The O.C.’s Trojan Horse

How a wiseguy beat out a brooding loner.

Hey, Ryan: Quien es mas macho?

Last night, on The O.C. (Fox, Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET), Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) lost his virginity. Having recently broken up with Anna, the winsome alterna-chick who seemed to be his soul mate, Seth tracked down his original crush, Summer, as she finished up a game of Galaga in the student lounge. Summer, who had no desire to be Seth’s second choice, rebuffed him, but Seth was not to be denied. He showed up at her bedroom door unannounced, took a moment to make fun of her purple stuffed unicorn, and then testified: “For me it’s always been you, Summer,” he said. “I’ve tried to fight it and I’ve tried to deny it. And I can’t. I can’t do it. You’re undeniable.”

Pretty smooth for a lonely teenager who started out the beginning of the series secreted away in a McMansion high on a hill, an only child with no friends and less self-esteem. And quite an improvement from his first exchange with Summer, when he blurted out, “I named my boat after you,” and she replied, “Ew. Who are you?” In its introductory episodes last fall, when The O.C. centered on Ryan Atwood, the mixed-up kid from the wrong side of the tracks imported to live with Seth’s family, Seth Cohen felt like he came with the house. But as The O.C.’s brilliant first season comes to an end, it’s Seth who’s proven to be more than occasional comic relief; he’s the show’s most compelling character. In recent episodes, two girls fought over him with surprising vigor; Seth vanquished a schoolyard rival who was trying to out-funny him; and he became an expert at verbally dressing down his parents. He still stammers and hesitates, but his confidence and charm far outweigh any insecurities. Losing his virginity, or so it seems, was merely a formality. 

Series creator Josh Schwartz—for whom Seth may be a stand-in—and his team of writers seem to have taken quite a shine to the guy. While other characters come close to overdosing or going to jail or being disowned by their fathers, Seth has been struggling with too much good fortune. Even his former enemies, such as the thick-headed Luke, are having as bad a time as he’s having it good. “Suck it, queer,” Luke said to Seth in the pilot, and since then, Luke has gone from big man on campus to pariah. He has lost his girlfriend and found out his dad is gay and been rejected by Summer for his lack of Seth-ness. Were it not for Seth’s largesse—he was kind enough to baby-sit his former enemy at a rock concert—Luke might not have any friends at all.

As Seth’s stock has risen the show has changed along with him. What was once shaping up to be Rebel Without a Cause: The Series has turned into one of the funniest shows on TV. The O.C. is still primarily a drama, but like The West Wing under Aaron Sorkin you get the feeling the creator’s first love is comedic banter. Try to catch the Chrismukkah episode in repeats, and take out-of-season joy in Seth’s made-up holiday. The episode where the kids road trip to Palm Springs is also a treat and features some nice Seth moments where he gets in touch with his inner old man. (How the writers manage to have him bring a humidifier on vacation and still have him come across as cool is a minor miracle.) Even the new, smooth-talking Seth is still self-deprecating and absurd. When telling Ryan about an embarrassing sexual encounter with Summer, he likens himself to a fish flopping around on dry land, critiques the nasal sounds he made, and notes that “There were some faces I made in the middle that I wish I could take back.”

What a coup—Seth has extracted revenge of jocks and bullies, outshone a romantic lead who is a dead ringer for Russell Crowe, and made scenes come alive even when he was just passing through. I like to think that this was creator Schwartz’s intent all along: to sell Fox on a romantic outsider and then pull a switcheroo midseason. If this was all part of the plan, then The O.C. is both a great show and TV’s first Trojan horse.