‘The O.C.’ Is a Surprisingly Nuanced Portrayal of a Jewish Family

If the name "Cohen" drew me in, it was the show’s displays of a deeper, subtler Jewishness that kept me there.

I was too young to watch “The O.C.” when it first came out. Back in the summer of 2003, I was 5, glued to such Disney classics as “Lizzie McGuire” and “The Cheetah Girls.” I knew references to the show before the show itself and expected it to be exceedingly melodramatic and poorly written. But when I learned that the series’ main family was a Jewish family named the Cohens—just like mine—I decided to give it a go, 18 years after its premiere.

So imagine my surprise when, in spite of myself, I genuinely enjoyed “The O.C.” and learned that my preconceived notions were completely wrong. Yes, it is melodramatic at times, but the writing is good, sometimes even great. But there’s another reason I binged all four seasons in a matter of weeks. If the name “Cohen” drew me in, it was the show’s displays of a deeper, subtler Jewishness that kept me there. The show feels different from most modern well-known and beloved “Jewish shows” and, for that reason, especially relatable and authentic.

For the unfamiliar: “The O.C.” follows the Cohen family—Sandy (Peter Gallagher), Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), and Seth (Adam Brody)—as they welcome Ryan (Ben McKenzie), a poor kid from inland Chino, to their Newport Beach, California paradise. Of course, life in Orange County, the show’s namesake, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Lavish parties that apparently happen every week and B-roll footage of beaches and surfers mingle with white-collar crime, scandal, and relationships that, in the small community, sometimes border on incestuous.

Lending the show an intangible Jewish sensibility was likely Josh Schwartz, the show’s creator, who was inspired by his own experience as a Jew from Providence who moved to California to study film. His viewpoint is most directly filtered through Adam Brody’s Seth, who embodies the role so perfectly as a Jewish Southern Californian himself.

Indeed, it is the location that first sets “The O.C.” apart from most other beloved Jewish TV shows.

“Seinfeld,” “The Nanny,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Broad City”—all take place in New York. And while “The O.C.” retains many things we associate with New York City Jewish culture—a near constant presence of bagels, self-deprecating humor, as well as inside jokes—by placing the Cohens in Newport, they tell a classic Jewish story of otherness. After all, Sandy grew up, as Seth tells it, “a poor struggling Jew” in the Bronx, with a guilt-tripping Jewish mother who appears a few times throughout the series. Jewish humor is clearly present, too, like when Seth tells Ryan after the Cohens officially adopt him: “Dude, you’re a Cohen now. Welcome to a life of insecurity and paralyzing self-doubt.”

Of course, they are not exactly outsiders. Sandy, and by extension Seth, became part of the elite by marrying, in Seth’s words, “WASP-y Mc-WASP” Kirsten, the daughter of a local real estate mogul. In the pilot episode, when Ryan, riding in Sandy’s pristine Beemer, comments that he “didn’t know your kind of lawyer made money,” Sandy replies, “No, we don’t. My wife does.” Even without their wealth, Sandy and Seth gain immense privilege from their whiteness (a near total lack of racial diversity on the show is one of the parts that does not hold up in 2021). By way of example: The other residents of Newport assume Ryan, due to his whiteness and cleaned-up appearance, is a cousin from out of town and treat him as one of them, until it is revealed that he’s from working-class Chino. When he does become ostracized because of his background, Ryan finds refuge with the Cohens, who may not face outright discrimination but always feel a bit like outsiders.

I didn’t grow up in New York. I didn’t have a stereotypical Jewish mother, or a Jewish deli on every corner. As one of a handful of Jewish students in my school in Kansas City, Missouri, I can’t relate to the mansions and extravagant parties, but I oddly felt my experience represented in “The O.C.” Like the Newport Cohens, I was proud of my faith, but I learned early on that it was out of the norm and unfamiliar to many around me. Who among us hasn’t shown their non-Jewish friends a siddur (prayer book) or haggadah and had to tell them that it actually opens backwards, as Seth must tell his girlfriend Summer (Rachel Bilson, a Jewish actress herself) in an episode about Passover? It’s the casual way the Cohens’ faith is featured in the show, without fanfare or requiring explanation, that feels relatable to me; their Judaism is almost incidental, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. As someone who had to remind my teachers every year that I wouldn’t be in school for the High Holidays, seeing a Passover seder on what was once a primetime teen show felt like something of a revelation.

Moreover, like my family, the Cohens are a multi-faith family, which might get even less representation on TV (thankfully, we now have the Roses on “Schitt’s Creek” as well). The Christian-Jewish Cohens introduced the rest of the world to Chrismukkah and made another one of those in-jokes possible: “Gentiles. I love your mother more than words, but not funny,” Sandy tells Seth.

Besides representing a Jewish experience more relatable to my own, “The O.C.” goes beyond its counterparts (both teen soap operas and “Jewish” TV shows) by incorporating a critique of an unfair social and economic system in its very premise. In this way it embodies tzedakah, a key Jewish value. The common translation of tzedakah is “charity,” a concept illustrated by the Cohens’ adoption of Ryan. But this interpretation of the show’s primary plot and of tzedakah is superficial. Tzedakah literally translates to “justice” or “righteousness,” and I would argue that the show gets at this deeper understanding of tzedakah, too. One could watch “The O.C.” and laud the Cohens for their philanthropy, or one could ponder the suggestion that, if only given a fair, just opportunity (notably by removing the criminal justice system as a factor), poor kids can be just as or even more successful than those born rich. “The O.C.” hardly makes a radical argument for redistribution of wealth, but it’s a start.

I could go on—Sandy and his mothers’ leftist politics; Summer becoming an environmental activist—but suffice it to say: Yeah, I love “The O.C.,” and not just because of the great writing, early-2000s fashion, or soundtrack. It is the Jewish TV show I didn’t even know I wanted.

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Late Take is a series on Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail  with “Late Take” in the subject line.

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