The O.C

Michael Levine/FOX

I'll admit it. When I got a package from THE O.C. executive producer Josh Schwartz, with four episodes of the new season and a friendly note asking to keep The O.C. in mind for coverage, I panicked. Like breathe-into-a-paper-bag kind of panic. 'Cause, to be honest, I had lost my faith in The THE O.C. halfway through last season, and my expectation of regaining that faith ranked right up there with believing in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and socialite actresses who eat. But a funny thing happened on the way to writing this column. I watched the first, then the second, then the third and fourth episode of The THE O.C.'s new season and completely freaked out over how good it was. Yes, Virginia, The O.C. is worth watching again!

And here's what you need to know about season four, which is thisclose to starting.The O.C. comes back this Thursday night at 9 p.m. on Fox. Yep, you heard me right. Thursday night. 9 p.m. Up against the two biggest shows on television—Grey's Anatomy and CSI. It's such a horrific time slot that Schwartz just has to laugh. "I called Fox and asked if they could vote out American Idol, so the CW could pick it up and put it on Thursday nights, too, just to complete the trifecta," he jokes. But Schwartz also considers the time slot a blessing in disguise. "Last year, we were chasing the ratings," Schwartz admits. "You start off wanting to do a really great show, and then at a certain point, you want to do a 10-share. And so, the new time slot is a positive in the sense that it allowed us to be liberated from worrying about that stuff and just focus on the creative. All I wanted to do was remind the fans why they watched this show in the first place." Which is why...

The new season is simultaneously darker, funnier, and more O.C.-ier. "The show had to grow up," Schwartz says. "We are out of high school, which I was really happy to be, and the castmembers were happy, too. But at the same time, I felt like last year became a little bit too dramatic, a little too melodramatic. A lot of the humor and the reason why I wanted to do the show in the beginning, we kinda got away from."

So, while the cast definitely steps up the funny (especially old fave Adam Brody, whose goofy charm returns, and new fave Autumn Reeser, who is totally loveable this season), season four also starts off in a very dark place—in case you didn't know? Marissa really is dead. "No, no, no. Everyone asks that, but no," is how Rachel Bilson replies when asked if Mischa Barton might return to The O.C. in any way. And Schwartz says he's fully aware that some of the fans are heartbroken by that.

"Obviously, you feel terrible that you write something, and people are making banners on Web pages and picketing and sending you letters. But while the character is missed, we really do honor her in the first few episodes. Marissa's death really allowed us to hit the ground running." Or pummeling, as the case may be for her love left behind...Ryan is pulling an Ed Norton in Fight Club this season. "Everyone's dealing with Marissa's death in the most healthy way they can," Benjamin McKenzie (Ryan) says. "And for Ryan, that's shirtless cage fighting! [Laughs] When Josh told me about the idea, I said, 'sure.' I mean, it sounds a little ridiculous, but it also sounds like fun. So, why not?" I think you'll be surprised at how much this storyline (which is short-lived) actually works. You'll also be surprised at how much.Chris Pratt will make you giggle. If you're an Everwood fan, you already know this, but you O.C. fans will now appreciate the comedic glory that is Chris Pratt, aka Summer's new activist pal, Che, at Brown University.

"Che is ridiculous," Chris explains. "He's a total left-wing liberal, didgeridoo-playing vegan hippie who wants to change the whole world one chicken at a time." Che comes into Summer's life to help her realize her activist potential, which, unfortunately, will take a serious toll on her relationship with Seth. "It's impossible to make it through a scene with Chris without laughing," says Rachel. "He's great." You can watch the premiere now. Fox has released The O.C.'s premiere early on MySpace. Obviously, there's a lot of grassroots activity (Summer would be proud) going on, given that the producers mailed out the first four episodes to media types like me and even to some of the fans. "I have been scared of spoilers before," Schwartz says. "But this year, we are in a very difficult position in terms of our time slot, and we wanted to get the word out and show people we are proud of these episodes. We decided that even if people know what happens, hopefully they'll still enjoy it when they see it."

Just don't let that other Thursday night at 9 producer (Grey's Shonda Rhimes) hear you talking like that, Mr. Schwartz, or the gloves will really come off! Speaking of spoiler alert, did you hear that one of The O.C. characters will be leaving for a job at Seattle Grace in the fourth episode? Pretty dang funny. Also in the fourth episode, Summer will lose her love for The Valley—The O.C.'s show within a show through which it has always poked fun of itself—bemoaning, "This show is so disgusting. All they do is create fake problems for fake people to distract viewers from the real problems in the world." When you hear that line, I think you'll realize how far The O.C. has come in its new season. 'Cause somehow, the show has managed to feel real again. And chances are, you'll get your faith back, too.

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