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Now that the Boston Red Sox have reversed the curse and half of America is cursing the presidential verdict, the nation will be prepared to focus on a matter that has been troubling those who have needed a diversion for the past six months.

Will Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) and Seth (Adam Brody) return to "The OC" (8 tonight, WUTV), and if so, how do they do it?

You don't have to be a National Merit Scholar to figure it out. Figuring out the secret of this Fox soap's success is much more difficult.

If you missed the first season, here's a crash course in what happened:

Ryan is a poor, good-hearted kid who got into a legal jam. His public defender, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), decided to bring him home to Newport Beach in Orange County, Calif., to live with his skeptical wife, Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), and dorky son Seth (Adam). Ryan looks about 25, but he's still in high school.

Kirsten initially rebelled at the idea, but by season end she treated Ryan like a son and her dorky son became his best friend. Ryan also fell for the girl next door, Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), who was the addiction-prone, wafer-thin daughter of Kirsten's old flame, Jimmy (Tate Donovan), and his scheming wife, Julie (Melinda Clarke). Jimmy went broke, the Coopers divorced and Julie landed in the rich arms of Kirsten's father, Caleb Nicol (Alan Dale).

Please don't laugh. There is more.

Ryan got another girlfriend, Theresa (Navi Raway), pregnant and in the season finale left Newport for Chino with her to do the right thing. He broke Marissa's heart in the process. Ryan's departure prompted Seth to sail away from Newport and his girlfriend, Summer, (Rachel Bilson), a babe he fantasized about for years and named his sailboat after.

This season's first two episodes pick up after the summer of discontent, with Ryan, Seth, Kirsten and Summer among those moping around and Sandy dealing with all the broken relationships as his mansion is being remodeled and Caleb is being fitted for a jail cell.

All the moping gets a little heavy and even the supposed twists aren't surprising.

As silly as everything sounds, it is hard not to take your eyes off "The OC," it's easy to root for the characters to grow up, and fun to listen to Seth make self-deprecating remarks while Summer deals with their breakup by seeking some nonsensical California therapy.

The ability to make you care about the lives of these self-involved people may help explain the show's success better than anything.

That success certain will be tested now that Fox has moved the show opposite CBS' still strong "Survivor" and NBC's lame "Joey."

Gallagher, who plays the most likable, most principled and most sensible character, had the best explanation this summer when creator Josh Schwartz and the cast were asked in Los Angeles to explain the series' popularity. After Donovan cracked it is because "we're all very attractive" and Brody said the show has a "cool factor," Gallagher had a deeper answer.

"I think it has a lot to do with the times we're in right now, too," he said. "I think if we were enjoying a period of peace and prosperity, the response to our show would be very different from what it is now."

Gallagher said he thought the show could find an audience "because we're in a period of high anxiety. There's a great deal of danger. There's a great deal of deception. There's a great deal of confusion and still people have to go about their lives."

The dating and financial lives of the Cohens and Coopers might not be normal, but they're still a family.

"When an audience looks at it, there's something to identify with and recognize and take delight with and feel slightly less alone," said Gallagher. Rating: 2 1/2 stars out of 4


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