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Inside Schwartz

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wenty-eight-year-old Josh Schwartz is the writer, creator and executive producer of Fox’s sexy hit series, The O.C. A huge success last summer, The O.C. launched a new generation of tabloid faces and pop-cultural references and earned Schwartz a second show, Athens, set for 2005. You could hate him, except Schwartz and his show are too smart and too funny.

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   To sum up the first twenty-seven episodes: wrong-side-of-the-tracks Ryan Atwood finds his place amid the sun-drenched perfection of Orange County — stealing the lead debutante from the water polo captain, establishing fraternal bonds with comic book nerd Seth Cohen, and, by season’s end, possibly knocking up a childhood girlfriend lately come to town.
   But this is no sudser. When was the last time a teen drama stopped to extol the virtues of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, as The O.C. did with Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay? Or, keeping a self-referential straight face, introduced a show within a show?
   Now working on all-important season two, Schwartz talks about why TV teens no longer need a "very special episode" to lose their virginity. — Lily Oei

What did it take to get The O.C. on the air? Obviously Fox didn’t just hand you a show and airtime.
Actually, they did. I sold a movie when I was in college. From that, I sold a pilot that got produced for ABC, but didn’t go to series. I sold a pilot to the WB and it got produced but didn’t go to series. And then I was going to write something for Fox and met with McG’s company, Wonderland, and we started talking. They mentioned Newport Beach where McG is from, and I was familiar with it — having gone to USC. I saw a lot of the lives of Newport Beach kids when I was in college and being from Rhode Island, had a pretty distinct outsider’s perspective on it. We pitched it to Fox who were looking to get back into that market.
You once described the show as a “soapedy.”
When all the kids in my high school were watching 90210, I was watching Seinfeld and that was always where my heart lay. I never thought I would be doing a serialized drama.
You say it with such intonation.
I’ve grown to love it, but that wasn’t initially that’s where I thought I was headed, so I wasn’t ever going to approach it from a conventional standpoint. I never saw Dallas, never saw Dynasty. Making sure it was funny, had elements of romantic comedy, was self aware — that was always part of my approach of anything, including this, so I guess it’s just a rare hybrid of soap and comedy.
Is that what it takes to make a soap smart and watchable?
You can’t approach a show like that without a sense of irony in this day and age. I think audiences are too savvy. If you’re just creating the universe for your characters who are just engaged in that kind of melodrama and aren’t aware of it, they’re going to seem pretty dim. But you want to make sure you’ve carved out enough room for plenty incident and drama — that’s a big mandate from the network.
Does that saddle you with the “guilty pleasure” label?
I think that’s inherent in doing a show like this — about young people, in a beautiful southern California environment where there is a lot of that soap opera element and teen angst. But I gave up caring long ago what they’re calling it, as long as they’re watching.
Where do you draw the line between entertainment and logic?
We know when something gets pitched, we know if it’s too far. I think one of the cool things about our show is that I don’t know what that would be at this point. I feel like our show can get away with almost anything in terms of plotting and tone. The episodes can vary wildly from the kids go to L.A. to meet the stars of their favorite nighttime soap, to the Nana shows up for Passover seder — and everything in between.
Do you check what fans are saying on message boards?
Oh yeah. I’m a fiend.
Does feedback like that affect the course of the show?
It has influenced in the sense that it reminds me why people watch the show and what they watch for. But at the end of the day you don’t want to be completely tied to the audience because sometimes they’re less willing to let you take chances. They’d rather see everything end up happily ever after every episode, and we all know that would get boring pretty fast.
Do you take a lot of criticism and commentary from friends and family?
Totally. My parents watch every week night and have the entire family around. They have everybody over in the Providence area — the family gastroenterologist, the family periodontist — to watch the episode and report back to me. My dad calls me at every commercial break.
Why include parents on the show rather than just sending them off to Hong Kong like they do on other series?
It was always going to be the collision of adults and kids in this community. I was very influenced by the movies like The Ice Storm and how the portrayed adults and kids colliding with each other.
How much of you is in the show?
Everybody contributes. The perspective on the world that is most mine would belong to Seth, based on my experiences at USC, but there’s a part of me in all these characters. There’s a large part of the actors in all these characters. One of the reasons why Sandy Cohen is so likable is because the character’s most like Peter’s (Gallagher) personality. I like to eavesdrop on the actors in their daily conversations and their personalities and put them in the show.
Just personalities, or experiences too?
I’ll put things they’ve said. Rachel (Bilson, who plays Summer) and her friends watch the Golden Girls religiously and each one considers herself a different Golden Girl. I thought it was hilarious and put it in the show.
Dealing with sex — it’s so different from the “very special episodes” of my youth. You’re pretty nonchalant — is that a reflection of this day and age?
Marissa loses her virginity to Luke and it’s the wrong guy; Seth and Summer have sex in the first act of that episode. We didn’t want to do the will-Donna-loses-her-virginity-at-the-prom nineteen-episode buildup. I still think it’s a big deal for kids to have sex, but I don’t think it’s as big a deal for viewers to see people having sex.
Seth basically gets a high-five from his dad when he loses his virginity.
I’ve never heard of anyone saying, “Son, let’s have the birds-and-bees talk.” I don’t know anyone who’s actually had that conversation.
How strict do you have to be about standards and practices?
The network is very sensitive about the young people having sex, and we had to pull back on some of that this last year. After the Super Bowl incident, everything got a little bit more conservative.
Given your age, is it difficult to depict the range of experiences and emotions?
I don’t think so. I still remember what it was like to be a teenager. But now I also understand responsibility of being an adult. When I was a kid, I definitely liked to eavesdrop on my parents and their friends and their conversations. I actually enjoy writing for the adults as much as I like writing for the kids.
And your parents find it realistic?
I think they do.
The show is loaded with pop-culture references. Is that intentional to set a mood, or do you worry that will date you?
The thing about TV is that it’s accepted as the immediate medium. We’re doing stuff for that night it airs, and those are the references that are realistic to our audience and what kids and adults are into. It’s reflective of my tastes or the writers’ taste, or the actors’ tastes. We’ll be dated either way.
But in the meantime, you’ve created your own pop-culture lexicon.
Chrismukkah, The Valley, Captain Oats … we’ve been manufacturing our own references to hopefully keep us a little bit timeless as well.
Does the cast resent you for turning them into tabloid targets?
I’ve done nothing to turn them into tabloid targets! All I’ve done is try to give them good scripts where they can do their best job acting. What they choose to do in their private lives is on them.
Can you give us any hints about what’s coming up next season?
Nope.
How about Athens?
I’ll be delivering something to come on the air sometime in 2005. Right now I’m just trying to carve out the second season of The O.C.. It’s really the critical year so I really want to make sure I’m focused and this year is even better than last year.
Any last words?
Please watch us on Thursday nights. 

The O.C.returns to Fox on Nov. 4.

©2004 Nerve.com.