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Network Jews: Seth Cohen, The O.C.’s Lovable Dork

The O.C.’s Seth Cohen is a lie. The lie that, when given the choice between a typical, brooding TV hunk, and his dorky, quick-witted friend, you would see pass the brawn and choose the second banana. Because sure you would—if he looked like Adam Brody and talked like Josh Schwartz. Does that make the teen Orange County outcast a Mary Sue? Or is he something worse, a nerd that Josh Schwartz created in his own image and used to swindle teenybopper nation circa 2004 into thinking that Seth’s brand of Jewish nerdiness was somehow the definition of cool?

Seth Cohen was one of the first times I noticed “indie” being represented in the mainstream. Get in line Zooey Deschanel, because Seth invented adorkable, and the idea of taking something that seemed cool in its own right and packaging it for the masses. I guess if the show had stayed good past the first couple of seasons, and Adam Brody had gone on to bigger and better things, this wouldn’t seem so bad, but given how things turned out, I feel weird about it. I felt weird rewatching the pilot and realizing that Seth, who present-day me would place on the autism spectrum, was so specifically engineered to appeal to teenage me. But that’s Gen Y for you. Before the recession sidelined our economic prospects, we were the first tweens, a new market research category identified for the spending power we wielded. It was nice to matter.

So in the boom days of 2003, here was this 90210-esque redux designed to appeal to teenagers and their lowest-common-denominator taste, and yet like a Trojan horse Josh Schwartz snuck in Seth, talking about graphic novels and Magic: The Gathering and Death Cab for Cutie. The people who beat up Seth shopped at Abercrombie & Fitch or Hollister, but someone like Seth got his clothes at PacSun (being as he was alternative, but not so alternative that he would have worn Hot Topic gothwear). That they were all stores found in every American mall escaped our notice.

A key aspect of Seth’s alternativeness was that, unlike his water polo-playing, debutante ball-curtseying classmates, he was Jewish. Even though, strictly speaking, he so wasn’t. His father Sandy (Peter Gallagher) was a member of the tribe, but his mother Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) was a WASP, and it’s the mother’s religion that determines the child’s. However, Seth did occasionally refer to his bar mitzvah, so until Talmudic scholars pass down a verdict, we’ll have to consider Seth one of those territorial half-Jews who not only sees himself as an heir to the Jewish comedic tradition of wise-cracking, but also wants it to be known that there are core differences between him and Mischa Barton’s Marissa Cooper. The Jewish dad factor was convenient in that it allowed other characters (namely, shiksa goddess Summer, played by Rachel Bilson) to refer to Seth by his last name, Cohen, a little reminder every time they spoke to him that he was a Jewy Jewersonfeld.

On TV when we have a half-Jew, we round up. We focus on the –ukkuh part of Chrismukkah, the hybrid holiday that Seth popularized (as Kirsten said, “We didn’t really know how to raise Seth”), and ignore the fact that Seth thought Moses was the hero of it. Whenever his adopted brother Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) does something particularly at odds with his punch-first, ask-questions-later Chino roots, we smile at Seth’s implication that Ryan’s embracing a kinder, gentler, Jewish-er way: “You just got your butt kicked and you didn’t even fight back. Dude, you really are a Cohen.”

Of course, it’s only through teen soap opera magic, and forcing him to stand next to people like Chris Carmack, that Adam Brody would pass for a skinny, nebbishy geek (this same magic allowed textbook Black Irish Peter Gallagher to stand in for an all-purpose ethnic). Seth may have lacked the muscles that accessorized Ryan’s wife-beaters, but scrawny he wasn’t. The “Jewfro” he rocked was hardly as unruly as Timberlake’s in its prime. He was cute, undeniably so, and he got all the best lines on the show. Were teenage girls suddenly interested in the video games and indie bands Seth Cohen espoused? Sometimes, but mostly they were interested in Adam Brody. What if getting us all to fall in love with Seth was a subliminal message from B’nai B’rith International, a way to get a generation of Jewish girls to give their male Hebrew school classmates another look? It would have been a pretty successful campaign. Even girls who skipped Birthright still hold out the hope of finding their Seth Cohen.

Previously on Network Jews:

Hesh Rabkin, Jewish Loan Shark on The Sopranos

Eli Gold, The Good Wife’s Political Operator

Howard Wolowitz, the nerdy, sex-obsessed engineer on The Big Bang Theory

Heather Schwedel is a writer and editor who is still waiting for her super sweet bat mitzvah.

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