished,” “Standoff” — have pretty much tanked, while the net’s only midseason backup, “Drive,” won’t be ready until March.

By contrast, “The OC” has a fan base that might be willing to return — given the right timeslot and some decent promotion. And yet, Fox seems to have given up on Schwartz’s sudser.

Hard to believe it was just summer 2003 that “The OC” began serving up sharply written serialized stories of suburban angst — a full year before Marc Cherry unleashed his “Desperate Housewives” on the world.

“The OC” helped Fox rediscover the sudser success it found in the 1990s, mixing the oh-no-you-didn’t dramatics of “Melrose Place” and “90210” with the humor and heart possessed by “Ally McBeal” at its too-short peak.

Early ratings were strong, and the pop-culture buzz was even stronger. The young cast dominated magazine covers, Schwartz helped oversee several soundtracks inspired by the show, and producer Warner Bros. TV couldn’t wait to launch an ambitious online-based fan club designed to start making money off the show well before the first episode hit syndication.

That’s when everything went wrong.

Rather than nurture its young hit — as ABC did with “Grey’s Anatomy” — former Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman pushed “The OC” out of the nest too quickly. By the start of season two, Fox had moved the show to Thursdays in a bid to jumpstart a night on which the network had long played second fiddle to CBS and NBC.

Results were almost predictable: “The OC” gave up a major chunk of its season-one aud — and even more buzz.

Fox was happy it had improved its Thursday numbers, but “The OC” was no longer a phenom.

Adding to the show’s woes: Just as Schwartz should have been focusing on keeping “The OC” strong, he was being pressured to create two spinoffs (neither of which went anywhere).

In fairness to Fox, “OC” clearly lost a bit of its creative spark by the end of season two. And season three was widely panned, with critics saying the show spent far too much time on plots (and side characters) that went nowhere.

But there’s plenty of precedent for long-running shows taking a creative (and ratings) tumble, only to find renewed life. “ER” has done just that this fall on NBC, while the now-dead WB had its patience rewarded many times sticking by shows such as “Gilmore Girls” and “7th Heaven.”

Knowing he needed to shake things up, Schwartz killed off one of his four main characters in May, sending Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) to her death via a car crash. It was a bit dramatic — she could’ve just gone off to Europe or something — but the move did press the reset button for the show.

Early episodes of the new season wisely focus on the skein’s core figures, most of whom are struggling with Cooper’s death five months later.

Two recurring characters introduced last season — Willa Holland as Marissa’s bad-seed sister Kaitlin and Autumn Reeser as the talkative Taylor Townsend — are welcome additions to the regular cast. Chris Pratt is a hoot, as are Corey Price and Wayne Dalglish as Kaitlin’s fawning entourage.

Bottom line: “The OC” is once again in great creative shape, with believable storylines and plenty of the razor-sharp wit at which the series excels.

Having seen these episodes weeks ago, Fox execs should have decided to change their gameplan.

The net could’ve surely found a less competitive timeslot for the show — Tuesdays at 8 comes to mind. It might’ve even made sense to hold the show until January, relaunching it behind “American Idol.”

Instead, Fox — having already reduced the show’s episode order to 16 — seems to give “The OC” no real chance at a commercial rebound.

Thursday’s season premiere made effective use of Placebo’s cover of “Running Up That Hill.” The song could easily apply to Schwartz’s battle to save “The OC.”

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