If Fox wanted to re-invent Beverly Hills 90210 for a new generation of viewers, it couldn't do much better than The O.C.
A great show with a lousy title, The O.C. (9 p.m. Tuesday, Channels 19, 45) arrives six weeks before the fall TV season as the sly Fox tries to build an audience for a special show against repeats.
By the way, The O.C. stands for Southern California's Orange County, the affluent communities down the road from Beverly Hills.
Unknown Brian McKenzie stars as Ryan Atwood, a troubled teen from the poor side of town taken in by Sandy Cohen, an idealistic public defender (Peter Gallagher, American Beauty).
Cohen sees himself in the young loner: "I grew up no money, bad part of the Bronx. My father was gone, and my mother worked all the time. I was stupid. A smart kid like you, you've got to have some sort of a plan."
But Sandy's wife, the perfect socialite, doesn't like his plan of having a total stranger living in their pool house.
"You brought him home? He's not a puppy," Kristen (Kelly Rowan, Hook) tells Sandy. "You're endangering our home. What if he's using you to case the house?"
Ryan provides the perfect vehicle for viewers to observe the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and their spoiled teenagers.
Since he's living with the Cohens in Newport Beach, everyone assumes he's part of the family. Isn't he the wealthy Boston cousin? He doesn't bother to correct them.
Through him, we get to go sailing in the Pacific Ocean with Sandy's shy, bookish son (Adam Brody, Gilmore Girls), and party poolside with all the cool kids.
The coolest of them all is Marissa (Mischa Barton), the girl next door. We also learn that Marissa's dad is ducking investigators from the Securities and Exchange Commission, obviously laying the groundwork for future episodes.
What makes The O.C. most appealing is McKenzie. Consider him a young James Dean or Russell Crowe, take your pick.
He's flattered by the comparison, and a bit intimidated.
"It's very complementary if I'm being compared to great actors like Mr. Dean and Mr. Crowe. I'm just a kid who's on a TV show at this point," McKenzie, 24, told TV critics recently in Los Angeles.
"At some point, maybe I'll deserve that comparison ... I've been very fortunate. These guys have really put a lot of faith in me, because you can look down at my bio and ... realize I haven't done anything."
When a critic complained that his Ryan looked too clean cut to have come from a broken, drug-infested home, McKenzie replied:
"Listen, we're not doing Chekov or Ibsen. This is a drama on Fox," he says. "What's interesting to me is the conflict between his past life and his future ... in addition to the fact that I believed it would pay my rent, which I hadn't been able to do."
Fox is taking a risk launching its best fall drama in August, when many viewers are too busy to watch TV. But the strategy has worked before, when it debuted