December 19, 2018

15 Years Ago: Young Creator Spells Success ‘O.C.’

Josh Schwartz has been having trouble sleeping.

Ever since his new show, "The O.C.," began airing on FOX this summer, he’s faced insomnia Tuesday nights, anxiously awaiting the public’s response to each new episode. He got a brief reprieve in late September and October when the show went on hiatus for Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series, but as of Oct. 29, "The O.C." is back, and restlessness now comes Wednesdays.

Over coffee one morning in September, Schwartz, the 27-year-old who’s being touted as the youngest person ever to create his own television network drama, discussed his recent starburst. The biggest change in his life?

"I got a job," he said, looking disheveled by design in vintage green T-shirt, powder blue cords and sneakers. "It’s just being immersed in something seven days a week, 16 hours a day and just having that be this all-consuming event. But it’s great."

There’s no sign of that changing, either. Fox has picked up a full season of his teen drama — "it’s not a soap" — about a tony Newport Beach gated community. While at press time the numbers were unavailable, if the extensive promotional campaign is any indication, the show seems likely to resume its summer spot as the highest-rated drama with teens, as well as pulling in the key coveted demographic of 18-49-year-olds.

"The O.C." is centered on the Cohen family and Ryan, the troubled teen from Chino they adopt (Benjamin McKenzie). Schwartz has infused a little bit of Jewish soul into the predominantly white-bread "O.C.," with Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), a liberal Jewish pro-bono lawyer, and his son, Seth, a nerdy and sarcastic high school senior (played by the unlikeliest of geeks, Adam Brody). Kirsten Cohen (Kelly Rowan) is the WASPy mom who has garnered them entree into this exclusive world — she has the money from working in her father’s real estate development business. And of course, there’s Marissa (Mischa Barton), the Neutrogena girl next door.

So far, hints at the characters’ Jewishness have been limited to throwaway lines. Explaining why he can’t get along with Kirsten’s über-WASP dad when he comes to visit, Sandy says, "I’m still Jewish." In two others, Seth makes reference to studying the Talmud and to his Jewfro, and Schwartz has promised a season finale involving "Chrismakah," wherein Ryan has to make the little money he has to purchase one gift last for eight.

Explaining this choice, Schwartz said, "For Sandy it just felt like one more thing to add…. But it felt like it was a natural thing for his character, coming from his background and how it would make him sort of feel a little bit even more out of place in Newport, and for Seth, as well."

Much of the basis for "The O.C." is autobiographical, Schwartz told The Journal. Raised Reform in Providence, R.I. to parents who were Jewish toy inventors, Schwartz says he based his characters on people he knew in Providence or at USC, where he majored in film. Of all the "O.C." characters, he said Seth Cohen’s take on the world is closest to his own: "Sort of a smart -ass, but with an underlying sweetness."

"I remember when I was a kid I was always looking for someone like that, that was cool, to kind of get behind, and hopefully Seth Cohen will be that to inspire more kids to be proud of their background," Schwartz said. "But it’s not gonna be a Star of David burning on the Cohens’ front lawn or anything inflammatory like that. I think we just want to sort of weave it into the background of these characters and have it be part of their personal culture."

Brody, for one, is pleased with this decision. As a secular Jewish actor playing a Jewish character, he said, "I like the way Josh does it. It’s self-deprecating. I never want to be on ‘Seventh Heaven,’" he said, referring to the moralizing WB show about a reverend’s family.

Unlike Sandy and Seth, it’s doubtful whether being Jewish in Orange County makes real O.C. Jews feel like outsiders.

"I think if Jews feel isolated, they isolate themselves," said Elsa Goldberg, 39, of Laguna Beach. She said there were many Jewish organizations available to people looking to meet fellow Jews.

She finds other aspects of the show off the mark as well, a sentiment expressed by quite a few who live in O.C. One thing she thinks Schwartz got half right: "I think that there’s probably a lot of intermarriage out here," she said, "but Jews always seem to find each other."

Schwartz isn’t reading all of the criticism, but he admitted to perusing the message boards online. Despite the aforementioned insomnia, it’s clear he’s not taking any of it too seriously.

"I find if anybody starts to rag on a certain element of the show then I have to go in and make fun of it in the next episode," he said. "But it’s interesting … as soon as the show airs, five minutes later you can go online and see what people thought about the show and that’s really exciting. Then sweat over it next week."

"The O.C." airs Wednesday nights on FOX at 9 p.m. n