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OCcupational hazard

Every whiz kid has to grow up, a lesson 'O.C.' creator Josh Schwartz is learning as the once hot show struggles

It's been a tough year in Hollywood for Providence's former wunderkind Josh Schwartz.

His teen television drama "The O.C." hit a ratings low last season and Fox has scheduled just 16 episodes this fall and winter. Mischa Barton's popular character Marissa Cooper was killed off in the May season finale and the rest of her friends have now moved on from high school, forcing a delicate transition to adulthood -- and away, in some cases, from the Orange County beachfront setting that gave the show its identity.

Adding to the pressure, "The O.C." -- which begins its fourth season Thursday at 9 p.m. -- is slotted for the most competitive time period on television, opposite the twin powerhouses "Grey's Anatomy" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

Schwartz, who made headlines in 2003 as a 26-year-old film school dropout turned executive producer, feels at peace with the future -- partly because his whirlwind success was unexpected to begin with.

"Three years ago, I thought we would be lucky if we made it through the first seven episodes," he said in a recent interview.

Schwartz hasn't given up on "The O.C.," which, among other tactics, is attempting to build its audience this fall by premiering episodes on Myspace.com before they debut on the network. But with the season currently slotted to end in February, he's determined to have fun with it. In a nod to his hometown, upcoming episodes will poke fun at Brown University and its reputation for liberal students. One male character will leave the O.C. for a job at Seattle Grace, the hospital where "Grey's Anatomy" is based.

"He believes if you can't beat them, join them," Schwartz quips. "We're not worried about ratings. We just want to make the best show possible."

"The O.C.," which is coproduced by McG, Robert DeLaurentis, and Stephanie Savage , became an instant teen favorite when it debuted in August 2003. The series follows the story of Ryan, a troubled, low-income teenager who moves into the guest house of his defense attorney in a wealthy seaside community in Orange County, California, a.k.a. the O.C. There he struggles to turn his life around and fit in with the rich kids, who have plenty of problems of their own.

In addition to launching the careers of actors like Benjamin McKenzie (Ryan) and Adam Brody (Seth) , the show turned Orange County into a sexy television setting, which came to include MTV's copycat reality show "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County" and the Bravo documentary series "The Real Housewives of Orange County."

The program also became known for promoting cutting-edge rock acts like the Killers, Jem, and Death Cab for Cutie, which actually played on the show in a club setting.

"People were eager to figure out who these artists were," says Joanna Chow, a 20-year-old Brookline resident who once was a hard-core fan of the show. A sophomore at Northwestern University last year, Chow , along with her Gamma Phi Beta sorority sisters , would watch the series every week.

"We knew the show was ridiculous but there was something alluring about it," she says. "Most people don't have that kind of glamorous high school experience."

By late last winter, Chow and her friends were losing interest. "The story lines got too absurd. People stopped going to 'O.C.' night," she says. " 'Grey's Anatomy' is the only show I watch regularly now."

Schwartz drew on his experiences as a teenager in fashioning "The O.C." The show's popularity gave the writer-producer -- who dropped out of the University of Southern California's film school in the late '90s -- an insider's clout.

"He met all of his heroes, from Larry David to Steven Spielberg ," says Dan Schwartz, his younger brother, who also lives in L A. "He heard that George Lucas's daughter was into the show so he invited him to appear."

That led to something bigger. "George invited Josh up to Skywalker Ranch to preview the last episode of 'Star Wars,' " recalls Stephen Schwartz, Josh's father, who flew in from Providence for the ride. "George even gave up his seat for Josh, telling him, 'This seat has the best sound in the house.' It was a big thrill."

But along with the perks, Schwartz -- one of the youngest people to ever create a one-hour drama for network television -- has had some hard days.

"I had a lot to learn," he says. "There's a lot to this job. People management and network studio management. What it's like when the show is doing well and when it's not. I went really hard at it the first few years and then last year I kind of burned out."

Like its creator, "The O.C." has lost some steam over the years, dropping in the ratings from an average of 9.4 million viewers the first year to 7.3 million the second year and 5.8 million last year. Schwartz blames time period changes for some of that decline. The series was moved from Tuesday nights to Wednesdays to Thursdays. "We were up against 'Survivor,' and then 'CSI' and 'The Office' and 'My Name is Earl,' " says Schwartz. "This year is the worst of all."

But the producer concedes that last year's storytelling -- which ranged from the dramatic (a young man falling off a cliff to his death) to the corny (the party where students sported the sweatshirts of their future prestigious colleges) -- may not have been the best.

"I think we did a lot of crazy stuff last year to get [promotions] on the air," he says. "We were trying to make it exciting. I think characters can get railroaded that way."

Craig Erwich, Fox's executive vice president of programming, said no decisions have been made about the future of the series but he is "thrilled" with this year's new direction post high school.

"We've seen the first five or six episodes, and they are excellent," he said . "I think this show has a core audience who will be very happy."

The first few episodes this season will focus on the characters mourning the death of Marissa Cooper. Summer (Rachel Bilson) will attempt to reinvent herself at Brown as an environmentalist. She'll have help from a potential new love interest, Che , played by Chris Pratt, formerly of "Everwood." Seth will work in a comic book shop.

Ryan will put off attending U.C. Berkeley to bus tables at a grungy bar and -- believe it or not --participate in an underground cage-fighting circuit.

"The idea is that everybody grieves in very strange ways," Schwartz says. "I didn't want it to be mopey."

A 30-year-old with a hit under his belt, even an aging hit, is still a hot commodity in Hollywood. Paramount has asked Schwartz to write a screenplay for "Looking for Alaska," a coming-of-age story adapted from John Green's novel. He is also working on a pilot for the CW called "Gossip Girl," based on the book series of the same name. It will follow the lives of a group of rich New York teenagers.

"I was very skeptical," Schwartz says. "I don't want to do 'The O.C. NYC.' But I thought the books were smart. The characters are worldly in a way that Orange County kids aren't."

In a genre change, Schwartz is also developing an action comedy for NBC called "Chuck" in which a man somehow downloads the CIA database into his head. "The character is an everyday guy who works for the Geek Squad at Best Buy. Something happens to him. He's a reluctant hero," he says.

Schwartz's long-term plans are to keep telling stories -- and to stop worrying. He admits he reads fan message boards a little too closely and takes criticism of "The O.C." to heart.

"If anything," he says, "success has made me more neurotic and less confident."

Suzanne Ryan can be reached at sryan@globe.com

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