Charmed life: Young writers made it big with Fox hit

Ryan, one of the principal young people in the new hot Fox Television hit “The O.C.,” started out the series last summer in jail.

But that was wrong.

Very wrong.

Viewers of the show, an Orange County version of the old Fox hit “90210” (albeit with a lot more wit and substantially more sophistication), knew what the cops didn’t know: Young Ryan had been duped by an evil older brother; he came from a dysfunctional family on the wrong side of the tracks; and, most of all, he was much too cute to be in the hoosegow.

What to do? How do you get young Ryan from jail into the posher confines of Newport Beach and its environs? For Josh Schwartz, the young writer who created the series, the answer seemed easy.

“I knew the character of Ryan would be in jail. I knew the guy who would come to his rescue would be a public defender,” says Schwartz, 27. “He would be a dichotomy, really. On the one hand, this interesting character is a leftist with liberal ideas. On the other hand, he’s living in this conservative enclave. It just seemed very natural to me that this character would be Jewish.”

And thus Sandy Cohen (played by Peter Gallagher) was born. He gets Ryan out of jail and brings him to his posh home to live. More dichotomy. Poor kid suddenly thrust into ritzy surroundings, forced to interact with kids who’ve learned to talk despite the silver spoons in their mouths.

Finally in the dichotomy sweepstakes, Cohen, the public defender, obviously can’t afford to live in Orange County — except that he’s married to a beautiful rich blonde. “She married the New York liberal Jew because he was everything her father hated.”

Schwartz acknowledges that it’s rare in television for a series character who is Jewish to marry another Jew. “I think that what’s good for storytelling and drama is conflict, and there’s a lot of potential conflict in a mixed marriage.”

Certainly Cohen and his television son Seth are aware of their heritage, from the little Yiddishisms they occasionally spout to the holidays they celebrate: Christmas last winter, Passover coming up this spring. The Cohens will have a seder with Sandy’s mother coming to visit from the Bronx. Schwartz doesn’t say too much about the episode except that Seth will attempt to teach his girlfriend Summer — that’s her name, not the season — Hebrew.

Schwartz says he’s not especially careful about Sandy and Seth’s behavior. He doesn’t watch out for them. “I love all my characters equally,” he claims. “But definitely their experiences are more closely based on autobiographical experiences.”

That autobiography began in Providence, R.I., where he grew up the oldest of three children in a Reform family. “I was bar mitzvah and did Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” His father, Steve, was a toy inventor, first for Hasbro (where he helped develop My Little Pony and Transformers) and later on his own (Sing and Snore Elmo) with his wife, Honey.

“I always knew I wanted to become a writer,” Schwartz recalls. “I was always writing short stories and stuff from a very young age.” His parents didn’t discourage his aspirations.

“It’s hard for a man who plays with toys for a living to be discouraging to his kid’s dreams,” Schwartz says.

Here’s where Schwartz’ story really becomes one that could invoke jealousy. He goes to USC film school and in his junior year writes a script that’s bought in a package deal worth up to $1 million. He doesn’t get it all, of course, because the film is in development hell. But, still …

Then he gets two pilots shot, one in 2000 for ABC/Disney and another the following year for the WB/Warner Bros. Neither became a series, but that doesn’t make it any less envious.

Then came “The O.C.”

“I wanted to do a relationship kind of drama that could appeal to guys as well as girls. When I went to USC a lot of the students were beach kids [from Orange County]. And I had a real outsider’s perspective.”

Given his credentials — the film script and two pilots — he was able to arrange a number of meetings and Fox jumped at the opportunity to air it. “They were into it. They wanted to get back to doing the kind of show they’re used to” — meaning shows that appeal to the younger demographics so beloved by advertising agencies. In that regard, the show has been particularly successful.

And ratings have been especially good in certain sections of Providence. Every Wednesday at 8 p.m., his parents hold viewing parties. “I get phone calls from the family periodontist and the gastroenterologist. My grandmother watched the pilot and said, ‘I’m sorry, but it’s not for me. No offense.’

“But I think she still watches.”

Curt Schleier
Curt Schleier

Curt Schleier is a freelance writer and author who covers business and the arts for a variety of publications. Follow him on Twitter at @tvsoundoff.