'O.C.' leaves its mark

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There aren't too many TV series that can introduce an entirely new holiday into the lexicon of American pop culture, but Fox's "The O.C." can lay claim to that very unique achievement. The notion of Christmakuh -- that marriage of Christmas and Hannukah invented by hyperarticulate hipster teen Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) -- might represent one of the show's more enduring legacies, but when the angsty primetime soap concludes its 92-episode run Thursday night, it will leave behind a fairly significant legacy.

"O.C." not only proved that networks could launch a hit series during the dog days of summer, but it gave the TV business a youthful new voice in creator/executive producer Josh Schwartz. Just 27 at the time the series debuted in August 2003, the USC grad became the heir apparent to the Joss Whedon school of clever and can claim almost sole credit for catapulting alternative rockers Death Cab for Cutie and their most ardent fan Seth into the mainstream consciousness.

And, of course, Schwartz forever altered the moniker of a sizable portion of Southern California geography with one simple article.

Even as he faces wrapping up the adventures of Newport Beach's well-heeled populace, Schwartz seems to display a pragmatism beyond his years, conceding that perhaps burning brightly for a shorter time is better than overstaying one's welcome. "It seems like the right time to be leaving the air," he says. "Every show has a natural life to it. Some get extended beyond that life, and you can tell. We suffered no artificial enhancement. Getting canceled certainly wasn't a surprise, though. We'd kind of planned for it from the beginning of the season. Our eyes were wide open."

What Schwartz is referring to is "O.C.'s" slumping ratings. The series was a success right out of the gate, averaging an 18% share of teens ages 12-17 and a 14% share of adults 18-34 during its first seven episodes in August and September 2003, and those figures climbed to a 21 share of teens during the remainder of that first season after Fox moved the show from its original Tuesday night berth to Wednesdays at 9 p.m.

Once Season 2 began and Fox moved the show again -- this time to Thursday night -- the numbers started to tumble. "O.C." only managed a 13 share of teens and a 12 share of adults in the 18-34 demographic, before dropping to 9 (teens) and 10 (adults) for Season 3. And the numbers slipped still further during the current fourth season, averaging a mere 6% share in both demos through Feb. 8.

Why did the show fall from grace with such seeming swiftness? While some fans complained about the series' loss of creative focus, the changing time slots certainly didn't help matters, according to Jordan Levin, former CEO of the WB Network who is now a founding partner in Generate, a multiplatform production, talent management and media consulting company.

"I'm not sure Fox always knew what to do with 'The O.C.'" Levin offers. "Soon after the show premiered, they started moving away from younger-skewing drama and focused their hour business around shows more targeted to the 18-49 demo like 'House' and 'Bones.' That made 'The O.C.' a bit of an anomaly on the schedule.

"But I'll tell you what," Levin continues, "when Fox launched it, the summer rollout was really smart. They locked up that teen demo quickly because there was something very aspirational about the show that teenagers immediately responded to."

No kidding. Just as Fox's then-groundbreaking series "Beverly Hills, 90210" had back in the early 1990s, "O.C." became the new barometer of cool for a generation of tweens and teens weaned on dozens of iterations of MTV and reality-TV programming. Ultraslim stars Mischa Barton and Rachel Bilson became fashion icons, while Brody and his brooding bad-boy counterpart, Benjamin McKenzie, each appealed to their own subset of fandom (the Luke Skywalker/Han Solo paradigm, if you will). Before long, even "Star Wars" guru himself, George Lucas, opted to make a cameo on the show.

"It immediately galvanized the audience," adds Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television, producer of "O.C." "Then Fox put us behind 'American Idol' that following January. It was a brilliant strategy. Those were good times."

Those times might have been destined to end quickly just by virtue of the fact that the show's most rabid fans belong to a demographic famous for its short attention span. But Schwartz says that it was actually beneficial to know that "O.C." was living on borrowed time. "When we originally came on the air, there was a lot of pressure to anchor a new night after we got successful out of the gate," he recalls. "We basically had to hold the fort on our own with increasing competition. But once we got moved and the expectations disappeared, it suddenly became fun again for the writers and the actors. We'd already come to terms with getting beaten up in the ratings. So, we all just let loose and had a great time, and I think that resulted in our greatest season creatively."

While it's a bittersweet time for Schwartz, he's already forging ahead on the next phase of his career with two series pilots in production: "Chuck," a one-hour action-comedy about spies for NBC, and "Gossip Girl," a CW drama Schwartz is crafting with Stephanie Savage based on the best-selling teen book series by author Cecily Von Ziegesar.

But "O.C." always will have special meaning for Schwartz as the vehicle that allowed him to make the inevitable rookie mistakes on a particularly high-exposure canvas. "I learned an incredible amount doing this show," he says. "But the thing I'm proudest of is having put out a show that parents were able to watch with their kids and hang together."

'THE O.C.' FAREWELL
Out of beach: Fox's teen drama has made its mark on the pop-culture radar
Key to success: Music plays an integral role in 'The O.C.'
Drama club: Angst for the characters, joy for the cast
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