The big story to come out of this election was pretty boring. Apparently, 22% of voters cited “moral values” as their number one consideration when casting a vote, and most of those votes went to President Bush. I’d like to offer my own analysis. I think it’s sexier, and I hope you will too. Call it oversimplification, but does anyone else think that maybe Fox’s one-hour drama “The O.C.” has anything to do with Bush’s victory?
The show, about the entangled relations of teens and their appallingly hot parents in the second most populous county in California, draws its strength from a dead-on depiction of place. Perhaps the weekly spectacle of bronzed bodies and palatial homes isn’t what Orange County is actually like, but that doesn’t matter; it’s what we all want it to be like.
At first that might not seem particularly relevant to last week’s election. But Orange County, home of Disneyland and shopping malls and surfers, birthplace of Richard Nixon, has long been thought of as a bastion of Republicanism. According to Wikipedia online encyclopedia, Republican voter registration in Orange County tops Democratic three-to-two.
Presumably, the O.C. G.O.P. is quite different from the Midwest’s hardscrabble, values-obsessed Republicans who’ve been getting so much press lately. One might even assume that the Dubya supporters of the O.C. are the Schwarzenegger-loving, “lay off my money, you commie!” sort. Sure, there are plenty of upper class and upper middle class people who oppose abortion and gay marriage, but it’s also probably reasonable to assume that those aren’t the factors keeping Orange County overwhelmingly in the red.
Now that Orange County has its own television show, watched by 8.48 million viewers on Nov. 4. alone, it does not seem a huge stretch to say that Orange County, its lifestyle and its implicit politics, have widespread appeal. Did anyone ever think to call it “The” Orange County before Josh Schwartz did? The politics of Schwartz, the creator/executive producer, are unknown—he hails from the cold, wet blue state of Rhode Island—but nonetheless, if I were Karl Rove, I’d be calling him to thank him for getting out the wannabe sun-kissed vote.
Why do I say “wannabe sun-kissed?” Because unlike “Family Matters” or “Growing Pains,” or any of the shows that made up the 18-30 demographic’s childhood television , “The O.C.” is not about normal people living normal lives. It’s about normal people who happen to be very good-looking, living dramatic lives that, at least financially, are extremely comfortable. It’s like “Saved by the Bell” or “90210” but ratcheted up about ten notches. Each week “The O.C.” exports a lifestyle to millions of viewers each week who will never have Marissa Cooper’s body or Seth Cohen’s salty wit and who will certainly never frolic in a beachfront mansion on the Orange Coast. But they’d like to. The average American would love to be in the shoes of Ryan Atwood, the preternaturally buff boy from Chino who got in a little trouble but whose goodness and vulnerability just so clearly screamed “I’m goodwill hunting!” that Sandy Cohen couldn’t help bringing him home to Newport to his preternaturally buff wife and son who, while not preternaturally buff, probably scored high on the verbal section of his SATs.
This season kicked off with Seth off in Portland, trying to escape the “fake” world of the O.C. Dismayed with his family and its indolent lifestyle, after Ryan left, Seth skedaddled up the coast in search of a richer life experience. How does Seth Cohen find meaning in Portland? By giving sailing lessons. After much angst and persuasive visits from Ryan and Sandy, Seth makes the easy call and gives up the Pacific Northwest for SoCal. “You know, they don’t even have a water polo team here?” Seth quips to Ryan. “That’s going to be a problem for me.” Schwartz and his team are clever enough to trap his characters in a place that many Americans would love to be. There’s no escape from the world most of us live in. But once you’ve reached the magical tax bracket, you’re set.
It’s an idea that dovetails nicely with the tax cuts of the Bush administration. Though the Cohens are presumably silver spoon liberals—last season saw the entrance of Grandma Cohen, a sassy Jewish liberal from Brooklyn—and the Coopers hardnosed Republicans, the lifestyle of both families befits the fiscal conservative fantasy: I make my own money, spend it how I want, and don’t tell me what to do with my sex life. (i.e. Don’t tell me not to sleep with my daughter’s boyfriend and then with my next door neighbor’s father, something most values voters probably wouldn’t agree with even if they knew the secrets of Julie Cooper’s Faustian self-preservation tricks.)
And yet there’s the troubling moral comeuppance that has already been visited on Julie Cooper’s first husband and now appears to be lying in wait for her second. White collar crime in Newport? Like, no way. It’ll throw a major kink in the lives of everyone involved—excluding maybe Summer—if Caleb Cooper, Seth’s grandfather, goes to jail for bribery, embezzling, or whatever shenanigans he’s used to amass his ridiculous fortune. The fortune, made in real estate and development, is at risk because the D.A.’s office, where Sandy oh-so-conveniently works, is closing in on an investigation into Caleb’s misbehavior. Sandy’s connections enable him to keep Caleb rather cryptically informed. In a parking garage rendezvous, he tells his father-in-law: “Either they’ve realized that they’ve got nothing, or they’re building one hell of a case.” As a viewer, this line didn’t exactly send chills up my spine, mainly because I didn’t buy it. With Caleb’s business kaput, where would anyone live? By my count, seven to nine of the main characters are currently living off the fat of his corrupt company.
Some of the characters are in for ruder awakenings than others. Having seen her father ruined by similarly shady business dealing, Marissa already has a taste of the less-than-fabulous life. A summer job at Payless Shoes isn’t exactly what her debutante upbringing prepared her for, and who knows how long she can throw poolside hissy fits at her mom and stepdad’s estate? Despite the ostentatious wealth of most characters, the only two wholly unprepared for a reduction in lifestyle are Seth and Kirsten, both of whom grew up rich and have never experienced anything else. One of the best moments of last Thursday’s premiere came when Seth revealed the real details of his summer adventure sailing in the Pacific:
“First, I sailed to Catalina. Then I sailed to Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara, I ran out of snacks. Freaked out a little bit. Pawned my boat for cash. Took a bus to Portland.”
Ryan, in utter disbelief, stares at his friend.
“You took a bus?”
Who wouldn’t want to live in their world?