New Fox soap 'The OC' is merely OK

Is there any hope for the prime-time soap? Recently, we've seen "Titans" flame out and "Pasadena" disappear without a trace. Now Fox trots out "The OC" (8 p.m., Fox), a rich man- poor man saga set in the impossibly wealthy community of Newport Beach. That's in Orange County (OC, get it?), California.

If there's anything harder to sell than a prime-time soap, it's a prime-time soap with a social conscience. Peter Gallagher stars as softhearted lawyer and public defender Sandy Cohen, who welcomes troubled teenager Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie) into his posh home after Ryan's dysfunctional family disintegrates. Although Ryan was busted with his brother for stealing a car, Sandy sees the boy's intelligence and potential, and hopes that exposure to the striving lad might shake his son Seth (Adam Brody) out of his nerdy isolation. Sandy's wealthy wife, Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), isn't so sure about this stray puppy.

Ryan's arrival does not go unnoticed by Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), the gorgeous girl next door. Ryan manages to get the Cohens invited to the Cooper's annual fashion show, and sparks fly between Ryan and Marissa's spoilt social circle, most notably Summer (Rachel Bilson), who just happens to be Seth's secret crush. Ryan's presence also inspires the rich male bullies, who immediately set upon him and Seth. Seth wakes up with a black eye and a hangover. Gosh, he's never had so much fun.

"The OC" suffers from all the cliches of the genre. With the exception of Seth, all of the rich kids are ludicrously good-looking and predictably vile. On the other hand, the pilot contains just enough wrinkles to keep you coming back for a second helping.

The best thing about "The OC" is Ryan. Or, more to the point, Ryan's habit of saying little or nothing while the whole world babbles on about fancy cars and designer labels. After years of motor-mouthed characters created by the likes of Kevin Williamson ("Dawson's Creek"), it's a relief to watch someone who keeps his trap shut. If "The OC" survives, McKenzie might single-handedly revive the strong, silent type.

Tonight's other highlights

  • The last comic bows on the two-hour finale of "Last Comic Standing" (7 p.m., NBC).
  • Lorelai takes Rory on a college road trip on a two-hour episode of "Gilmore Girls" (7 p.m., WB).
  • Britain's favorite garden makeover team renovates a space in Sarasota, Fla., on "Ground Force America" (8 p.m., BBC America).
  • "American Aloha" on "P.O.V." (9 p.m., PBS) looks at the revival of traditional island culture among Hawaiians who have settled on the American mainland.
  • The late Richard Harris narrates the 2002 special "King Arthur" (9 p.m., TLC), which examines popular misconceptions about the fabled king and his knights of the round table. Per Harris, who played the cuckolded royal in the screen version of "Camelot," Arthur probably lived in the fifth century, so his reign predates English history.

Late night

Colin Farrell appears on "Late Show with David Letterman" (10:35 p.m., CBS) ... Jay Leno welcomes Jamie Lee Curtis, Carl Reiner and Widespread Panic on "The Tonight Show" (10:35 p.m., NBC).

Seann William Scott and The Jayhawks are booked on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" (11:35 p.m., NBC) ... Eddie Kaye Thomas and Jack Johnson appear on "The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn" (11:37 p.m., CBS).

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