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The O.C.: The Complete Second Season

The surprise hit of the 2003 TV season, The O.C. married the predictable formulas of tawdry primetime soaps like "Dallas" and "Melrose Place" with the teen-angst pop & circumstance of shows like "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Dawson's Creek," adding sophisticated aesthetics and playful self-awareness. Although it carried the burden of several unwieldy and insipid subplots, The O.C. distinguished itself with an unusually sharp wit, an excellent cast, and a blessed knack for avoiding the deadly schmaltz of overwhelming sentimentality. In a balls-to-the-wall fashion consistent with its fast-paced storylines and rapid-fire dialogue, the series ended its first season with a stunning epic finale that tore apart its tight unit of core characters and threw their lives into turmoil, leaving its fans mesmerized, but also bewildered as to how creator Josh Schwartz was planning to pull the pieces together during the second season. Sadly, Schwartz wasn't up to the magnitude of the task he had set for himself, and Season Two of The O.C. repairs some of the challenges far too easily for satisfaction, quickly restoring the key ensemble for more of the same. As redeemed teen delinquent Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie) and spoiled emo geek Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) are too-conveniently brought home from their summers in exile, back to the upscale Orange County society of Newport, Calif., the emotional wreckage reverberating from their abrupt departures linger on. The marriage of Seth's parents — and Ryan's guardians — Sandy (Peter Gallagher) and Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) was severely strained by their summer-long absence, and Seth's relationship with the deserted Summer (Rachel Bilson) appears irreparable. Ryan's troubled love from Season One, Marissa (Mischa Barton), takes his return with a more optimistic attitude, but the two are out-of-sync and emotionally scarred, unable to pick up where they left off.

Much like Season One, The O.C.'s sophomore year is a mixed bag. It relies far too heavily on often-irritating and/or dull dispensable guest characters (the best of which is Summer's new beau, Michael Cassidy, a hunky, nice-guy water polo player who matches Seth in comic-book geeklore but betters him in nearly every other department) to generate frequently humdrum conflicts between the principals. But for the series, the gratuitous plotting is almost negligible — just a necessary mechanism to serve as foreground to the show's bracing wit and keen sense of the relationships between its star players. Following course from the series' debut run, Seth and Summer's love/hate tug-of-war is a highlight, eliciting many of the show's funniest, as well as its most emotional, moments, with Brody and Bilson quickly eclipsing MacKenzie and Barton as the series' breakthrough stars. This shift of focus bodes well for the Ryan-Marissa relationship, which had grown so turbulent during the previous season their scenes together may have inspired drinking games involving Pepto Bismol. Now out of the spotlight, and rarely directly involved with each other, the two are allowed to bond, with effective results and satisfying, smaller, payoffs. The marriage of Marissa's scheming mom to Seth's J.R. Ewing-like grandfather (the excellent Melinda Clarke and Alan Dale, respectively) is consistently entertaining, but sadly the same can't be said for the formerly dependable Cohens, Sandy and Kirsten. Their rocky plot arc during Season Two is troublesome, partly because of its dependence on unpersuasive external antagonists (including Kim Delaney as Sandy's listless and repellent former lover), but also because the convincing, uncommon strength of their marriage during the first season was one of the show's strongest assets, and without their steadying influence the season slips into patches of aimlessness during its middle stretch.

Nevertheless, as with the rest of the show, while this storyline is deeply problematic and prone to dispiriting flaws, its key moments are often realized with great skill from all involved: writers, directors, and — most importantly — the actors, with maximum impact. One of The O.C.'s great successes is that, while it's sometimes suffocatingly steeped in melodrama, it balances with a profound aversion to melodramatics. Also, at its very best, it's the funniest drama on television, and despite its dependence on formula, it has the kind of distinctive, charismatic personality that transcends mere television to earn its money as force in pop culture. If it were deemed more respectable by the powers that be (why "Desperate Housewives" and not The O.C.?), it would also be basking in Emmy nominations for Gallagher, Rowan, Brody, Bilson, Clarke, and Dale. Credit also goes to the show's commitment to keeping a hip and bracing soundtrack, full of emerging pop sensations (The Killers make an early season live appearance, followed later by The Walkmen and The Thrills), indie scene stalwarts and upstarts (Modest Mouse, Album Leaf), and classic kitsch rock (Survivor, The Scorpions). As network and cable television schedules become increasingly erratic, DVD is emerging as the optimum medium for devotees of dramatic series, and where The O.C.'s faults are exaggerated by weekly (and sometimes less-frequent) appointment-viewing, the show improves when watched over a shorter time-span (with a little fast-forwarding here and there). Also with Olivia Wilde — as a punky club manager who flirts with Seth before lezzing out with Marissa — Shannon Lucio, Logan Marshall-Green, and a surprisingly amusing guest appearance by George Lucas.

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Warner Home Video's The O.C.: The Complete Second Season packs 24 episodes onto six discs, with a few bonus features occupying a seventh disc. The episodes are presented in great-looking anamorphic transfers (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby 2.0 Surround. The episodes "The Christmukkah That Almost Wasn't" (#2.06) and "The Rainy Day Women" (#2.14) feature so-so commentaries by Schwartz and key crew, and the latter is presented in an "extended director's cut." Disc Seven carries the short featurette "Beachy Couture" about the show's fashion cues, and "The O.C.: Obsess Completely," which aired prior to Season Two, re-capping the production of a reaction to Season One, as well as gag reels for each of the first two seasons. The set is packaged in a very poorly constructed digipak with seven plastic disc trays, mounted in the cardboard casing with what appears to be a single piece of cellophane tape. Open carefully.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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