20 Absurd, Complicated, and Beautiful Years of One Tree Hill

The infamous series premiered on this day in 2003 and changed the landscape of cable melodrama forever

TV Features One Tree Hill
20 Absurd, Complicated, and Beautiful Years of One Tree Hill

Every spring, around February, I begin my perennial rewatch of One Tree Hill. I’ve been doing this religiously for about six years, ever since one of my high school girlfriends introduced me to the show during our relationship. When we started dating, she was about three seasons in; by the time we broke up a month later, she was only on Season 4 and I’d finished the series—that’s how hooked I was, immediately. I’ve never been one to stray away from the melodrama of absolutely bonkers television. In fact, I used to spend summer afternoons watching Days Of Our Lives and General Hospital with my mom; one of my favorite shows to binge-watch to this day is Glee. Am I outing myself for having insufferable taste? I sure hope so.

But, truth be told, One Tree Hill was a perfect series for somebody like me—a teenager who was balancing three obsessions: music, sports and writing. My first full watch of all nine seasons overlapped pretty closely with me making the active decision to go to college for prose, including the reveal that Lucas Scott (Chad Michael Murray) curbed the premature ending of his promising basketball career by writing a memoir (incorrectly called a novel throughout the show) about himself and the folks in his direct orbit in Tree Hill, North Carolina. And who among us hasn’t taken a wickedly good jumpshot and fashioned it into a best-selling book? There’s more of us than you think, I say, with the comfort of having quit my basketball team in middle school. When my 12th grade English cohort had to do a writing exercise that required us to pen a mock eulogy for a classmate (which, in retrospect, what?), I absolutely used one of Lucas’ (Chad Michael Murray) trite voice-overs about Shakespeare to really hammer the whole shebang home.

It must be said, however, that One Tree Hill is not a serious show—but, perhaps, that’s the magic of it. Any program that has ever called The CW (and first, The WB) home is built on the prerequisite that you must stretch the reality of what’s even possible in a human lifetime. I mean, within the first 10 minutes of the show, an entire basketball team commits grand theft auto, underage drinking, and breaking-and-entering. And then, in one of the more realistic parts of the series (you’ll grow to miss the logic of it all by Season 2), the three star players are let off. It’s the catalyst that sets the stage for the entire show, even if we never learn how the basketball team was able to continue playing after cutting nearly its entire roster.

If you’ve never seen One Tree Hill—or, even if you have—let me set the scene for you: it’s a show about two brothers (half-brothers, really; they share the same dad) who are both very good basketball players and, also, are stark opposites. Lucas, the hero of the show, reads John Steinbeck for fun and is always sporting a combination of the worst haircut you’ve ever seen and a pursed-lip broodiness punctuated by the deadest eyes in showbiz. On the flip-side, you have Nathan (James Lafferty)—an entitled, emotionally manipulative douchebag who, in just his fourth scene in the entire series, makes a joke about being able to get to the state championship game with nothing but disabled people on his team. If you can even believe it, Nathan—not the guy who was in Freaky Friday and A Cinderella Story—will be your favorite character by the end of the first season (and, likely, your favorite character when the whole show is finished).

Much of season one gets its rocks off on the Scott last name doing a lot of heavy lifting. It’s a topic that provides a constant back and forth between Nathan and his villainous father Dan (Paul Johansson)—the latter of whom cannot go one episode without insisting that Lucas, despite him being his eldest son, should not be called a Scott. If you haven’t seen the show yet, you should absolutely gift yourself a binge of all nine seasons; the series will put you in a blender of heartache, confusion and gut-busting absurdity. It’s worth it for the messiness alone as, by Season 4, untangling all of the relationships is a full-time job. Sure, One Tree Hill jumps the shark as soon as it starts, but isn’t that what makes melodramatic television so painstakingly good? In the first episode of the series, when Coach Durham (Barry Corbin) approached Lucas about joining the team, he talks about how he’s done a lot of praying in the gym. Lucas replies: “God doesn’t watch sports.” What a picture!

I think about how Friends gets (deservedly) ridiculed these days for how much of a white-washed, steralized, picturesque portrayal of privilege the entire series is; how nearly every character is, for the most part, well-off in the comfort of a very decent job and (somehow) lives in a rent-controlled apartment that is so big and beautiful and expensive. It doesn’t help that those six characters would be, if you met them in real life, six of the worst people you know. One Tree Hill, at least to me, feels like a gigantic satire of the brand Friends created—as if the showrunners posed the question “What would happen if we made every speck of this show as impossible and far-fetched as humanly possible?” And then, they went ahead and made that shit happen! To give you a rough idea of how nuts this show got, let me give you just a taste of some things that were canon across One Tree Hill’s tenure on cable:

Nathan and Haley (Bethany Joy Lenz) fall in love and get married at age 16 (and it’s suggested that it’s a decision made only because Haley wants to wait until marriage to have sex and Nathan is, well, Nathan); Peyton (Hilarie Burton) creates Tric, a dry nightclub that is wildly successful, at the age of 17. In Season 2, Haley becomes a rock star with no prior motivations to even do so, save for one very quick clip of her singing (not very well, mind you) a song on piano in Season 1; Haley, upon becoming a rock star, misses an entire semester of high school and goes on tour and, somehow, still graduates with a 4.0 and is crowned valedictorian. Peyton, in Season 3, dates [checks notes] Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz; Lupe Fiasco, Jimmy Eat World, Nada Surf, and The Wreckers are just a few artists who just happen to stop by and play gigs at Tric. Dan Scott, one day, decides he wants to run for mayor of Tree Hill and then, after, like, one episode of campaign stuff, just becomes the mayor (Oh, and the candidate he defeats? Lucas’ mom, Karen [Moira Kelly]). Haley, who is a whole lotta pregnant, has her water break during her graduation speech (we’ve all been there); Brooke (Sophia Bush) starts a multi-million-dollar fashion brand at 18. When Dan is mere moments away from getting a life-saving heart transplant, the heart gets dropped on the floor and is quickly eaten by a service dog.

I do think, though, that One Tree Hill understood the assignment and made for good television. There was one central villain who pulled some of the light away from the show’s heroes, but the real treasure trove of this show comes at the hands of the main cast being lovable and understood. One Tree Hill possesses one of the greatest character arcs in 21st-century dramatic television. Dan Scott goes from being a soulless murderer and abusive sociopath to being a pretty cool grandpa who learns (we hope) the meaning of redemption. The episode he dies in, I would argue, is the best episode of the show altogether. I want to give props to Dan, too. In his youth, he was just as good—maybe even better—of a basketball player as his son Nathan, but he pissed it all away out of stubbornness and knocked Karen up in the process. He would go to the University of North Carolina and quit before his first season was over. Oh, and he would meet his future wife Deb (Barbara Alyn Woods) at college and get her pregnant almost immediately, too—and then they both dropped out.

Dan is interesting, most especially because he was clearly heavily abused by his own abrasive father—and he would then instill that same rigidity and violence on his own son 20 years later. It doesn’t help that his brother Keith (Craig Sheffer) is far more beloved and cool and empathetic. The greatest (and one of the first) school shooting episodes in TV history ends with Dan going into the school and—after the perpetrator, Jimmy, kills himself despite Keith trying to talk him out of it—kills his brother in cold blood, simply because he thought Keith tried murder him a few months prior (it was actually Deb, believe it or not). This show got ragged on for being an expensive soap opera—and maybe it was just that—but it makes a strong case for why goofy, dramatic television should never die—and the character of Dan is, maybe, the most clear-cut reason. His villainy had its faults from the get-go and, by the end of Season 1, he had very few wins. Also—because this is my favorite television tidbit of all time—we see a lot of basketball happen over the course of One Tree Hill, but it must be noted that Dan Scott never misses a single on-screen jumpshot. It’s something that is minor and likely not quickly noticed by casual fans, but it was a clever move by the showrunners to make such a subtle detail emphasize so much about the character’s past life.

One Tree Hill was built on the fundamentals of it being a basketball show. The Tree Hill Ravens team is a centerpiece across nearly every season—until Murray and Burton left the show after Season 6 and the entire operation became muddied and lackluster, even more so than it had previously. No moment is greater than the ending of the pilot, when Lucas and Nathan square off in a one vs. one match at the River Court. What was at stake? If Nathan won, Lucas wouldn’t join the Ravens team; if Lucas won, he [checks notes] gets to date Peyton (???)—who was dating Nathan at the time. It’s a tightly contested battle that Lucas, eventually, wins—after hitting a cool step-back jumper and icing the game. Sure, you could telegraph that outcome from a mile away; there wouldn’t be a show without it. But, God, the drama; the golden boy of the varsity squad getting beaten by a pick-up artist who cut his basketball chops on a playground court. The idea of two estranged brothers hating each other but also both being really good at basketball was such a money idea. And, when they both come together to hate their father? Chef’s kiss.

20 years ago today, the pilot of One Tree Hill debuted. Somehow, it manages to set up an entire decade of ideas—though, with that whole dog eating a heart pre-transplant thing, it might seem like the writers did run out of ideas eventually. It’s a perfect hour of television full of budding stardom, though. You get attached to each character’s arc immediately. Few shows have ever started out so deftly this century, yet One Tree Hill knew what power it held instantly and ran at a supersonic speed from the jump. I wouldn’t say it was lightning in a bottle, but it did premiere just when it needed to. And, thanks to Hulu and Netflix and Max, it’s continued to find second, third, and fourth lives with Zoomers. It’s not the dramatic heavyweight it once was, though.

In 2023, a wide, putrid shadow lurks over the show. Its creator, Mark Schwahn, is a certified bad dude who has been accused of sexual harassment by Burton and Danneel Harris (he would also get accused of harassment by cast members on his other show, The Royals) and many others. Burton, Harris, and a slew of One Tree Hill cast and crew penned a letter against Schwahn as an act of solidarity with each other and with Audrey Wauchope, a former writer on the show who came forward about her own experiences with Schwahn in 2017. Last month, Burton even revealed that, when she and Schwahn weren’t on speaking terms while filming Season 5, he wrote himself into the show intentionally and forced his character and Burton’s to share a hug in an episode.

Schwahn’s actions wouldn’t carry such a negative effect on the show if he wasn’t such an integral force in its brand existing in the first place. The way that One Tree Hill showcased music from The Replacements, Nada Surf, The Cure, Travis, and The National helped usher multi-generational culture back into mainstream television. Mixing basketball and drama was a win on all fronts and it hasn’t been replicated since. The show took risks and tackled deep subjects—be it by making an entire episode around a school shooting, date rape on campuses, familial deaths, placing an emphasis on the dangers of stalking, having conversations around foster care or, even, potentially life-threatening pregnancies. Schwahn spearheaded all of that buzz and then abused his power in order to make himself a direct piece of it. It is one thing to remain behind the camera; it is deeply fucked to break the boundary and put yourself on-screen for the sake of serving yourself.

Thankfully, the cast have continued to support each other and admonish Schwahn. It preserves One Tree Hill’s magic as much as possible—though it doesn’t totally wash the show’s hands clean, nor could it. 20 years have passed, and the sensationalism of every storyline becomes heightened with every rewatch. Once upon a time ago, I thought One Tree Hill was a picturesque depiction of a high school life that could exist somewhere—just not my somewhere. The characters were free and happy in the company of one another.

Now in adulthood, I realize that the show took many liberties in making its ecosystem of people look very cool while also unraveling their own personal bouts with teenagerdom, humanity, and expectations. It felt relatable in spirit and otherworldly everywhere else. I suppose that’s what makes for great television, when you can find reverence in the tapestry of details and not big-picture aesthetics. Sure, you’ve never become a touring rock star at 17, but you’ve likely had to grapple with what it means to lose somebody close to you or how damning and brutal it is to not know what direction you want your life to take, to feel stuck. There’s something endearing about making the struggles of youth worth dreaming about—and One Tree Hill took that niche and made it unforgettable. Oh, and it also boasts the greatest TV show theme song of all time. But you probably already knew that.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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