Headed for reruns
CHRISMUKKAH returned quickly for me this year, gracias to Fox canceling its set-in-Orange County teen drama, “The O.C.” The decision was an ignominious end for the once-hot TV show, which premiered four years ago to high ratings and critical buzz but is now deservedly destined for reruns on KDOC-TV Channel 56 alongside infomercials and “McHale’s Navy.” I hope it tanks there too.
My problem with “The O.C.” wasn’t its ignorance of the “real” Orange County, the postmodern suburban stew of multiculturalism and Mexican bashing I call casa. No fictional depiction of a region can possibly synthesize it entirely, John Steinbeck notwithstanding. Nor am I too bothered with out-of-towners now calling us “The O.C.,” a nickname as inane as “Hollyweird.” Creator Josh Schwartz’s greatest sin was to transform my homeland into a synonym for avarice and vapidity -- which is what Orange County’s leaders want. In the eyes of America, we’re now “Dallas” with better tans and a coast, and the movers and shakers of la naranja love it.
This newfound reputation was more than a century in the making. Ever since the county fathers incorporated in 1889 under the name of a fruit that few residents grew, Orange County has employed homegrown myth makers to promote its self-image as a Garden of Suburban Delights.
The gorgeous orange-crate labels of the county’s citrus growers -- all depicting tranquil orchards of plenty, never showing the Latinos who picked them -- offered America a sweet slice of paradise during the Depression. Eisenhower’s America wanted to visit Anaheim’s Disneyland and buy into the county’s promise of master-planned, affordable housing far from dirty, minority-plagued cities. Surf music immortalized Huntington Beach as “Surf City” (give it up, Santa Cruz) and allowed the nation’s teens to dream of shooting the pier while blond, blue-eyed “Gidget"-wannabes snacked on funnel cakes. The ascendancy of native son Richard Nixon, while further solidifying the stereotype of us as a conservative stronghold, also meant that the nation’s silent majority wanted in on the action too.
This Edenic image faced a challenge in the mid-1990s, as rock groups such as No Doubt, Social Distortion, the Offspring and Rage Against the Machine offered a more sour take on what No Doubt memorably described as the “Tragic Kingdom.” The county establishment eschewed these bands and the youth that propelled their success, stodgy image be damned.
But, meanwhile, local multimillion-dollar empires such as Oakley, Quiksilver and Paul Frank showed Orange County’s old money that there were fortunes to be made by catering to the hip. County boosters changed our image anew: We were now the nexus where cool and capitalism met. The national media lapped it up -- USA Today called Orange County “the Cathedral of Cool”; VH1 said we were “America’s Hip Factory” and even staid U.S. News & World Report blathered that O.C. was “Hip’s New Headquarters.”
It’s no wonder, then, that Orange County so zealously embraced “The O.C.” upon its 2003 debut. The program didn’t pretend to show all of Orange County, just the parts politicians and businessmen wanted broadcast. Wealth. Whiteness. The beach. Just a couple of months before “The O.C.” premiered, then-Newport Beach Councilman Dick Nichols complained to a reporter that there were too many Mexicans mucking up the beaches.
With “The O.C.,” Nichols and his friends undoubtedly found relief. The show’s characters derided the working-class, minority-heavy central part of the county. The problems we face -- immigration wars, changing demographics, escalating home prices -- disappeared in favor of potboiler sap and bad indie-rock (although the fictional depiction of Irvine Co. head Don Bren --named the most powerful man in Southern California by this very paper -- as the despicable Caleb Nichol was spot-on). In gratitude, Newport Beach gave the keys of the city to cast members, while Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby proposed changing the name of John Wayne Airport to the O.C. Airport.
Tellingly, the only show to have nailed Orange County is no longer with us: Fox’s “Arrested Development.” The show’s Bluth family was just like its fellow boob-tube Orange Countians -- self-absorbed, rich, living in the good part of town and WASPier than a nest. In one episode, dopey Buster Bluth emerged from a car trunk in Santa Ana thinking he was in Mexico. He then walked into his maid’s house, marveling that Lupe’s children wore the exact same clothes he wore as a child. Here were the lords of Orange County in their grotesque reality -- insular, clueless, outwitted again and again by Latinos.
But “Arrested Development” drew low ratings and a quick death. The “official” Orange County story marches on.