Lifestyles of the rich and under 18

Fox hopes its new teen drama, 'The O.C.,' will attract viewers before other networks release their fall lineups.

It's hard to believe that fall is almost here, but the starting gun for the TV season sounds this week as Fox gets a jump on the competition. The first of the big networks to roll out new offerings launches teen drama "The O.C." on Tuesday.

Last year, Fox's biggest successes were all in the realm of reality: "American Idol" and the gotcha dating show "Joe Millionaire." But despite striking out with all of last season's dramas, the network is still hoping to capitalize on the popularity of its gritty spy hit "24," with Kiefer Sutherland.

By premiering "The O.C." early and giving it "24's" Tuesday night time slot until "24" returns, Fox hopes to attract viewers bored with a summer surfeit of reality and reruns - and hook them before the other five networks get their shows out of the gate. Later this fall, Fox will launch several more dramas, all of which feature beautiful young people. "Tru Calling," stars a 20-something (Eliza Dushku of "Buffy") with the inexplicable power to relive a day in order to prevent tragedy. "Skin," a Romeo and Juliet story that pairs a porn mogul's daughter with the district attorney's son, already has begun to generate the kind of buzz TV executives live to create.

But first up is "The O.C." - a fish-out-of-water drama set south of L.A., in the wealthier sections of Orange County. Described as a relationship show, it follows Ryan, a "troubled teen from the wrong side of the tracks," played by a young Russell Crowe look-a-like, Benjamin McKenzie. He must adapt after he is abruptly transplanted to affluent Newport Beach, where it seems not one parent ever considered the possibility that lots of money and unsupervised beach parties might lead teens into trouble.

Despite its somewhat creaky premise, the show has a promising pedigree in executive producer Doug Liman ("The Bourne Identity," "Swingers"). "We're not going for classic soap," he says. "We're looking for the reality."

Ryan, who's been abandoned by his family, arrives in Orange County after his court-appointed lawyer spontaneously takes him in. Contrary to popular notions of both lawyers and Californians, Liman says the premise is not Hollywood fantasy. "I come from a family of lawyers," he says, citing "the extraordinary measures that both my father and my brother have done on behalf of kids like Ryan and kids who come from much worse places. It's not atypical at all for good lawyers to step out and do something quite heroic and for nobody to know about it."

The show does depict parents' perspectives, but clearly the teen angst is key to Fox, the network that ranks No. 1 among viewers under 35. It's hard not to see shades of "Beverly Hills, 90210" in the series, but fellow executive producer McG says the show will take off where that Aaron Spelling production left off.

"We're flattered at the idea, and we hope that we have half the success and half the grip on that specific audience that '90210' had," says the director of this summer's "Charlie's Angels" sequel. "I think the show is wildly different - that it's a more accurate portrayal of what really goes on in these communities and what these kids are really up to while the parents are away."

The idea for the series hails from his own experience of a wrenching family move from Kalamazoo, Mich., to Newport. "I was 5 feet 2 inches; I had an orange Afro, neck gear, dolphins, and shoe skates," says the director, who at the time was known as Joseph McGinty Nichol. "So I wasn't one of the beautiful people who was participating in this fantastic ... lifestyle. I was sort of alone in my room with my Freddy Mercury records."

The community itself offers the same contrast between the surface of a well-planned suburb and what's actually going on inside the homes.

"It's very interesting growing up in these communities that are sort of these planned communities with this veneer of idealism," says McG, "but you come to realize that underneath the surface, there are dramatic lives, like you would find in any community."

The show is worth watching, if for no other reason than to be in the know as the latest TV star is born. McKenzie has the heart-of-gold-beneath-the-bad-boy looks. And, in startling contrast to most of the Fox drama's young cast members, it appears he can act as well.

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