The O.C. was not supposed to be about Seth Cohen. As dramatically shown in the audacious pilot episode, the show was supposed to be about Ryan Atwood and his tawny, handsome broodiness. Or maybe it was supposed to be about Sandy Cohen’s relentlessly upbeat parenting style. Or it could have been about trainwreck-in-the-making Marissa Cooper, as depicted by a pre-trainwreck Mischa Barton. The O.C. was not supposed to be about the sensitive, Jewish dork whose bedroom is festooned with action figures and indie-rock posters. And yet, even by the end of that very first episode, it was obvious that Seth Cohen was going to be the character people cared about — especially if you happened to identify as sensitive, Jewish, and dorky, and were similiarly inclined toward geeky pursuits.
Even though I possessed those qualities, I didn’t necessarily notice back then; The O.C. coincided with that unfortunate phase in my life when I freely proclaimed, “I would rather listen to NPR or read a book instead of watch television.” Still, Seth and Summer did come to mind when a girl I dated told me that I reminded her of Adam Brody’s character, which I translated as, “You’re the first Jewish guy I’ve ever dated.” But most people like me could probably relate to Cohen (as his crush and future romantic partner Summer Roberts began calling him as the series progressed). While Ryan Atwood was just another bad boy with a soft heart carved out of the James Dean mold — a take that also includes Luke Perry’s Dylan McKay from Beverly Hills, 90210 — Seth Cohen was a phenomenon, a character born at precisely the right time. It’s not without reason that he became the public face of the shy, the awkward, and the artistic, as well as the people who loved them: At last, a certain subset of male viewers in their teens and 20s who felt uncomfortable in almost every social situation could feel that they were being represented on a major network television show.
There wasn’t anything necessarily empowering about the character, not in the way that, say, Buffy Summers taught a generation of girls that there was no ass they couldn’t kick. The Seth Cohen revolution was a far quieter one. Predating the shy and awkward shtick that Michael Cera would ride to fame beginning with the debut of Arrested Development just a few months later on the same network, as well as the nebbish act that Jesse Eisenberg brings to every role, Adam Brody’s Seth Cohen, and The O.C. by extension, opened up a gateway into indie culture for many viewers. The show released six soundtracks during its run, at a time when Urban Outfitters started popping up in the suburbs and every magazine under the sun was publishing some stupid “How to be a hipster” guide — but Seth Cohen started it all, for better or for worse. Would the Arcade Fire (who turned down an offer from the show) have won a Grammy without The O.C.? Would Bon Iver be hanging out with Yeezus, or would Death Cab for Cutie’s former side-project, the Postal Service, have been able to go on a 2013 reunion tour of sold-out arenas with millions of people had Seth Cohen not arrived to inform everyone’s preferences? Maybe. But as somebody who grew up in the punk/D.I.Y. scene in the pre-O.C. days, I witnessed a sea change in the way indie music and culture met the masses, and it correlated directly with the time we spent with the Cohen family of Orange County.
I really don’t think Seth Cohen was intended to be the show’s heartthrob, or the television character most responsible for a generation of people that now wear words like “geek” or “nerd” as a badge of honor. Seth was the guy that the jocks called a queer, the guy who had to keep reminding Summer what his name was, and the guy who really seemed like he stumbled plenty but still got back up every time. The Seth Cohen equation was delicate and unique, but it didn’t take long for fans to copy either. He had a wardrobe chosen carefully from bins at the local Salvation Army, listened to Bright Eyes, and really connected with comics and Michael Chabon novels. In that weird gulf between “emo” and “hipster,” Seth Cohen provided a bridge. And just like the people assigning friends various characters from Sex in the City (I’m a Charlotte), Seth Cohen became the archetypal nice dork ripe for identification, and, of course, replication.
Some people look at Adam Brody’s character and blame him for hundreds of thousands of people now in their 20s and 30s who once worshipped Conor Oberst and Ben Gibbard. But I don’t see Seth Cohen that way. Embracing his father’s Jewish side over his mother’s Presbyterianism might be a touchstone moment in the decade where being Jewish finally became cool; simultaneously celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah — Chrismukkah! — might also be viewed as our culture’s continued disinterest in traditional values. The worst thing I can say about him is that he helped foster the Zooey Deschanel brand of twee quirkiness that is now the norm for ingenues of all stripes.
As I sit around and drink with friends at the kinds of bars that I imagine Seth Cohen would be frequenting now — ones that pipe Pitchfork-approved music through the speakers and are filled with aging hipsters — I could summon the energy to hate that character. As my friends and I discuss whatever, and peer at each other through our vintage glasses, I could complain that Seth Cohen was part of the early push to make people like us a marketing demographic. But I won’t, because Seth Cohen wasn’t supposed to be the voice of the misunderstood artist. He was just supposed to be a kid from a rich family that lived on the ocean. He wasn’t really subversive, ultimately, and he had cool parents, and he got the girl, and he turned out fine. All Seth Cohen was, really, was a weird and sensitive guy. But that’s what made him so great, and it’s probably why I saw myself in him. And, as it turns out, a whole lot of other people did, too.