The O.C.: Photograph by Stacy Kranitz
Jennifer Armstrong
September 05, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The crew is just about ready for the fourth scene of the day on the Manhattan Beach set of ”The O.C.” In the rest of California, it’s about quitting time, but this cast still has several hours’ work ahead. Nothing unusual, really, but there’s no time to stand around chatting. Unless, of course, a crew from E! wants to stand around chatting up the Fox soap stars for a quick on-air plug. A perky blond reporter swoops in next to Benjamin McKenzie (who plays troubled heartthrob Ryan Atwood), Adam Brody (Ryan’s nerdy pal, Seth Cohen), Kelly Rowan (Seth’s rich mom, Kirsten), and Rachel Bilson (Seth’s snooty crush, Summer) on the AstroTurf next to the tiny pool on the set of the Cohens’ backyard. The actors have this interview routine down: Brody does his stammering funny-guy shtick, Bilson does the shy-‘n’-sweet thing, and McKenzie does his brooding bit. Then comes the question, the one McKenzie hasn’t stopped hearing since ”The O.C.” debuted Aug. 5: ”People say you resemble Russell Crowe… is that kind of heavy baggage?”

McKenzie smiles and recites a short, carefully crafted answer: ”If it’s heavy baggage, I’ll carry it.”

Happy with the sound bite, the E! crew vanishes into the California sunset. While scenery and equipment are adjusted for the next scene, Rowan jokes, ”Could you get asked that question one more time?”

”Just one more time,” McKenzie sighs. ”If you make too much of it, you’re cocky. If you don’t say anything, you’re screwed.”

Such is the burden of being the new It Boy on TV’s new It Show — but McKenzie had better get used to it. In a summer without a breakout broadcast hit (and with loads of flops — many of which were on Fox), ”The O.C.”’s debut attracted 7.5 million viewers; since then, ratings have climbed 7 percent. The prime-time soap seems to be following the faded sand footprints of another Fox sensation about So-Cal kids, rich and poor, searching for acceptance, happiness, and the sickest parties in town. Add the fact that it’ll inherit ”Beverly Hills, 90210”’s original Thursday-at-9 time slot come Oct. 30, and the links between the Peach Pit and Orange County are impossible to ignore.

”[‘90210’] had a huge sociological impact, and people really enjoyed that show, so I’m humbled and flattered that people would make that jump,” says exec producer/”Charlie’s Angels” director McG. ”But I think our show has a lot more in common, frankly, with ‘Six Feet Under’ — real dramatic stakes. It isn’t just like a catty little high school show.”

Maybe so, but dropping the highest-brow TV reference possible doesn’t erase the similarities between ”The O.C.” and ”Beverly Hills, 90210.” ”The O.C.” follows the travails of Ryan, a kid from the middle-class L.A. suburb of Chino who moves in with a family from the Überwealthy Orange County enclave of Newport Beach after his deadbeat mom goes AWOL. ”90210” followed teens from middle-class Minnesota, Brandon and Brenda Walsh, who moved to Überwealthy Beverly Hills after their dad transferred offices. ”The O.C.”’s first budding romance, between bad boy Ryan and good-girl-next-door Marissa (Mischa Barton), echoes the naughty-and-nice Dylan-Brenda hookup. And Luke Perry endured endless comparisons to James Dean, a name that’s come up almost as much as Russell Crowe in reference to McKenzie.

To be fair, however, this is 92660, land of Republicans and beachfront property — and McKenzie and company are doing their best to infuse Aaron Spelling’s patented teen-soap formula with some adult-themed suburban ennui. Creator-writer Josh Schwartz calls ”The O.C.” ”a combination of ‘90210’ and ‘The Ice Storm,”’ and Peter Gallagher — who plays Sandy Cohen, Ryan’s do-gooder public defender and de facto foster dad — likens the show’s angst-beneath-a-perfect-surface theme to a little Oscar-winning movie he just happened to be in: ”I don’t think it’s that different in spirit from ‘American Beauty.’ It’s kind of a reach, but not really.”

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