Here’s a confession: I grew up in deep East Coast suburbia, with a song in my heart and a synagogue on every corner. As expected, I furthered my education at a local, semi-prestigious private university with a bunch of wannabe dentists who were bitter about not getting into Harvard. As an aspiring writer with a Raymond Carver obsession, these were not the humble beginnings for which I longed — beginnings that would inevitably lead to a romantic life of manual labor, alcoholism, domestic violence and transcendent minimalist prose. So after college, I decided to shed my suburban skin and move to Texas to be isolated and poor.
Finding blue-collar work was more difficult than I had imagined. Apparently, employers are interested in something called “experience” and could care less about a Bachelor of Arts in English. I was only granted one interview, for a job as a sushi chef, but was quickly dismissed because a) I am not Japanese, and b) I am not, nor ever have I been, a sushi chef.
I had few friends and an ugly apartment, and my parents were still supporting me. Much to my chagrin, I failed to instigate romantic entanglements with any sweet-drawling diner waitresses. And I wrote nothing.
Desperate to escape from under the umbrella of my parents’ financial support, I took the only job I could find: standing at an exit ramp on Route 35 while holding up a large orange arrow that pointed the way to an open house. I worked for one day. It rained.
My apartment was empty upon my return. My roommate, another East Coast Jewish transplant, had mysteriously acquired an out-of-his-league girlfriend and a job on an ABC reality show in the few short months we’d been in Texas. He was never around, and his successes illuminated my own failures and gave me a lot of time to ponder them. The holiday season was approaching, and I was contemplating driving back home to weep in my mother’s bosom.
Tired, wet and dejected, I had no energy to pursue such intellectually stimulating hobbies as reading, writing and Internet porn. So I did what any red-blooded American would do in such a crisis: I turned on the television.
The channel was Fox and the show was “The O.C.,” a program I had previously dismissed as another attempt to saturate the 18-25 demographic with product placement and vacuous dialogue. Aside from some obvious facts — O.C. stands for Orange County (California), Mischa Barton is trashy — I knew nothing about the show, and had little interest. But fate is a joker, and so with rain beating down outside my window, I tuned in just as the opening credits drifted across the airwaves: a pastel-framed montage of happy, good-looking people who rode bicycles and frolicked by the ocean, propelled by the rolling piano of Phantom Planet’s anthemic masterpiece. And for just a moment I was there with them, watching the sun set on the water beyond my infinity pool as the band provided sweet lilting harmonies, repeating like a mantra, “California, Califo-ornia, Here we co-o-oome….” It was the song that had been in my heart all along.
What followed was an hour of perfect escapist fantasy. In the episode, Seth Cohen — an awkward, fast-talking, neurotic half-Jewish teenager — rekindles old romance while slow-dancing with the beady-eyed Summer Roberts, before nobly taking a punch from her new boyfriend. Then, who comes in to tend to Seth’s wounds and provide a much-needed, do-you-have-a-booboo, make-out session? None other than Alex, a deviant blond bartendress with a butterfly tattoo. Seth was my new hero. He gave me hope.
The next day, I rented the entire first season on DVD. I also rented a collection of obtuse Bergman and Kurosawa films that I had no intention of watching, so that the hipster video clerk would understand that my seven-disc “O.C” selection was meant to be ironic. Instead he gave a knowing grin and asked if I’d seen last night’s episode. So he, too, was in on the secret. And if I wasn’t mistaken, his protruding schnoz and Elliott Gould circa-1976 hairstyle seemed to indicate him as a member of the tribe. Where there, then, legions of us, scattered across the globe, a diaspora united in living vicariously through Seth Cohen?
I spent the next week watching all 27 episodes of the first season, and I came to two conclusions. The first was that it wasn’t just Seth who made the show great; I was impressed by the sharp writing, the self-aware humor and the unabashed melodrama. But what I liked most was that, at its core, it was a show about a family. In my homesick state, I relished the tender relationship between Seth and his bushy-eyebrowed father, Sandy. Watching the Passover episode (“The Nana”), I couldn’t help but weep as shiksa Summer learned The Four Questions, and as adoptee Ryan donned his first yarmulke.
In the preceding months of my Texas exile, I had feverishly consumed late-night “Seinfeld” reruns and On Demand episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” but it wasn’t until I started watching “The O.C.” that I realized how much I missed being around Jews. The difference was that unlike Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and a host of other Jewish TV and film characters, who tended to be portrayed as heartless and obnoxiously nebbishy, Sandy Cohen was a mensch. He was the type of guy who would adopt a teenage car-thief and teach him how to properly schmear a bagel. He was a TV Jew whom you could look up to, and for a while, in the excruciating solitude of my dimly lit basement apartment, far from home, he was my father. My second conclusion was that I had found my calling: I had to write for the “The O.C.” It had become clear, after five months in Texas, that I was no Raymond Carver. After all, I was a child of the suburbs, and just as my delicate hands were not meant to hold signs, my fragile heart was ill-equipped for the inherent anguish of rural goyish squalor, and my TV-saturated mind lacked the ability to document these experiences in spare and beautiful prose. I was also a child of the ’80s, raised by the idiot box. To deny this would be to deny my cultural heritage. Television was a world that I understood and a dream that, with my discovery of “The O.C.,” seemed suddenly obvious. I would head west. It was my manifest destiny.
I spent the next month composing my spec-script masterpiece. The plot of the episode revolved around Seth’s busty, Semitic first cousin visiting from the East Coast and tantalizing Seth with her lascivious gaze and her extensive knowledge of indie rock. In the end, everyone learns the true meaning of family.
A year later I was on a flight to Los Angeles for a meeting at Creative Artists Agency, the world’s biggest talent agency, to pitch my “O.C.” episode. Things had not gone well after my initial “O.C.” obsession — my car was stolen, and I had moved back in with my parents — but soon, thanks to hard work and nepotism (my uncle had gotten me the pitch meeting), I would surely realize my dream.
Unfortunately, the meeting did not go as planned. The agent, it turned out, was only seeing me as a favor to my uncle and admitted that he wasn’t a “thorough reader.” He also informed me that even Fox isn’t down with incest, that TV dramas hinge on conflict and suspense, and that witty lines come a dime a dozen in this town.
I was shattered. I had only just come to grips with the fact that I wasn’t Raymond Carver, and now, finally attempting to embrace my own cultural identity, I was told that I couldn’t even be Josh Schwartz (the creator of “The O.C.”). This was how Seth must have felt at the end of “The Lonely Hearts Club” (Season 2, Episode 12) when, after his failed comic-book pitch meeting, he lies sleepless at a hotel, imagining the girl he loves amid the awkward caress of his WASP rival in the adjoining room, and wondering: Where does one go from here? Like Seth, my only option was a return to the bagel-fueled warmth of my parents’ kitchen.
Adam Wilson has since moved out of his parents’ house. He now lives in New York.
This story "‘The O.C.’ Mystique" was written by Adam Wilson.