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"On the Scene": "The O.C."

September 2004

This article is reprinted with permission of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

"O.C.," can you sea? The ocean's more likely.

Because it's the Pacific that makes waves in the other-than-pacific Jewish family that has made "The O.C."--Fox's California equivalent of "Peyton Place" (think Boston with Botox)--the turf to surf for cool characters. Of course, the patriarch is named Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher); he's the beachhead of the Jewish family who's taken in--and taken by--an urban street urchin upsetting the apple latke cart of their everyday doings. The stranger in a strange land is no alien theme for the Cohens' son, Seth (Adam Brody), a nebulously nebbishe kid who's finally found a friend in the rebellious Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie).

Of course, there's all kinds of internecine interference and intrusions, with Ryan asking for more than a cup of sugar from the girl next door, Marissa (Mischa Barton), who's the daughter of Sandy's wife's (Kirsten, played by Kelly Rowan) one-time high school sweetie, Jimmy (Tate Donovan), and his soon-to-be-ex, Julie (Melinda Clarke), who winds up marrying Kirsten's father and ...

Isn't this how all Jewish families act? Don't want to be the one making seating arrangements at their seder table!

It's the kind of story arc that would have Noah look at the ocean, ask for a tidal wave and say, "Let's start all over again."

But the Nielsens are floating a success story; "The O.C." is one of Fox's biggest hits, and has helped make wealthy Orange County a rich region for plots from which audiences can plotz.

And it's all done with imagination.

That imagination belongs to Josh Schwartz, a Jewish genius of prime-time drama who has made "The O.C." the "Survivor" of the scripted set. Boyish and laid back, Schwartz looks like a 28-year-old bopper. But then, he is 28.

In a way, it's all a Toy Story without Pixar, albeit with some pixiesh characters. The Providence, R.I., native son grew up in an atmosphere where fantasy was just a wind-up toy away: Schwartz's father worked for Hasbro Toys, inventing them before moving on to his own company.

Million-dollar baby

His kid took dad's work on the development of the toy Transformers to heart, turning himself from a USC film-school junior into a major force in the TV industry. Some students add the freshman 15; this one got the junior $1 million, selling a script for that amount while still in school.

The million-dollar baby soon had two TV pilots, and Schwartz was then went soaring with "O.C.," where seders and tsuris are all part of the plotline. Indeed, it may be the only show on TV where the hero's (Seth's) idea of an extreme makeover is what to do with his "Jewfro."

To be young, gifted and filled with black humor. "Am I an icon for Bar Mitzvah boys around the country?" says the sardonic series creator/writer/exec producer. "My mom would be happy if that were true." What is true to life is the haimisch hearth that is at the heart of "O.C.," where, no wonder, not everything is vonderlekh. (The show's dialogue should spot a tagline: "Yiddish is spoken here.") After all, Seth Cohen, the prodigal Jewish son, has flown the coop, but Schwartz promises he will return next season not the worse for ... where? He won't say. What Schwartz will say is that the role Judaism plays in the series jives with his own general feelings about the religion: "I grew up with sort of a self-deprecating attitude towards it."

Have faith that he's not debasing the religion by making the Cohens an interfaith couple, he says, even if Kirsten did marry the Jewish liberal lawyer from New York to get back at dear old disdainful dad.

Chrismukkah, anyone? "Those holidays were important in terms of bringing family together,' explains Schwartz, "and it's something that's fun, and I think it's also something that makes this family distinctive in Orange County.

"And, write what you know."

Some rites attract more attention than others: "There's people who watched the Passover episode and didn't really know what a seder was, and were totally open to it and enjoyed it."

One question, Josh--no, make that four. "Especially in this climate where religion is so polarizing, it's nice to be able to portray that kind of thing in a less dogmatic fashion and make it seem inviting."

But, aren't there those who wanted to break the matzah right over his head? Those who thing genig with the TV intermarriages? Schwartz has acknowledged that married couples on TV where both are Jewish are as common as Hanukkah bush farms.

Still, there's a real sense of Yiddishkeit that flies on this show. Lay some tefellin on the series creator, who shows that it's hot and cool to be Jewish. "The more specific you are in your storytelling, the more universal the story becomes," he says.

"And I think that there's a lot of people, whether they're from a mixed marriage, that can see a lot of themselves in the quirks and foibles, and also in the love that this family has for each other. And I think that's probably the strongest approach of it, that this is a family that really does love each other."

And its holidays. Passover, Hanukkah ... in what other show would the father proclaim, "Valentine's Day is not a holiday. Now, Rosh Hashanah, that's a holiday!"

If it's going to be a happy new year for Schwartz, and cast and crew, they should start blowing the shofar on Nov. 4, when the second season begins. Not that the show isn't making news this summer: It's DVD will be out next month, and the series just won a handful of honors at the 2004 Teen Choice Awards, including best drama and best breakout show.

Give us a break, Josh. Spill some details for the new season. Or at least, tell us if the Nana (Linda Lavin), Sandy's nemesis, will be back?

"The Nana really popped for people" he says of her popularity. "Therefore, I think it's safe to say that the chemo is working."

And since religion has worked so well, why stop at "O.C."? East side, west side, all around the town: He has another series in development, transplanting that trademark snappish Schwartz humor to the nation's East Coast.

"And this one will have a character that's half-Hindu, half-Jewish ... a HinJew," he says.

Must be very confusing in plot references to the temple. But then, before that, there's that new season of "O.C." Any more Jewish celebrations in store for the stories?

"Hey," says Schwartz, mocking annoyance, 'you've gotten Passover and Hanukkah. What more do you want--Sukkot?"

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Simple musical instrument made from a ram's horn that is blown in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as each morning after daily services during the Hebrew month of Elul (the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Michael Elkin

Michael Elkin is the nationally syndicated entertainment editor of The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

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