The prime time soap opera started out as guilty pleasure.

Last summer, when “The O.C.” made its debut, it looked like a well-made prime-time teen soap that could become something of a guilty pleasure with time.

But this Wednesday (9 p.m. EDT, Fox), the drama about life among the rich, troubled and oversexed of Orange County will end its first season as much more than that. The series didn’t really hit its stride until its 10th or 11th episode, but “The O.C.” has evolved over 10 months into the best new show on network TV. And that’s with all due respect to “Arrested Development” and “Joan of Arcadia,” two very good freshman series.

In my household, there was a sea change last week when we opted for “The O.C.” over “The West Wing.” Sure, we taped “West Wing,” but choosing the life in Newport Beach over life at the White House was a serious shift in viewing priorities.

Some of the reasons:

-With Aaron Sorkin gone from “West Wing,” Amy Sherman-Palladino’s “Gilmore Girls” in decline and Josh Whedon’s “Angel” on the way out, there’s no better writer on network TV now than “O.C.” creator Josh Schwartz. He manages to combine Sorkin’s rapid-fire patter, Sherman-Palladino’s gift for the throwaway line and Whedon’s sly pop culture references without copying any of them.

-The series has created memorable characters in a short period. That includes Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), the sexy geek; Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson), the vulnerable Valley Girl; and Julie Cooper (Melinda Clarke), the wickedest TV witch since Alexis Carrington’s glory days in the early 1980s.

-Unlike other teen soaps, the adults are not relegated to the fringes. (Remember how quickly Mom and Dad Walsh became irrelevant on “90210”?) Instead, their actions drive the story lines and complicate the kids’ lives, not the other way around. And, at least in the case of Sandy and Kirsten Cohen (Peter Gallagher, Kelly Rowan), the adults are likable and smart.

-No show is more willing to mock itself and the conventions of its own genre. The best ongoing gag is “The Valley,” the teen soap that the “O.C.” characters watch religiously and that seems an awful lot like …well, “The O.C.” The March episode where the gang met their doppelgangers from “The Valley” was a hoot. Last week’s watery catfight between Julie and Hailey Nichol (Amanda Righetti), Kirsten’s sister, was a clever homage to “Dynasty.”

-None of the characters is as one-dimensional as he or she may have first seemed. Summer, for example, started out as a vacuous, self-absorbed teen queen, only to morph into a rather complex young woman.

-And finally, the acting is good – or certainly better than you would expect. Benjamin McKenzie is flat-out cool as Ryan Atwood, the sensitive rebel from Chino, and Bilson, Clarke, Rowan and Gallagher are fine. (OK, Mischa Barton can be pretty flat as Ryan’s main squeeze, Marissa Cooper, but you can’t have everything.) The real find of the series, though, is Brody, who steals the show week after week with his deft performance as Seth.

For its finale this Wednesday, “The O.C.” goes to that staple of all things soap opera: the Big Wedding. Julie and Caleb Nichol (Alan Dale), Kirsten and Hailey’s scheming dad, get hitched – we think – but there are sure to be lots of other complications as well. Sounds juicy, and we’re so there.

Charlie McCollum:

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AP-NY-05-03-04 1239EDT

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