When The O.C. premiered on Fox in August 2003, it was quick to establish itself as much more than your standard-issue teen drama. And although it would lean into the genre heavily and often, the trials and tribulations of a group of beautiful California teenagers wasn’t as essential to the show’s overall narrative as you might remember. The O.C. was always an ensemble piece, its genius rooted in simultaneously creating nuanced adult characters with their own compelling story arcs. When the Cohen family takes in troubled 16-year-old Ryan (Ben McKenzie) after his mother abandons him in the pilot — the dramatic catalyst of the series — it is as much about the impact on each of the Cohens as it is the traumatized young man. At its core, the show is an examination of the meaning of family, fortified by sharply written dialogue full of humor and emotional resonance, a taste-making soundtrack, and a killer cast.
Broadway veteran Peter Gallagher played Cohen patriarch and Everyman Sandy — an assiduous public defender and Bronx transplant living in Newport Beach, a wealthy enclave of Orange County, with wife Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) and son Seth (Adam Brody). Fathers of teenage protagonists during the late-’90s-and-early-’00s teen-TV boom were a feckless bunch. Rory Gilmore and Buffy Summers both had absent fathers. Aaron Echolls and Dan Scott from Veronica Mars and One Tree Hill, respectively, were both literal murderers, and everybody’s Dad but Dawson’s was various shades of terrible on Dawson’s Creek. But Sandy Cohen was the gold standard of goodness, and his legacy among O.C. fans prompts declarations of love and joy to this day. As Gallagher noted on a recent episode of the rewatch podcast Welcome to the OC, Bitches!, “Since we’ve done [The O.C.], I get contacted almost daily from people around the world who have an exam they’re worried about or are nervous about [something in their lives]. It speaks to what an appetite there is out there for fathers that are around, interested, and listen.”
Surfer, bagel connoisseur, righteous do-gooder … Sandy was The O.C. ‘s anchor and moral arbiter. Whenever the show strayed far into high-camp soapy-ness — the likes of brother shootings, prenup-motivated poisonings, rehab-based con artists, and secret illegitimate half sisters come to mind - Sandy was a consistently grounding presence. His parenting instincts were always appropriate (I won’t hear otherwise), as he dispensed tough love, empathy, and sage advice in equal measure to Ryan, Seth, and the whole gang throughout the show’s run. He had big eyebrows and an even bigger heart (he could also sing the house down with an impromptu soul number). Based loosely on creator Josh Schwartz’s own father, Sandy was always a little bit magical to imagine as our surrogate TV father — especially for those of us who needed one. In honor of the man who once wrote a rap verse to celebrate Seth winning a game of capture the flag, we look back at nine of Sandy’s most iconic super-Dad moments.
The O.C. is streaming on HBO Max.
Sandy brings Ryan home with him — twice! (“Pilot,” Season 1, Episode 1)
The O.C. has an exceptionally good pilot. Seriously, go back and watch it; I’ll wait. Flawlessly cast, with smart writing and sun-kissed photography, it lets the viewer get to know this world and the people in it instantaneously. Even though Ryan is stealing a car and wearing a choker when we first meet him, we can tell this bad boy needs affection and guidance. Enter Sandy Cohen, helper of the helpless, assigned to Ryan’s case following his arrest. The two-hander scenes between Gallagher and McKenzie in the juvenile detention center are intense and palpable. Ryan is feeling understandably disenfranchised, and Sandy, well-versed in dealing with kids like him, recognizes that the best tactic is to relate (“We’re cut from the same deck, no money, my father was gone and my mother worked all the time”) and motivate (Sandy clocks Ryan’s academic aptitude).
Sandy brings Ryan home with him twice during the pilot episode. The first time after his Mom kicks him out following his release from juvie, and the second time after he returns home to find she has packed up the house and left him to fend for himself. Sandy believes in Ryan and can’t stop himself from switching into protective parent mode from the get-go. He sees himself in Ryan, and everything’s going to be okay! Probably!
Best Dad line: “Stealing a car ’cause your big brother told you to is stupid and it’s weak, and those are two things you can’t afford to be anymore.”
Sandy helps Ryan tie a tie for the first time (“Pilot,” season 1, episode 1)
Another moment from the pilot — it’s just so good! — is the tying-of-Ryan’s-tie scene. If you know The O.C., you know that one of its signature moves is the fancy, usually ill-fated Newport event (“Casino Night,” “Cotillion,” etc.), and this episode’s soiree comes in the form of a charity fashion show. Ryan, a temporary guest in the Cohen’s pool house and, consequently, in their society world, needs proper attire, so Kirsten buys him a suit. Ryan, who has likely never had any occasion to wear such a thing back home in Chino, shifts uncomfortably in front of the mirror, attempting to figure out which end of his new tie loops through which. In a classic father-son-bonding moment, Sandy teaches him how it’s done without making Ryan feel inadequate. It’s incredibly sweet and we see Ryan realize that this man genuinely cares about him. Sandy is also quick to compliment Ryan on how great he looks, deeply aware of how self-conscious he must feel.
Best Dad line: “I didn’t know how to tie a tie until I was 25.”
Sandy calls Seth out for treating Anna like garbage (“The Truth,” season 1, episode 18)
It’s a small, but significant moment, and one that essentially concludes one of the messier love triangles in the teen TV pantheon. Seth has been cavalierly flip-flopping between longtime paramour Summer (Rachel Bilson) and new love interest Anna (Samaire Armstrong) for 8 episodes at this point - hoping his quirky charm will disguise his bad behavior. Sandy, who has the eagle eye of a legal professional and intuition of a Dad who has brought their child up to be a decent human being, notices Seth’s disregard for Anna, his supposed girlfriend, in favor of flirting with Summer. As though speaking for us, the loyal-but-frustrated viewer, Sandy pulls Seth aside and asks him: what the hell man? “You hurt that poor girl’s feelings out there, how do you think that makes her feel to watch you flirting with another girl right in front of her?” Sandy Cohen is always attuned to a young woman in pain!
Best Dad line: “I am your father and I am responsible for you, and if I see something’s going on with you then we are going to talk about it.”
Sandy accompanies Ryan to rescue Marissa from Oliver (“The Truth,” season 1, episode 18)
Sorry for bringing this wretched storyline to the forefront of your mind; I’ll be brief, I promise. For a hair-tearing chunk of the back half of season one, Ryan is embroiled in a subplot involving a character named Oliver Trask (Taylor Handley), a young man with unspecified mental-health issues who becomes obsessed with Ryan’s girlfriend — the oblivious Marissa (Mischa Barton). You know that classic trope where nobody but the audience believes a character when they insist that another character is bad news? This was Ryan’s plight for what seemed like years of my adolescence back in the day, and what is so satisfying about this episode (aside from its marking the end of the Oliver arc) is that Sandy Cohen puts aside his skepticism to support Ryan anyway. Remember when I mentioned The O.C.’s soap-opera-adjacent tendencies? Oliver winds up holding Marissa at gunpoint, and Ryan, sensing something is very very wrong, is desperate to swoop in, as is his wont. Sandy, reluctant to let Ryan swoop alone toward trouble, doesn’t ask, instead telling Ryan that he is driving them to the scene (Oliver lives in a hotel, à la Dylan McKay) to assess the situation together. Sandy will always have your back, and it’s a beautiful thing.
Best Dad line:
Sandy: “Give me the keys.”
Ryan: “You said if I needed help I could come to you.”
Sandy: “Give me the keys … I’ll drive.”
Sandy and Seth have the sex talk (“The Heartbreak,” season 1, episode 19)
Gallagher and Brody have such good on-screen chemistry that it’s still difficult to believe they aren’t father and son in real life. “The Heartbreak” is a classic “shippers episode,” because it’s the one where Seth and Summer lose their virginities to each other, and like every first time in the history of first times, it’s super-awkward. Not more awkward than “the talk” between father and mortified son, however. Fearing Summer will kick him to the curb because of his lack of sexual prowess, Seth reluctantly comes to Sandy to ask him about “girl stuff,” and Sandy, confident as ever, tells him he has come to the master. Gallagher plays this scene so earnestly that it makes Brody’s physical-comedy squirming even funnier, the actors sitting across the kitchen table from each other like it’s a police procedural. Sandy, reminding us that he is a friend to women everywhere, enlightens his son on the wonders of foreplay: “Just because you’re ready to go, doesn’t mean she is.”
Best Dad line: “We Cohens are very sexual beings. Virile. Get used to it.”
Sandy knows the only way to bring Seth home is to send in Ryan (“The Distance,” season 2, episode 1)
The sophomore season of The O.C. attempted to shake things up, introducing new characters and dynamics that were meant to challenge the status quo established so meticulously in season one. “The Distance” finds Seth living in Portland with old nemesis turned friend Luke and his father following Ryan’s speedy departure from the Cohen household in order to be there for his pregnant ex-girlfriend (soap opera). As Summer elegantly puts it, Seth “runs away like a little bitch on a sailboat.” With the new school year approaching, Sandy and Kirsten are naturally at their wits’ end and rapidly losing their grip on the parental authority needed to make him come back home. One would guess that a rousing and heartfelt Sandy Cohen Speech would entice Seth to relent, but Sandy is shrewd enough to know that this situation calls for something that transcends his role as a father. Ryan and Seth’s relationship blurs the boundaries of friendship and brotherhood, and it’s Sandy’s only hand left to play. Sandy buys Ryan a plane ticket to Portland, quietly predicting success, and the two boys are back in the O.C. by the episode’s coda.
Best Dad line: “Nobody leaves this family twice.”
Sandy parents Seth and Alex simultaneously (“The Power of Love,” season 2, episode 8)
Sandy Cohen clearly has a heightened sense of when a young person might be in need, treating them with the respect they deserve. When Seth fails to come home one night, thus continuing his season-two streak of being as obnoxious as possible, Sandy coaxes out of Ryan that he was at his new crush Alex’s (Olivia Wilde) place. Never one to shy away from a direct conversation, Sandy heads to the Bait Shop, the club that Alex ostensibly runs, despite being underage, for a heart-to-heart. Alex is emancipated from her parents and puts on a tough façade to mask her pain — to put it plainly, she is the kind of young person that Sandy Cohen gravitates toward. Sandy is jovial while projecting the easy gravitas of an authority figure trying to do right by his son. “I’m not the cops. Much worse: I’m Seth’s dad.” At first, Alex bristles, but Wilde’s expression softens as she warms to this gem of a man, just like the rest of us.
Best Dad line:
Sandy: “Sometimes, in order to be a good dad, you have to be a bad guy.”
Alex: “I don’t have much experience with good dads.”
Sandy: “You stop over at the house anytime, and Kirsten and I will be very happy to ground you, too.”
Sandy gets Marissa back into the Harbor school (“The Safe Harbor” Season 3, Episode 11)
Sandy’s moral compass becomes uncharacteristically askew in season 3, when he is sucked into the shady corporate world of The Newport Group after Caleb (Alan Dale) dies. In “The Safe Harbor”, Ryan needs to find a parental advocate to go in front of the school board and present a case for Marissa to return to Harbor following her expulsion. Enter Sandy Cohen and his inherent flair for this kind of crusade. But this time an ethical dilemma presents itself when, through a private investigator TNG has on retainer, Sandy learns that the head of the board’s son went through a very similar experience to Marissa. Never not at home in a courtroom-like scenario, he deftly alludes to this discovery with just enough weight, while simultaneously praising Marissa and espousing the merits of the second chance. When it comes to the kids, Sandy Cohen can be a big old softy — but his judgement is always spot on. He realizes that he has the chance to positively impact Marissa’s future and he’s super proud of the gang for dedicating themselves to the cause.
Best Dad line: “A good cause, poor odds, a chance to ruffle some Newpsie feathers? How could I say no.”
Sandy makes amends with Seth after a brief, brutal estrangement (“The Graduates” Season 3, Episode 25)
The most poignant moment of the Sandy Cohen Season 3 Redemption Tour happens in the refreshingly strong finale episode of the uneven season, with a quiet scene between Adam Brody and Peter Gallagher. Things have been fractious in the Cohen household for a while: Sandy has been busy reinventing himself as a big business heavy hitter and it has caused serious emotional repercussions with Kirsten and Seth. In the previous episode, Seth’s litany of bad behavior (lying about getting into college, smoking pot) is exposed. But truthfully, Sandy has become so estranged from the family that Seth has a hard time accepting any fatherly penance. It is deeply unpleasant to hear Seth tell Sandy he isn’t acting like his father, so when they make amends it’s a huge relief. This episode is significant for most of the core characters (Marissa, RIP), but particularly gratifying for Sandy fans who had been terrified that their TV Dad had gone and changed on them.
Sandy has the brevity here to acknowledge his role in the recent disruption to the Cohen status quo, apologizes to Seth and tells him he loves him. Seth, overcome with the reaffirmed knowledge that Sandy Cohen is indeed the best father in the world, follows this example of owning up to your mistakes and makes one last confession – he accidentally burned down the Newport Group offices when he failed to put out the joint he had been smoking in emo solitude. Sandy Cohen is perennially putting out figurative and literal fires for these kids, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Best Dad line:
Seth: “I felt like I couldn’t really talk to you though, you were always so busy with work and I was afraid of upsetting Mom.”
Sandy: “I understand that, and I’m sorry. We both screwed up.”
Sandy circumvents Ryan’s murderous vendetta (“The Cold Turkey,” season 4, episode 3)
Following season three’s dramatic climax with the death of Marissa Cooper (and, significantly, the departure of a main cast member) at the greasy hands of Kevin Volchok (Cam Gigandet), The O.C. tries at the start of its fourth and final season to deal with the fallout as swiftly as possible. Ryan alienates himself from Sandy and the Cohen clan in a severe grief spiral that looks a lot like vengeance (sponsored, of course, by Julie Cooper). “The Cold Turkey” tests the limits of father and adopted son’s relationship in the extreme, after Sandy persuades Volchok to turn himself into the police without telling Ryan. Sandy, as any compassionate parent would, wants Ryan to find peace and eventually gives him the chance to finally confront Volchok, not kill him — to exorcise those demons once and for all. Sandy’s unwavering faith in Ryan’s doing the right thing is vindicated, and Volchok is carried out of the motel room Sandy put him up in in handcuffs rather than in a body bag. That’s good parenting, folks.
Best Dad line:
Ryan: “If this is some kind of dare, I’m not taking it.”
Sandy: “I trust you.”
Sandy punches Frank Atwood for lying about his cancer (“The My Two Dads,” season 4, episode 9)
Sandy Cohen can smell a nefarious plot from a mile away, and he foils many Julie Cooper and Caleb Nichol schemes over the course of the series. When Ryan’s estranged father, Frank (Kevin Sorbo), comes back into the picture in season four, wanting to mend their fractious relationship, Sandy is wary, to say the least. Sandy and Ryan’s father-son bond has grown into something beyond genetics, and it’s kind of heartbreaking to see the usually level-headed Sandy so riled up about the prospect of being replaced in “The My Two Dads.” To make matters worse, Frank has turned up with a bombshell to drop on Ryan — he has terminal cancer, so the opportunity to reconcile might well have an expiration date. Sandy isn’t buying it for a second and uses his contacts to reach out to Frank’s doctor, who confirms his suspicions. Although admittedly a little underhanded, Sandy Cohen is rarely wrong. Gallagher’s natural gravitas makes the confrontation scene especially emotionally charged.
Best Dad line: “I’m from the Bronx, I used to hit guys all the time. Key word, used to. I’m sorry I lost my cool back there.”