Hot Take: Seth Cohen was the true protagonist of ‘The O.C.’

Graphic by Derin Savasan

On Aug. 5, 2003, “The O.C.” (2003–07) premiered on Fox and changed the lives of an entire generation by managing to perfectly capture the awkward spirit of adolescence — a feeling that transcends space and time. 

I revisited the show during my one-day spring break (thanks, Tufts!) by binging all four seasons of it on Hulu. Needless to say, I have a few questions, the biggest of which is: Who was the true protagonist of the show? And after many years of beating around the bush, I’ve come to decide that it’s Seth Cohen — contrary to popular belief. 

Now, for those of you who’ve been living under a rock, I’ll recap the show’s premise real quick: “The O.C.” is a deliciously soapy, quintessential teen drama set in Orange County, California. It’s about Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie), a smart guy “from the wrong side of the tracks,” who gets caught stealing a car. The county appoints him a lawyer, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher (LA’77)), who sees his kindred potential and takes him to live with his family in the wealthy community of Newport Beach. A typical fish-out-of-water story.

So, where does Seth (Adam Brody) come in? Well, he’s Sandy’s son. Seth has this neurotic, yet self-assured personality that speaks to my soul but doesn’t really fit in in Orange County. He’s an avid sailor who loves comic books and has a toy horse named Captain Oats to whom he confides his secrets. He’s quick with his quips but never hurtful. He’s the sole inventor of Chrismukkah and a total loner until Ryan arrives.

As you can tell, Ryan and Seth are two very different teen heartthrobs. But their dynamic as two brothers is the driving force of the series. Regardless, the question remains: Who is the protagonist of this story? Well, to answer such a tough question, we have to conduct an investigation.

If we’re talking about who had the emotional backbone to hold the “core four” friend group together, Seth takes the cake. While he may not have as much skeletal support as Ryan to be the group’s physical backbone, his self-deprecating sarcasm usually keeps his friend group together through thick and thin. As the series progresses, all the characters get funnier because Seth’s humor has rubbed off on them. He also has many creative pursuits — ultimately attending the Rhode Island School of Design to study illustration — and a great taste in music — his favorite band being Death Cab For Cutie. Ryan, on the other hand, listens to, like, one song by Journey throughout the show.

In terms of romance and drama, I’d say it’s nearly tied. After all, Ryan’s life is drenched in drama. Throughout the series, he ends up cage fighting, crashing a car, moving back to Chino and losing Melissa because (spoiler alert) she dies. In a way, his drama extends to the afterlife. Seth and Summer (Rachel Bilson), however, have this “When Harry Met Sally” (1989) type of relationship that you can’t help but root for. They both have toy horses — Captain Oats and Princess Sparkle who are basically also a couple.

The choice is pretty clear. While we do follow Ryan’s story and how his arrival changes this rich town of Newport Beach, Seth brings a unique flavor to the television that assures his status as the show’s true protagonist.


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