Rumble Fish by the Sea

Fox’s O.C. brings back the tender delinquent.

Dreamy delinquent Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie), left, of The O.C.

How did Orange County join Ukraine, Yukon, Bronx, and Congo as territory that merits the definite article? “Welcome to the O.C., bitch,” a bully announces on Fox’s new teen drama. “This is how it’s done in Orange County.”

How it’s done in The O.C. (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET), which premiered last week, is, in short: A sexy, sullen kid, under bad influences, steals a Camaro and lands in the hands of an avuncular public defender. Counselor, taking pity on the stray, brings him home to a sumptuous wife-sponsored mansion in Newport Beach. There the rich swoon over the gentle hood. He’s befriended by girls in low jeans, the lawyer’s stammery son, and a Paltrow-like neighbor girl whose financial-adviser father is in trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Ryan, the hood, and Marissa have a lot in common because Ryan’s dad’s committed armed robbery, and, if you think about it, didn’t Marissa’s do the same thing? If you can forget all the phony crap that divides rich people from poor people—yeah, he did.

The O.C. speaks some hard truths about rich and poor, truths rarely found outside the work of S.E. Hinton, with its cruel line between “greasers” and “socs.” Now we have another chance to sample from that smorgasbord of teen sentimentality: a sulky rebel; the white-boy crime of joy riding; a loveless home; and some high SAT scores, which indicate potential. Did I mention Ryan’s sexiness, and the fact that he’s a decent street fighter?

You girls of the ‘90s may never know how we used to weep over this stuff in The Outsiders. Still, I would have called it passé, here and now, and declared that the lust of female do-gooders had moved on past poetic joy riders to bigger, badder game, were it not for the fact of 8 Mile. In that high-gross affair—which is openly alluded to in The O.C.—a boy, Rabbit, in tribute to Ponyboy of The Outsiders, sulked around his loveless house while composing verse to set him free. And the girls came. There’s life in the old fantasy yet. Perhaps, though shows like Oz and The Wire have turned white juvenile-delinquent dropouts into figures about as menacing as pickpockets in Dickens, there are reasons for reviving criminal archetypes from the past. And bygone savior-types, too, like Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), who, as the cool down dad, could almost be Kotter or Coach Reeves from The White Shadow.

To get these archetypes into a new show, however, you can’t go back to Kotter’s Brooklyn or Reeves’ L.A. You have to set your show in 2003, but in a place that’s been well-preserved for 30 years, somewhere where cars still get hot-wired by amateurs and rich people still drawl like Thurston Howell III—real estate, in short, uncontaminated by complex race politics or steering wheels locked with the Club. This place, I’m convinced after two entertaining episodes, could be the O.C.

What’s best about The O.C. is Peter Gallagher. Gallagher has always been a subtle actor, jinxed by his resemblance to glitzy dope John Davidson. (Maybe Gallagher should just see a surgeon and, for art’s sake, have his dimples pounded out and his chin reduced. He’d look much more trusty.) Here in Orange County he struggles to conceal his native flash with a stoop and a heavy haircut. He also hazards a Bronx accent. As usual, Gallagher works carefully—playing, here, a tough Jew, who does brilliantly when given a casual exchange like this (with his wife, Kirsten [Kelly Rowan], who doesn’t want to take Ryan in):

“When did you become so cynical?” he asks

“When did you become so self-righteous?”

“I’ve always been self-righteous.”

This last line—”I’ve always been self-righteous”—suits Gallagher so perfectly because it doesn’t deny his self-assurance, but also works when set against the fact that he’s a conscientious actor who has failed to be a movie star either because he’s too self-righteous to court Hollywood or because Hollywood finds him too self-righteous. In any case, the line delights him.

Less-good dialogue passes between Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) and Marissa (Mischa Barton). Their meeting is meant to be portentous and dangerous—Ryan’s a man with no name, and Marissa’s the local prom queen—but even cigarette smoke and a shared light can’t turn a teen surfside scene to noir. “Who are you?” Marissa asks. Can you guess? He’s “Whoever you want me to be”—exactly.

Barton’s gait distinctly evokes Gwyneth Paltrow’s, but she also looks like a young Paulina Porizkova, and suspiciously like a runway alumna, though she started as a child stage actress. She’s good. Her efforts to maintain her top-shelf high-school popularity even as she falls in with Ryan—greeting the old crowd, taking their cell calls, telling them all how much she loves them—seem right on. Her conversion from best girl to gun moll isn’t happening overnight, and she clearly doesn’t want to forfeit the prerogatives of insincerity too soon. Barton expresses this bet-hedging elegantly, without hamming it up.

Her father, the white-collar armed robber (Jimmy Cooper, played by Tate Donovan); her mother, a vain tramp (Melinda Clarke); and Seth (Adam Brody), Sandy’s uncool son, all show promise as characters but have started the series too broadly. And then there’s Ryan. Played competently by Benjamin McKenzie, he didn’t just get a stylist on set; he got a stylizer. In a wifebeater—or, no joke, a gray hooded sweatshirt and a leather jacket—Ryan hews close to his cliché, the better to set off the equally predictable magic moments of breakfast-making or Marissa-tending or Seth-consoling that make him the tough-tender hero of this throwback show.

Maybe the sentimental, retro effect of The O.C. shouldn’t have surprised me. McG, the executive producer of the series, made his name directing Charlie’s Angels, which revised another set of 30-year-old cartoons. Bob DeLaurentis, another executive producer, once produced episodes of—yes—The White Shadow. But the creator of the show is not an old TV mariner who still misses Barney Miller. He’s Josh Schwartz, and, at 26, he’s the youngest person ever to create an hourlong drama for network TV. S.E. Hinton published The Outsiders in 1967, nine years before Schwartz was born, when she herself was 17. So maybe some teen stories never get old—or at least retain their freshness in the one and only O.C.