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Ironic and fun 'O.C.' died oh so quickly

As Seth Cohen, Adam Brody gave 'The O.C.' ironic edge. As Seth Cohen, Adam Brody gave "The O.C." ironic edge.

What did "The O.C." have that no other angsty teen soap with an emo soundtrack had? What caused this Fox series, which airs its final episode tonight, to immediately render every other "Dawson's Creek" knockoff unbearably turgid and so 1990s?

Seth Cohen .

Seth was the embodiment of pop cultural awareness and TV meta-humor. Perfectly inhabited by Adam Brody , Seth made "The O.C." into ' ' 'The O.C.,' " with comic air-quotes around every melodrama that hit the denizens of Newport Beach, most of them spoiled and beautiful. Through the sarcastic Seth, show creator Josh Schwartz was able to turn "The O.C." into a peanut-gallery commentary on itself. Seth was a one-man "Mystery Science Theater 3000," making fun of "The O.C." while living through its cliches and absurdities.

While Benjamin McKenzie's mopey Ryan was the more conventional "O.C." hero, Seth was the alternative geek-hero, keeping it real for the other characters -- and, most importantly, for the viewers. "You guys really wouldn't hurt me, because that would be so cliched ," he once said as bullies began to go after him, quickly adding, "I guess you're fans of the cliche ." Bullies, 0; Seth, 1. When tormented lovers Marissa (Mischa Barton ) and Ryan had a happy moment, Seth voiced what we were all thinking: "No, she's supposed to be crying and he's supposed to be brooding. That's how it works!"

Seth made the show's portrayal of the impossibly superficial Orange County -- personified by the character of Marissa and Barton's thin acting -- not just bearable, but an ironic wonderland. Seth was even there for viewers as we grappled with the sheer furry-osity of Peter Gallagher's eyebrows: "Dad, those eyebrows are out of control," he once said in one the show's many references to its fans' observations.

It was with the help of Seth's charm that "The O.C." was able to create what has become one of its enduring legacies: Chrismukkah. Not only was Seth the sardonic one in a sea of bikinis and consumption, he was the half-Jewish one. He couldn't help but make references to his Jewish side, the side he most identified with, and rib his mother, Kirsten (Kelly Rowan ) , for being "Waspy McWasp." With Chrismukkah, Seth turned what is a fraught season for many interfaith families into a light-hearted American holiday, a pop-cultural salve.

The strangest thing about the death of "The O.C.," tonight at 9 on Channel 25, is the speed of its rise and fall. In less than four years, "The O.C." went from the hip, addictive savior of Teen TV, with Seth Cohen as its mascot, to a has-been in ratings disgrace with only about 4 million viewers per week.

The plunge was partly the result of Fox's bad decision to move the series from Wednesdays to Thursdays for season two, a night when the other networks have already claimed viewers young and old. "The O.C." dropped from an average of 9.7 million viewers per episode to 7 million in season two, and then down to 5.6 million in season three. Fan devotion is a fragile thing these days, as ABC is now learning with "Lost," whose ratings have fallen with a move from 9 to 10 p.m.

But "The O.C." also lost its originality as the familiar soap operatic conventions -- adultery, addiction, sudden deaths -- began to triumph over smartly amusing dialogue. "Desperate Housewives" has gotten caught in the same trap, as flip comic elements strain against the need to engage the audience in the storylines. When it began, "The O.C." was a teen melodrama for people who were tired of teen melodramas, but it evolved into yet another teen melodrama, more or less.

The "O.C." plots began to blur together much as they had on "Dawson's Creek" and "Beverly Hills 90210," as Seth and Summer went back and forth and Ryan and Marissa went up and down. The flailing may have hit a nadir when Schwartz and his writers sought media attention by having Marissa engage in bi-curious behavior during season two. Diehard fans of the show are now saying that the writing is better this season, although the ratings have not reflected any improvement.

And so the fickle tastes of TV viewers and the rigors of serial storytelling claim another victim. Schwartz is moving on to another teen soap called "Gossip Girl," this time for the CW, and he's planning a spy comedy for NBC. As Seth might say, yet another zeitgeist bites the dust.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

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