In a pretty sucky season for Fox (and for TV as a whole), the feels-like-Spelling-but-it-ain't soap ''The O.C.'' managed to be one of the few bright spots, drawing more teen viewers than competition like ABC's ''The Bachelor.'' In the process, the disconcertingly sunny actors at its center -- Adam Brody, 23; Mischa Barton, 17; Benjamin McKenzie, 25; and Rachel Bilson, 22 -- have become instant favorites. Barton recalls the show's initial summer run, when airing against reruns helped it build a solid core of watchers. ''You air for six episodes, and then suddenly you're gone for a month,'' she says, her husky voice -- so muted as confused rich girl Marissa Cooper -- erupting in a squawky tumble. ''People kept asking me how long it would be before we returned. It usually takes years for shows to find audiences like that.''
Josh Schwartz, the show's 27-year-old creator, doesn't need to tell us he never set out to emulate Fox's long-running ''Beverly Hills 90210'' -- that's clear when he reveals that ''The O.C.'''s New Year's Eve episode will be staged like a screwball comedy, and that another hour will ape the high-minded 1974 paranoia thriller ''The Parallax View.'' ''We're seen as a soap, and that's because I'm doing a soap without understanding what that means,'' he says. ''The O.C.'' has been more brutally honest about the partying habits of privileged teens -- coke! bongs! threesomes! -- than ''90210'' or the many WB dramas that helped pave the way for its unique mix of earnestness and self-mockery.
''So often, we see teen romance but we don't feel like those characters have earned it,'' says McKenzie, whose soulful portrayal of tough guy Ryan Atwood has earned plenty of ''Baby Crowe'' comments. ''They're not allowed to be funny yet dark, or knowing yet completely ignorant.'' Adds Brody, who plays gangly geek-hunk Seth: ''It stays personal instead of aiming for...now, some shows shall remain nameless'' -- and here he mouths ''Skin,'' the name of Fox's highly touted October bomb -- ''the political. It's also got a lot of irony. You watch my character spouting one-liners and you realize what we're all about.''