By Nicholas Fonseca
Updated December 12, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

You don’t spend your up-and-coming years on Gilmore Girls and the MTV fleshfest Undressed without attracting the attention of a few screaming girls. But Adam Brody didn’t foresee the scene that unfolded on a recent afternoon spent shooting scenes for Fox’s feels-like-Spelling-but-it-ain’t hit soap The O.C., when an overzealous group of fans bum-rushed him on a golf course in Huntington Beach. ”Were you there?!” he asks excitedly. ”It was so cool. They were all these emo, indie-rock kids. I didn’t even know they existed down in Huntington Beach! I’ve encountered 14-year-old girls who wear their Roxy jeans and love the show, but these kids were truly Seth Cohens,” he says, referencing the gangly geek-hunk he plays. ”They were talking to me about Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes! This was literally the first time that I felt like I might really be a voice for somebody.”

That mopey teenage boys are watching a prime-time drama at all is testament to The O.C.’s appeal. In a pretty sucky season for Fox (and for TV as a whole), it’s managed to be one of the few bright spots, drawing more teen viewers than competition like ABC’s The Bachelor. In the process, the disconcertingly sunny actors at its center — Brody, 23; Mischa Barton, 17; Benjamin McKenzie, 25; and Rachel Bilson, 22 — have become instant favorites. Barton recalls the show’s initial summer run, when airing against reruns helped it build a solid core of watchers. ”You air for six episodes, and then suddenly you’re gone for a month,” she says, her husky voice — so muted as confused rich girl Marissa Cooper — erupting in a squawky tumble. ”People kept asking me how long it would be before we returned. It usually takes years for shows to find audiences like that.”

Josh Schwartz, the show’s 27-year-old creator, is perched atop his office couch in a ragged Styx T-shirt. ”9021-O.C.?” he asks. ”I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a full episode of [90210], except for maybe the one where Donna goes to the prom and gets fall-down drunk. Didn’t that happen?”

Schwartz doesn’t need to tell us he never set out to emulate Fox’s long-running hour — that’s clear when he reveals that The O.C.’s New Year’s Eve episode will be staged like a screwball comedy, and that another hour will ape the high-minded 1974 paranoia thriller The Parallax View. ”We’re seen as a soap, and that’s because I’m doing a soap without understanding what that means,” he says. The O.C. has been more brutally honest about the partying habits of privileged teens — coke! bongs! threesomes! — than 90210 or the many WB dramas that helped pave the way for its unique mix of earnestness and self-mockery. ”So often, we see teen romance but we don’t feel like those characters have earned it,” says McKenzie, whose soulful portrayal of tough guy Ryan Atwood has earned plenty of ”Baby Crowe” comments. ”They’re not allowed to be funny yet dark, or knowing yet completely ignorant.” Adds Brody: ”It stays personal instead of aiming for…now, some shows shall remain nameless” — and here he mouths ”Skin,” the name of Fox’s highly touted October bomb — ”the political. It’s also got a lot of irony. You watch my character spouting one-liners and you realize what we’re all about.”