by Zack Smith
On Jan. 11, the CW drama—and that term is used loosely—One Tree Hill will begin its ninth and final season, bringing to an end nearly 200 episodes of teen melodrama that included brazen guest stars (Kevin Federline!), shameless product placement (watch Tree Hill High’s cheerleaders pose for Maxim!) and plot twists seemingly borne out of a combination of desperation and illegal narcotics (villainous Dan loses out on a heart transplant because a dog eats his donor heart!).
Please take a moment to think of all the decisions required for this scene to take place, including finding a heart and training a dog to grab it on cue. Or just the impulse to write this, pitch it to a network, have sets built and make actors play it out with a straight face.
Other shows and films produced in North Carolina have made more of an impact on the cultural zeitgeist, notably One Tree Hill’s predecessor in teen angst, Dawson’s Creek, which also filmed in Wilmington (One Tree Hill premiered the fall after Dawson's Creek wrapped).
But for all its insanity, One Tree Hill remains one of the most important productions in the history of North Carolina for one simple reason: It lasted. Even as production for film and TV moved out of state—or out of country, more often—One Tree Hill's patented combination of vacillating romance, 20-somethings playing shirtless teenagers and wall-to-wall emo rock that provided episode titles and a slew of bestselling soundtrack albums kept it on the air for nearly a decade, coming in second only to the original Beverly Hills, 90210 as the longest-running American teen drama.
Its success was improbable—originally a feature film, it was reconceived as a TV series and saw its production abruptly move to Wilmington after the then-head of The WB was concerned for the area after Dawson’s Creek wrapped production there. (I dimly remember reading at the time he was moved to tears after receiving the key to the city.)
It then got bumped at the last minute from a mid-season replacement to the fall lineup when The WB decided to preemptively dump the series Fearless before its premiere. It launched with no hype, negative reviews and was initially beaten in the ratings by a short-lived UPN sitcom called The Mullets.
And then it somehow ran nine years.
The smaller viewership expectations of The WB and later The CW no doubt helped, but One Tree Hill's longevity can be attributed to certain ruthlessness in targeting its audience. Its attitude can best be summed up in the Gavin DeGraw lyrics that made up the theme song for its early seasons: “I don’t want to be anything other than what I’ve been trying to be lately.”
That strange mixture of earnestness, defiance and articulate-yet-inarticulate grammar defined One Tree Hill, allowing it to survive a changed network, the loss of its original stars and a time-jump that conveniently skipped over the characters' college years. The world of One Tree Hill served as an interior landscape for the teen psyche worthy of Charlize Theron’s deluded author in Young Adult.
Teenagers got married—and stayed married. Or they launched hugely successful clothing lines straight out of high school. Bands like Fall Out Boy would just happen to show up in the fictional hamlet of Tree Hill, N.C., and stick around for a while. Interlopers would turn out to be full-blown psychos who had to be blown away in a cornfield. Parents weren’t just disapproving—they would actually commit arson, manipulate politics and in one case, kill one another. We’re still trying to figure out that bit with the dog and the heart.
Behind the scenes, One Tree Hill was…well, nothing could be as insane as its storylines, but it came close. Star Chad Michael Murray married co-star Sophia Bush, was divorced by her on grounds of “fraud” and became engaged to a Wilmington extra who was still in high school when they met.
Recurring player Antwon Tanner pleaded guilty in a federal court with plans to sell Social Security numbers.
And Paul Johansson, who played Dan, used his time away from the show to direct the critically derided film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
(Additional note on Murray: The WB heartthrob, who left One Tree Hill after Season 6, previously filmed in Wilmington as a recurring player on Dawson’s Creek’s fifth season. Freaks & Geeks star Busy Philipps, who also guest-starred with Murray, later recalled that she considered him a “douche,” which might explain why the egotistical ice skater played by Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory, which she co-wrote, was named “Chazz Michael Michaels.” In fairness, we’re told Murray still keeps a home in Wilmington.)
A writer friend recently pointed out to me that when writing for teenagers, you can never be too earnest. That was, perhaps, the great trick of One Tree Hill, the fact that its madness always played out with something of a straight face. Its efforts at heart, sincerity and Murray’s bizarre voice-overs that quoted from famous novels never overwhelmed its desire to pander to its audience with cheerleader catfights, a school shooting (the episode starred Colin Fickes, a former high school classmate of mine) that ended with Dan using the incident as an excuse to kill his brother, or one character's discovery of her long-lost half-brother who actually is an Internet stalker who attacks her in, yes, her cheerleader outfit.
Interviews I've read with series creator Mark Schwahn often feature him speaking of how all these tales were part of the characters’ “journeys,” or of the series’ intensely loyal fans. How you get from that to a dog eating a heart is a question perhaps best left unanswered. (Ed.: By the way, Mark Schwahn is featured prominently in Color Me Obsessed, a documentary about fans of the 1980s post-punk band the Replacements. The film plays at Chapel Hill's Nightlight on Thursday, Jan. 12.)
But for all its many, many, many, many, many flaws, One Tree Hill was in some ways an important show. It kept TV production alive in Wilmington for years. It promoted many an emo rock band. And it pushed the limits of what teen drama could do, in its own indomitable style. Truly, as Moira Kelly’s Karen explained to Murray’s Lucas in the first season finale, “There is only one…Tree Hill.”