One Tree Hill is the show I never quite figured out how to quit. Don’t get me wrong, I tried. I searched out new shows that aired at the same time (without that incentive I may never have tuned in to the Veronica Mars pilot back in 2004. And then where would I be?), I actively refused to watch, but still, a month or two down the line, I would find myself coming back to it, getting sucked back in by the melodrama of it all.
The version of One Tree Hill that airs today has little in common with the show that debuted in the fall of 2003, though many of the faces remain the same. Back then the series was about two boys–biological half-brothers, though only one was raised by their shared father–who came to blows over basketball, a pretty girl, and that eternal teen soap struggle of the outsider vs. the insider.
The outsider, Lucas Scott, was ostensibly the central character of the series. He was the brother raised by a single mom, though his paternal uncle was the primary male influence on his childhood. He was quiet, bookish, the traditional “nice guy.” (By the end of that first season, intentionally or not, Lucas had evolved into a not-so-nice-guy in a nice-guy shell, though the show kept up the pretense that Lucas was a good kid no matter how he behaved.) Nathan Scott was the over-confident brother, popular and promiscuous and suffering under the pressures of his father’s dreams. (Just as Lucas grew quickly into a rather unlikable guy, Nathan, by the end of season one, had gone from the kind of guy who cheats on his girlfriend to the kind of guy who proposes marriage at age 16. Nathan is still quick to anger, often responding to taunts the way Marty McFly responds to accusations of chicken-hood, but he’s also become the kind of guy who can step up to the challenges of young marriage, young fatherhood and not always getting to hold onto your dreams.)
As the seasons passed and Lucas and Nathan’s rivalry settled into a warmer, more brotherly relationship, the show’s scope widened. It grew into an ensemble drama, focusing more on Haley (Lucas’s best friend and Nathan’s wife), Peyton (the girl that initially came between the brothers) and Brooke (Peyton’s best friend and Lucas’s on-again-off-again girlfriend). Things got soapier, with pregnancy scares, health scares, relationship musical chairs and a superb villain in Daddy Scott, who played puppetmaster with his sons, murdered his brother in cold blood, and never quite managed to die himself (though more season finales have featured him nearly kicking it than not).
And then at the end of the fourth season, with all the teenage characters graduating high school, the show decided to take a risk (albeit a popular one that year) and skip four years, bringing everyone back to Tree Hill as adults, rather than teens. The passage of time allowed the characters to reshuffle more realistically than they ever had before, and breathed some new life into the series, but everything eventually fell back into the patterns of earlier seasons, and, at the end of season 6, Lucas and Peyton left the show (in what would have been a truly decent series finale), literally driving off into the sunset, newlyweds and new parents.
That’s pretty much where the show gave up on plot. It moved forward, technically, introducing new characters, pairing them off, presenting happy endings one week and tearing them apart the next. There were still love triangles and break-ups, weddings and babies and occasional dramatic events, like a brutal car crash with limited consequences, a psychotic nanny-turned-kidnapper, and a parent lost to cancer, but for the most part the show has been going through the motions these last few years. Whole episodes have been given over to indie music montages, or talking about chairs. The show has essentially evolved into a hang-out sitcom, only it’s still an hour long, tethered to its soapy dramas, and really only funny by accident.
And time has gone wonky on One Tree Hill. Those first four seasons covered only two years, then they skipped four years, came back for awhile and then skipped another year and a half. Sometimes the show seems in step with real time, sometimes, as in the season 8 finale, an entire year can pass in a single episode. When One Tree Hill went on the air in 2003 I was the same age as it’s teenage characters–though several years younger than its twenty-something actors–but these days I think I’ve fallen behind. It’s hard to gauge on a show like this, though, where most of the characters had found personal and/or professional success by age 22 and, out of a handful of high school friends from suburban North Carolina, at least five flirted with some degree of fame. That’s not even mentioning the famous actress, successful director, rock star, sports agent, photographer or assistant-turned model they befriended along the way. And I repeat, this show is set in a small town in North Carolina.
This is not to say that One Tree Hill is completely without merit. Sophia Bush and Bethany Joy Galeotti (as Brooke and Haley respectively) turn in reliable and consistent performances; the friendships at the heart of the story are, for the most part, quite strong; and late in One Tree Hill’s third season there was a story arc that culminated in an episode about a tragic school shooting, an event with consequences that still ripple through the show today, as I would imagine such a tragedy would continue to affect the lives of the people at its center. One Tree Hill may be ridiculous, but at least it remembers where it’s been and keeps track of its consequences.
The ninth and final season of the show premiered tonight. I didn’t watch it live, I haven’t watched it live in years, probably, but I will turn it on when I’m done here. I gave up trying to quit this show awhile ago, gave up on fighting what was clearly a losing battle, and with so little time left in Tree Hill, I’m not really interested in quitting. I’ll see these characters through to the end, enjoy what little plot they offer and even smile when Chad Michael Murray returns as Lucas. I’m kind of excited to see what’s coming next, what ridiculous melodrama and time-filling indie songs will see us through this final season.
And then I’ll happily say goodbye.