By Gillian Flynn
Updated May 12, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

Is it the fact that every new character has been doofy — oh, boring Zach Stevens (Michael Cassidy), you must bleed chloroform! Or the dubious string of live bands at the Bait Shop, even though watching TV characters rock out to real music makes us all feel funny? The O.C. — once clever, soapy, and oddly genuine — has had a mind-boggling sophomore slump.

Start with the uninspired string of ”issues” The O.C. churned out this season — all dropped as unceremoniously as a played-out Chrismukkah toy. The nipped alcoholism of Marissa (Mischa Barton). The near-adultery of Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher, world’s coolest dad). The chaste lesbian fling between Marissa and barkeep Alex (Olivia Wilde), who ultimately was sent home. ”Home” meaning the place where TV’s lesbians go after they’ve kissed some hot cast member. (There they frolic with suspendered ’80s movie nerds, Billy Zabka, and pirates in a special Overused Gimmicks section of the universe.) Only the porn scandal involving Julie Cooper-Nichol (Melinda Clarke) was fun, mainly because her blackmailer was played by stone-faced Johnny Messner, who so manfully handled squirrel monkeys in Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid.

The Fox show, once so sly with the pop references, is now as self-impressed as a post-Rushmore Wes Anderson film. And lazy. Littered with Fox-franchise gags — an American Idol reference here, a George Lucas cameo there — The O.C. is satisfied making listless in-jokes. You can almost hear the writers congratulating each other: ”Risky Business? Dude, that’s so random.” You can’t substitute randomness for humor, and you can’t treat story lines like a game of whack-a-mole.