It's hard to recall an actor who is so irrevocably tethered to one character quite like Adam Brody is to his onscreen alter ego Seth Cohen.
While The O.C. ran for just four seasons (and arguably just one and a half good ones, don't @ us, you know it's true), the endless adoration and fascination with the sarcastic outsider who made being a geek cool when the iconic teen drama premiered in 2003.
Sure, Ben McKenzie's Ryan Atwood was intended to be the series' leading man—brooding among the best of them in his signature white tank and choker, but like Seth and Summer's connection, viewers' immediate attraction to Seth was undeniable, turning the character—and Adam—into pop culture's inaugural manic pixie emo boy.
While Brody said goodbye to Seth's yamaclaus and Vans in 2007, well over a decade ago, the character was still the number one thing he was asked about while promoting Ready or Not, his underrated dark comedy that came out this past summer. (We're guilty of this, too, we're aware.) And when the trailer for the upcoming revenge thriller Promising Young Woman came out, our brains immediately reacted to Brody's appearance as "Seth Cohen!" not "Adam Brody!" But we're not alone in that reaction.
Just look at GQ's profile on the actor, who turned 40 on Dec. 14, titled "Adam Brody Knows He's Still Seth Cohen to You." In it, the writer, Ilana Kaplan, immediately noted her first instinct when she sees Brody approaching her is to yell "Cohen!"
Like we said: we get it.
While he admitted to struggling with his inextricable tie to the character in the past, Brody eventually came to terms with still being referred to and thought of as Seth Cohen.
"Am I OK with it? Yeah, I am," he said. "I've had my gripes too because...it's a high school show, and it doesn't really interest me at an adult even though I'm very happy with the legacy and I was happy at the time and I'm proud of the work I did, and I'm proud we got to be a part of pop culture, but it's not something that interests me in terms of revisiting."
23 when he first auditioned for the role that would make him a teen idol and pop culture mainstay, Brody was initially turned down by The O.C. creator Josh Schwartz, who Seth is based on.
"With Seth, we saw a lot of kids. And Adam, when he first came in...didn't bother to learn basically any of the lines for his audition scene," Schwartz recalled. "I was even like, 'What scene is he doing; is this from our show? What is he doing? I hate this kid; get him out of here.' And then we couldn't find Seth and our casting director, Patrick Rush, was like, 'We should bring back Adam Brody. I'm telling you, there's something special about that kid.' He came back in and did a really great job."
Ahead of the show's premiere on Aug. 5, 2003, Brody was not featured in any of the billboards promoting The O.C., with the executives at Fox not exactly believing viewers would love the character.
"I was told at one point that they really did not like the Seth character early on in the pilot process," Schwartz admitted of the network, who couldn't help but compare the show to their other massive teen hit Beverly Hills, 90210.
"They kept saying, 'Well, if Ryan's Luke Perry, who is Jason Priestley?' And I was like, 'That's not our show.'"
And it wasn't. Seth was a Jewish awkward kid that played video games and had a beloved plastic toy (Hi, Captain Oats!). Seth read comic books. Seth listened to emo music. Seth had never drank before and chose to sit at the kids' table at fancy Newport Beach events.
And yet...he had that hair...and that face...and that charisma.
While the Dylan McKays, Brandon Walshs and Ryan Atwoods of the teen drama world felt unattainable, Seth felt relatable and safe. He could make you laugh with a one-liner and swoon with his romantic gestures, whether it was standing atop a kissing booth to publicly declare his love for you or recreating the iconic upside down rain kiss in Spider-Man.
Thanks to Brody's portrayal, Seth Cohen officially ushered in the era of the cool nerd, with the character unexpectedly becoming the romantic lead of show. Three surfboards for Choice Drama Actor at the Teen Choice Awards do not lie.
The character largely paved the way for the popularity of characters like Gossip Girl's Dan Humphrey, Riverdale's Jughead Jones, The Fault in Our Stars' Augustus Waters, and most directly, Teen Wolf's Stiles. They all proved the smart guy could get the girl (and ratings).
But what was it about Seth Cohen specifically that resonated with viewers, kickstarting the trend?
"I think [he] gave voice to a kind of kid who once they got to college was going to be fine, was going to do great, but in high school, where conformity is key, those kind of kids who can't quite conform and want to live outside of that a little bit, hadn't really had somebody to really look to onscreen who had all those qualities and got to get the girl, as well," Schwartz theorized at the 2016 ATX TV Festival.
Of course, Brody's off-screen relationship with Rachel Bilson, the Summer to his Seth, helped solidify that role, as the line between fiction and reality was blurred for the show's rabid fanbase, which was left devastated when the couple called it quits after three years, just ahead of the final season.
Despite both moving on, the love for Brody and Bilson lives on. Their airport run-in selfie over the summer caused the Internet to lose its s--t—us included.
And perhaps part of Brody's enduring tie to his tenure on The O.C. inadvertently comes from his marriage to Leighton Meester, Schwartz's other hit teen drama Gossip Girl. Fans felt like they lived in an alternate universe as Seth Cohen and Blair Waldorf got married and welcomed a daughter, Arlo, in 2015.
Again, Brody understood the hype surrounding their teen-dream of a union, telling GQ, "It's not bizarre. To be perfectly honest, it was a little embarrassing. I guess love knows no bounds?"
While Penn Badgley, the portrayal of Dan Humprey, the bitter Brooklynite take on Seth Cohen on Gossip Girl, has publicly and hilariously dragged his character over the years, Brody can see why Seth was one of the first Internet Boyfriends.
"I think he was genuinely thought of as the nice guy,' the alternative to a very aggressive hypermasculine ideal," he told GQ. "I haven't seen it in a long time, but I wonder, looking back, if I watched it again, would I find him noble or if I would find him really selfish?" (Editor's note: Upon a recent rewatch, we say a little of both.)
And again, unlike Badgley, who fiercely denied sharing any similarities with Dan—his showrunner Joshua Safran disagreed, once telling Vanity Fair, "He was Dan"—he's aware that he was very similar to Seth.
"I think I sort of unconsciously made him a little like me and Josh added on and made him more like me. I don't think my philosophies and attitudes were the same," he explained. "I was very into comic books. I still have that DNA in me. I'm not an avid reader of them, but I still love them. But I do wonder if he's selfish and that leading with your insecurities isn't enough. I do it, but that doesn't absolve you of everything. But different era."
Alas, The O.C.'s popularity was fleeting, just like the beautiful sunset in the show's iconic opening credits. And as the series limped toward the finish line, fans wondered which of its stars—if any—would go on to become big movie stars. (Same conversation, different teen drama.)
While Brody briefly tried the leading man role, bringing some of his geek-chic charm to 2007's In the Land of Women, his choices in the years since The O.C. ended have been unexpected. He played a satanic d--k of an emo band lead singer in Jennifer's Body. He popped up in Scream 4. He starred in the crime drama series StartUp for three seasons, as well as Burning Love and Billy & Billie. Most recently, he made a surprise appearance in Shazam!, a surprise superhero hit for DC Comics.
Still, he has yet to find a character fully capable of stepping out of the shadow of the nerd that made Death Cab for Cutie a mainstream band ("Well, that was my favorite band at the time," Brody said. "I was coming off of two years of really obsessing over them.") and is largely credited for the popularization of a holiday (Chrismukkah).
"For a while, I was perhaps extra precious about what roles I did and that was probably to the detriment of some possibility in my career and not even because, 'Oh if I would have done that then it would have led to that, although it would have,'" he reflected in the GQ profile. "It's not that I'm such a snob…it was more that my self-conscious nature wouldn't let me do something that I knew was less than really bright or sharp, or cool. I do know what's cool. I'm not the hippest guy but I do trust my taste. I think I have better taste than I do talent. I felt that if I do something less than cool the world at large is going to think I'm uncool, and I'm already trying to break out of a teen soap thing, so I've gotta keep it straight Robert Pattinson."
That is so something Seth Cohen would say.
(Originally published on Wed, Aug 21, 2019 at 5:00 a.m. PT.)