It began with a bang, literally, when Orange County’s heroine Marissa Cooper shot Trey, Ryan’s ex-con brother and the latest beneficiary of the Cohen family outreach program. Marissa’s plummet from adolescent alcoholic to resident gunslinger typifies Season Three’s over-dramatized story line. With the vodka-swilling Marissa to lead the way, the O.C. ventures into uncharted territories of pre-fab drama.

Season Three is peppered with similarly epic episodes. The show’s intense exaggeration prevents any one theme from gaining preeminence and instead creates a web of unfocused, errant motifs. The show, which started off as an entertaining chronicle of the privileged, fast-paced lifestyle of Newport’s residents — a glorified Beverly Hills 90210 with an Olsen twin wardrobe — has devolved into a second-rate soap opera. Each plot development seems to be a desperate attempt to re-capture the once enthusiastic fan base, yet it backfires in its excess and transforms the intended drama into comedy.

Characteristic of the impossibly scandalous Cooper-Cohen social circle, not a moment of repose passes before the next outlandish development. Within a matter of minutes, Marissa’s felonious behavior is marginalized to make room for the commotion of Kirsten’s return home from rehab. Banal in the world of the O.C., Kirsten’s homecoming is necessarily accompanied by the arrival of Orange County’s newest malefactor, Charlotte. In a theatrical feat of dramatic irony, the fragile Kirsten is betrayed by her duplicitous friend Charlotte — hint: rehab might not provide the most stable pool of friends — and Julie Cooper, Newport’s resident scandalmonger. Yet, in a typically public moral awakening, Julie selflessly uncovers the scam and thereby resigns herself to life in a trailer park.

Signaled by Ms. Cooper’s heroic martyrdom, Newport’s residents undergo major character transformations throughout the season. With dreadful acting, each character breaks from one stereotype and finds comfort in another.

At the same time, the teens of the O.C. struggle with typical adolescent bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder, the horrors of organized crime and perhaps, of greatest concern, the volatility of teenage love … all in the course of a few days.

Marissa, the awe-inspiring queen bee of Harbor High, is flung into the oh-so-Californian scene of surfer dudes and beach-loiterers — i.e. a highly glamorized public school. Now enamored with life on the other side of the tracks, Marissa quickly adjusts to the world of surfer-feuds and unpredictably attracts the eye of Newport Union’s radical heartthrob, Johnny. The two find that their attraction extends beyond their perfectly bone-structured surfaces — they truly “understand” each other, whatever the hell that means. The former fashionista emerges as a down-to-earth surfer chick.

Newport’s enduring couple, Ryan and Marissa, find themselves again seeking asylum at the lighthouse to discuss Ryan’s qualms about Johnny and Marissa’s “platonic” friendship. Ryan and Marissa, whose relationship is about as convincing as that of Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise, show no hope of realizing their unavoidable incompatibility and promise to annoy viewers with trivial fights and equally trivial reconciliations for seasons to come.

Perpetually O.C.-worthy, Johnny proves to be a trove of exhilarating drama. On the eve of his professional surfing debut, his dreams of becoming the next Kelly Slater are dashed away when his ACL is torn in a freak hit-and-run (perhaps committed by a rival surf gang?!). Comical is the only way to describe the scene in which Johnny is mercilessly run down in a tranquil parking lot. With dashed dreams and a broken heart, the dubiously Emmy-worthy skills of actor Ryan Donowho have acquainted viewers with agony of both the body and the soul.

While Marissa enters the world of surfer-intrigue, Summer, Newport’s queen of sassy one-liners and “adorable” ditziness, braves the gossipy grounds of Harbor High sans “Coop.” Fear not, Summer is now a genius (touting a 2100 on her SATs!), further proving that nothing really is ever what it seems in Newport.

Seth, who was once actually funny, risks losing his now formulized quirkiness as he plunges into the depths of marijuana addiction. All the show needs to complete its repertoire of high school stereotypes is the histrionic Tracy Flick type.

Enter Taylor, a cliched Type-A persona (think Marcia Brady on speed) satisfies every fictional high school’s need for a neurotic overachiever. Regardless of her haunted past, Taylor Townsend is simply too annoying to exist.

To complement the all-star cast is an equally overstated costume design. Summer and Marissa, proteges of the boho-chic school, flit around Newport in get-ups of carefully studied eccentricity — and pull it off. Mischa’s ability to mismatch in style excuses her unconvincing tears, her scarily unfunny jokes and her altogether limited capabilities. Similarly, the males of the show are not bereft of fashion consciousness. Seth, the template of the hybrid Euro-California vintage look, challenges Ms. Barton for the award of trendiest O.C. character. They both lose.

With recent developments such as the return of Caitlin, Marissa’s younger sister — the hackneyed good-girl gone bad — the show’s only hope is in its cancellation.