It’s summertime, and the old attention span isn’t what it used to be. With the beach beckoning, and half the western world slapping on suntan lotion and annoying foreigners, it’s hard to nudge one’s cranium into a working mode. So The O.C., the new teen soap opera on Fox (Tues., 9 p.m.), seems well-timed. It has just the right mix of waxed chests and minimally covered breasts to make you feel as if you’re gamboling in the waves yourself.

Young Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie) is the hero of the tale, a smart 16-year-old from the working-class neighborhood of Chino, who’s been abandoned by his mother and rescued from the streets by idealistic public defender Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher). Cohen puts Ryan up in his palatial digs in Newport Beach, much to the consternation of his wealthy wife, Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), whose money allows them to live in such a ritzy domicile in the first place.

It seems that Ryan is the first kid from the wrong side of the tracks ever to have been seen in Newport Beach, and his presence causes a furor. The girls fall in love with him, and the boys, with the exception of Sandy’s nerdy teenage son, Seth (Adam Brody), all hate him. There are fights. There are long, lingering glances, particularly between Ryan and Marissa (Mischa Barton), the beautiful girl next door. And, for the grown-ups, there are questions. Should they take care of Ryan permanently, in effect adopt him as a second son, or, having introduced him to deluxe living, return him to Chino to look for his absent mother? What, in short, are the rich folk of Newport Beach made of? They’re big on kindness in the abstract — every party they attend seems to be a charity ball of one kind or another — but will they extend a bit of concrete, personal charity to one unlucky kid who desperately needs a home?

Given the talents involved — Doug Liman (Go, Swingers) and McG, who sounds like a car but is apparently a director (Charlie’s Angels) The O.C. should be a lot fresher and more imaginative than it is, and far less self-conscious and studied. As Ryan, McKenzie overdramatizes absurdly at times, if only with his eyes, which seem to have attended acting school all on their own. They’re constantly sliding this way and that, looking up, looking down, suspicious one moment, cautiously interested the next, always at the center of the scene. In the meantime, Marissa’s eyes are no slouches in the drama department either, and when the two of them are in the same room, it’s like a pas de deux for eyeballs.

Speaking of the balletic, watching Sexual Personae author Camille Paglia’s extraordinarily expressive hand-movements during a recent 3-hour call-in show on C-SPAN2’s Book TV was definitely the highlight of my television week. Along, I should add, with listening to Paglia talk and watching Paglia listen, the latter being almost as enthralling as the former. Even observing the way she nodded her head as she listened to questions was a pleasure.

Some head-nodders can be profoundly irritating, of course. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, demonstrated this conclusively in his documentary, Searching for the Roots of 9/11, which was shown earlier this year. As he sat around sipping mint tea and discussing politics with various Middle Easterners, the mustachioed pundit signaled the intensity of his Timesian attention span by nodding his head so violently it was a wonder it didn’t fall off. I agreed with most of what he had to say, but the self-important body language lingered long after his words had faded.

This was not the case with Paglia: Speech and physicality were all of one piece. Taking calls from around the country, she moved her head as she listened in a way that was professorial, astute and almost poetic. Though she has a reputation for being antagonistic (probably because she’s philosophically at odds with prevailing academic trends), one of the most striking things about her was her exquisite sense of diplomacy. In fact, listening to her dissent from the decision to go to war in Iraq while criticizing the narcissists who court the world’s praise by denouncing America abroad, I realized how rare it is to come across an American intellectual who can think across the ideological spectrum.

The subtext to most political arguments in America is cultural: I’m not like you. Hence the ire ’60s bad boy Clinton aroused in the heartland, and the hatred Bush the cowboy provokes on the coasts. But with Paglia, ideological and cultural barriers are not just broken, they’re shattered. A lesbian who likes Rush Limbaugh, an atheist who doesn’t sneer at the religious, a Ralph Nader voter who supports the death penalty — there just has to be something you and Paglia agree on. Some might see such a smorgasbord of beliefs and opinions as incoherence, but to me her description of herself as “a free thinker and independent voice” rang true. If only there were more like her.

Although Michael Henchard, the hero of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, is a tragic figure, he never struck me as a pathetic one. Unfortunately, Ciaran Hinds’ interpretation of Henchard in the new A&E adaptation (Sun., Aug. 17, 8 p.m.) made him seem just that. Normally, Hardy’s characters and stories lend themselves well to film. Unlike those of many of his 19th-century contemporaries, for whom the novel was a means of exploring the intricacies of the mind, Hardy’s fictions are like old ballads set in prose, and his heroes and heroines have the unchanging consistency of myth. In their use of coincidence and melodramatic plot devices, his novels are not so different from a classic Hollywood movie like Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, in which Humphrey Bogart’s love affair with Gloria Grahame is doomed both by his psychological flaws and a universe that seems determined to foil him.

The story of The Mayor of Casterbridge is a riveting one, and has a sensational opening that outraged many readers when it was first published in 1886. A penniless field hand, in a fit of drunken belligerence, sells his wife and baby daughter for five guineas at a country fair (such sales did occasionally take place in rural England). The following day, mortified at his actions, he swears off alcohol and goes searching for his family but never finds them. Fast-forward 19 years and he has become the teetotaling mayor of the titular town, when his wife and (apparent) daughter return, and his downfall is belatedly set in motion, though the reappearance of his family turns out to have little to do with it.

For me, this adaptation, which was directed by David Thacker, fell flat. It’s competent, certainly, but feels dutiful rather than inspired. In particular, the atmosphere of the town and surrounding countryside, which in the novel are virtually protagonists themselves, seems strangely muted here, and with it goes most of Hardy’s poetry. Given that his work has been adapted for the screen by everyone from Michael Winterbottom to Dennis Potter and Roman Polanski, there are better options at the video store.


And so to sport. I’ve always found pool to be a boring game to play, probably because I’m so unbelievably bad at it. But watching some frames of nine-ball pool on television, as I did recently on Fox Sports World and ESPN2, is utterly captivating. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a sport more perfectly suited to the small screen. I only caught the last half hour of the duel between Germany’s Oliver Ortmann and Francisco Bustamante of the Philippines, whose names are completely unfamiliar to me, but it was a thing of beauty. The shots are shown in three main ways. First you see the player actually leaning over the table and knocking the ball in (they rarely miss), the way you might if you were watching someone play in a bar. This is followed by a close-up, so you can see one ball strike another from a distance of inches. And finally, for the complex shots that draw oohs and ahs from the crowd, an overhead camera lays out the terrain precisely.

There is something almost voluptuous about the intimacy of billiards on the box. It’s as if it had been designed for television. No, it’s not as exciting as a great tennis match or a playoff basketball game, but it’s uniquely entrancing. And quite therapeutic, too, I imagine. A smart doctor would prescribe watching those glistening orbs slide across the green baize as a cure for stress. Though not, needless to say, if I was playing.

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