What The O.C.’s Seth Cohen did for geekdom

Seth Cohen's character in The O.C. was much more than just a nerd punch-line, Wil argues, he paved the way for comic-book movie success...

We all have touchstones in adolescent life that end up shaping who we become. I’m sure we all share a few of them. Maybe it’s Holden Caulfield. Maybe it’s Kurt Cobain. Maybe it’s The Smiths or Fight Club or Ghost World. All of those had an effect on me, but I’m not ashamed to say that the one who had the biggest effect was Seth Cohen, a character in the early 2000s Fox teen soap opera The O.C.

Seth Cohen was awesome. He was awkward and read Chuck Klosterman and drew superheroes and wore the coolest t-shirts. He brought comic books, twee indie rock and snarky internet knowingness to a show few would associate with geekiness, and blasted all those things into the mainstream.

The O.C. was a deceptively brilliant, clever series that still doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It camouflaged itself as trashy television, but was actually written by the smart kids sneaking in cult pop culture, cool music and even subtle skewering of cheesy network television to a mainstream hit. It’s hard to imagine a teen soap opera being made now that would be this damn smart and not be a knowing pastiche on HBO, self consciously subverting the format.

The show was based around Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie), a kid from the wrong side of the tracks saved by bleeding heart public defender Sandy Cohen (the incomparable Peter Gallagher) who ended up living with the rich kids of Orange County. There he becomes BFFs with Sandy’s biological son Seth (Adam Brody) and catches the eye of the beautiful girl next door Marissa (Micha Barton), who’s best friends with Summer (Rachael Bilson), the object of Seth’s unrequited love. What follows is mix of teenage hijinks, heartbreak, some great cult actors in the adult roles (Tate Donovan, Alan Dale, Michael Nouri) and a soundtrack packed with Imogen Heap. A instant ratings smash upon its debut, it seemed ubiquitous around 03/04, but then more or less disappeared from the cultural radar. The O.C. fizzled out quite quickly, with the second and third season in no way at all living up to the first (possibly because they burned through so many story lines in season one), and despite the fourth series getting a bit of its mojo back, it died a quiet death. But the show’s legacy, and particularly the legacy of Seth Cohen, is far more important than some may be willing to credit.

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Think back to 2003. Pre-Twitter. Pre-Facebook. Pre-iPhones and iPads. Spider-Man and the X-Men were the only Marvel superheroes to have made it to the big screen. Game Of Thrones was something that only weirdos who read fantasy novels were into. We were still a long way from thick-rimmed glasses being cool, San Diego Comic-Con being bigger than Glastonbury, and Chris Hardwick being a thing. Having a character who liked comic books and samurai movies and video games and not have them be the butt of the joke was still somewhat revolutionary.

Yes, Kevin Smith had his twenty-something slackers yakking about Star Wars, but he was making indie movies for New York arthouse goers and film nerds. A friend of mine argues that Seth is just a neutered version of Brodie, Jason Lee’s lead character from Smith’s sophomore feature Mallrats – a motor-mouthed outsider icon who can get super-excited about meeting Stan Lee but also gets it on with mega-hot mid-90s Shannen Doherty. And he’s kind of right. But Smith was making that movie for people like Brodie, guys like Brodie in particular (see also: Christian Slater in True Romance). It was wish-fulfilment, or at least a point of identification for the film’s main audience.

The O.C. was different – it was a Fox teen soap opera. While creator Josh Schwartz has admitted that Seth is based on himself, the show wasn’t being made for little Josh Schwartzs. It was being made for teenage girls. (That’s neither to say that only that demographic watched it, nor that we should consider its relationship drama as intrinsically ‘girly’, but that teenage girls were the show’s target market.) It’s one thing for a white middle class beta-male to make a film starring a white middle class beta-male who reads comics but is also really funny and gets the pretty girl at the end. It’s another thing altogether to grow up as the nerdy kid, work your way up through the television industry and make a hit teen soap opera that shows all the popular girls watching it how awesome nerdy comic book reading dweebs are. Schwartz created an adorable goofball version of himself and made a mainstream audience fall in love with him.

What’s great about Seth Cohen is that he isn’t just a ‘geek’ character. A lot has been written about so-called ‘geek culture’ becoming mainstream recently, but Seth Cohen was something far more interesting than that. Seth does not have his roots in pre-internet fandom. He is instead more of a millennial Woody Allen. He harks back to a time before the whole concept of geek culture was codified, when kids were ostracised for being smart and literate and not a jock. That’s his characterisation, and the comic books are just aesthetic on top (compare and contrast to the ‘This is a list of things nerds like’ characters on The Big Bang Theory).

The O.C. genuinely went a long way to ‘normalise’ comics in the mainstream. I’m not saying it was directly responsible for the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I do think it made being a weird comic book nerd, if not cool, then at least acceptable. The last time comic books had as much mainstream exposure as they do now was back in the early 90s, when the ‘collector’s boom’ was at its highest. This was a period this was when holofoil covers of new X-Men issues were being bought in bulk by investors thinking it was going to put their kids through college, and far more effort was put into whatever shiny gimmick was on the cover than the art and stories inside.

Seth Cohen showed that in a new decade comic book enthusiasts weren’t obsessives who wouldn’t ever touch it lest it no longer be in mint condition. Instead they were passionate, interesting, weird-but-funny fans. You could read comics and be part of a normal friendship group, not an extra in Revenge Of The Nerds. Seth Cohen was a forerunner of the sort of very modern fandom that celebrates what they are into – creating gifs and Tumblrs – as opposed to The Simpsons‘ Comic Book Guy stereotype, pointing out plot holes and moaning that Episode 1/ Indy IV/ Man Of Steel is awful but still rabidly eating it up.

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The popularity of The O.C was at least partially responsible for an attitude change that lead to Marvel movies becoming the biggest thing ever. While X-Men, Spider-Man and Blade had all been successful movies, they lacked one of the key pleasures of superhero comics – the inter-tangled, beguiling and often nonsensical concept of the shared universe. It’s somewhat crazy idea when you look at it objectively. Imagine if HBO mandated that The Sopranos, Game Of Thrones, Girls and Deadwood all had to be in the same continuity, and sometimes crossover with each other. That would be madness. I can’t keep track of all of those shows! I just want to watch all of them to keep up with just the one or two I like! And doesn’t that severely limit the storytelling potential of all of them? But Seth Cohen introduced a healthy irreverence to comics that shows how much fun it can be when Doctor Strange is namechecked in a Captain America film. Crucially, he showed that being a nerd about this stuff was really good fun. Now Guardians Of The Galaxy and The Walking Dead are making a lot of what he – and I – really love about comics available on TV and in cinemas.

In some ways, Seth Cohen is what geeks taking over the mainstream should have been: the cool weird kids making everything cool and weird. Kids who were outcasts at school making being a weird outcast acceptable and being inclusive. Instead we got a Superman movie where he kills the bad guy, misogynistic assholes sending death threats to female video game designers and lame mash-up t-shirts. But everything looked so bright in 2003. If Seth was around now, I think he’d have plenty to say – and at speed – about some aspects of geek culture having become their own worst enemy.

Part of what made Seth such an effective character was that he was written so genuinely. His references were real. You can tell the writers of The Big Bang Theory have no love for the culture they are referencing. They have a list of nerd stereotypes that they refer to – Star Trek, comic book shop, science – that they know the mainstream audience will see and now that it signifies ‘NERD’. They work on the Homer Simpson Scale Of Jocks To Nerds.

Seth Cohen was different. He didn’t just mention Spider-Man because that’s what people would have heard of. He made an intricate, passionate and consistent web of references that comic book fans get a kick out of, and others might be confused by in the same way that the characters around him were being confused. In particular he did something that comic book in-jokes in other media rarely do by referencing creators as well as just characters – he acknowledged super-hero comics as an artform, not just cartoons. Current X-Men writer Brian Bendis was frequently name-checked. Now he’s one of the most bankable names in superhero comics, but back in the early 2000s, he was just making a name for himself on Daredevil and Ultimate Spider-Man (two mid-level books) after a long time writing cult (but not very successful) crime comics. Seth Cohen’s characterisation wasn’t just “Oh, he likes comics,” it was “Oh, he likes a certain kind of comic book”. If the show was on today he’d probably be talking up Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye and Kieron Gillen’s Young Avengers. It was only after the show had been on the air a year or so that Bendis moved onto the Avengers and became a comics superstar. In retrospect it might look like Schwartz had just gone into a comic store and asked for the name of the current biggest writer to name drop. In fact, I’d argue the opposite happened – Bendis’ exposure on the hottest show on TV probably helped propel him to the big time at Marvel.

One thing, admittedly, really let down Seth’s careful characterisation: late in the second season the show had a high profile guest slot from none other than George Lucas. Understandably, this was a big deal and a coup, but it felt so forced and off-character. One of the major plotlines of season two was Seth creating a comic book, which eventually lead to them getting interest from Wildstorm Comics (another sign that the writers knew what they were talking about – instead of just dropping in a fake Marvel analogue or something, they actually went with a real publisher, based on the West Coast with a track-record in creator-owned characters). Lucas shows an interest in the comic and wants a meeting, and Seth ends up skipping out on his high-school prom (and Summer) to meet with his ‘hero’. The thing is, apart from Star Wars getting the odd namecheck, Seth has never really mentioned Lucas before. If he has, it’s only to be disparaging about The Phantom Menace. Who he has excitedly shouted about to anyone who would listen, though, is Brian Bendis. It would have made far, far more sense for Bendis to be cameo, from every conceivable character and storytelling point of view. Apart from of course that Bendis wouldn’t be recognised by the mainstream viewer, but George Lucas would. It’s the one misstep the show makes with Seth, turning him a fully-rounded character, to “Look at the NERD being all NERD wanting to be with Star Wars instead of his girlfriend. NERD”. Seth having to make a choice between getting to met his cult hero or doing what’s right for his girlfriend is compelling drama. Seth ditching Summer to meet a celebrity is just him being a scumbag really.

(It’s particularly annoying since Seth’s favourite band, Death Cab For Cutie, eventually appeared on the show, which was treated as a big event despite them far from being the most famous band to appear on the show. Seth Cohen and The O.C.’s influence on music during the 2000s is something I could easily spin a thousand-odd words out of, but I’ll leave to Noisey or Pitchfork. But short version: he also did for mopey white kids with guitars what he did for comics, and I’d argue the mid-00s resurgence of indie music is as much his doing as that of Julian Casablancas or Pete Doherty.)

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Finally, I also want to point out great Seth’s relationship with Summer was. Earlier, I referred to the male protagonists of films getting with hot girls at the end as sort of rewards, treating women like objects, as just plot goals or signifiers of success, as seen in Mallrats, Jason Lee reads comic books but also gets off with hot Shannen Doherty. The O.C. totally doesn’t do this with Seth. True, Rachel Bilson is ridiculously attractive. But she is by no means a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is not the pretty, perky cypher who appears out of nowhere to drag the mopey white male surrogate for the writer out his malaise and turn around his life without him actually doing anything. It’s Ryan who gives Seth the massive kick up the arse to sort his life out, to a) actually speak to her as opposed to just staring at her from afar, and b) actually sort his himself out and be the sort of person who she might actually be attracted to. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl actually appears in the first season for an extended stretch, in the shape sort-of geek girl Anna (played by Samaire Armstrong). At first Seth is like “You like comic books! I like comic books! We are going to be together forever!”, but life isn’t like that. Love and relationships are built upon much more, not just superficial interests, and he realises it’s Summer he should be with. Over the four seasons, they bicker and argue like real people, but work at it and stick together. He turns into a real person who just happens to like comics, as opposed to a geeky kid growing up and writing a film about himself getting off with a hot girl just to prove to everyone he is normal.

Next week – How the season four plotline about Ryan becoming a cagefighter caused the boom in popularity of Ultimate Fighting Championship.

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