Thursday, May 13, 2010

One Tree Hill - the show that won't die

I come before you today, not to praise One Tree Hill, but to (hopefully) bury it. Next Monday, the CW will air the finale of the seventh season and as of yet there's been no official word about if the show will be back the following year. Given the show began the season having lost two of its four most principle characters, and with them the core relationships that launched the show, common sense would dictate that this is the end.

Or is it?

When nuclear war breaks out, I'm pretty sure the only things that will survive are cockroaches and One Tree Hill. For those not in the know, One Tree Hill is a teen drama that began airing on the WB in the fall of 2003, and then moved to the then-new CW network in the fall of 2006. Created by Mark Schwahn, the show didn't start off bad. The show was built around two half-brothers fathered by the same man, Dan Scott. Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) was the son who Dan fathered with his high school sweetheart before going off to college, dumping her, and getting his new affluent girlfriend pregnant with Nathan (James Lafferty.)

Now teenagers in the same small town high school, Lucas and Nathan might as well live in different worlds. Nathan was raised in a world of privilege, as his parents married and his mother came from money. Lucas had to make due with a single mom who struggled to make ends meet. In the pilot episode, Lucas is encouraged to try out for the school's basketball team, a move that puts him in direct conflict with his brother - already a star player in his junior year. A love triangle is evident from the first episode, as Lucas is clearly in love with Nathan's girlfriend.

As I've said before, I'm big on character-driven shows. Add that to the fact that OTH was essentially a replacement for Dawson's Creek and I decided to give it a few episodes. I have to admit that after a rough first few episodes, the show seemed to overcome its growing pains and turn into an interesting drama. Unlike Dawson's, the adult characters were well-rounded and had stories almost as compelling as their young counterparts, and despite the fact the two male leads couldn't act to save their lives, the supporting cast - particularly overachiever Haley (Bethany Joy Galeotti) and cheerleader Brooke (Sophia Bush) - were fun to watch and easy on the eyes.

If you want to see the difference a show-runner can make to a series, watch the first season and compare it to what followed. During the first season, creator Mark Schwahn was deemed to inexperienced to run the show so the network hired Mark B. Perry, a veteran of The Wonder Years and Party of Five, to shepherd the series. The writing staff he assembled included some strong writers like Mike Kelley, later of Jericho and Swingtown. Unfortunately Schwahn's influence grew with the second season and Perry soon left - setting One Tree Hill on a course to being one of the most enjoyably trashy "bad" TV shows on the air.

For seven years, this bad writing has been a vice that I just could not quit. I could spend a week's worth of posts on major aspects of the show that many writers should not emulate and I'd still barely scratch the surface.

These are just a few of the more memorable examples of bad writing: multiple car crashes every season, instant careers in music and fashion, teen marriage, obnoxious tertiary characters who arrive and then never leave long after their stories end, a hooker hired to make Dan's brother fall in love with her so that Dan could crush said brother by making her leave him at the altar, long-lost birth mom finding her daughter only to soon die of cancer, "Who tried to kill Dan Scott?," school shootings, fratricide (committed by Mayor Dan Scott... yeah, he ran for mayor at one point), point-shaving and high school gambling, teen pregnancy, psycho web-cam stalkers, child porn sex tapes, "clean teens," psycho nannies, kidnapping, more murder, attempted suicide, and a plot that had Lucas adapt his novel into a film that was directed by a skeevy director played with relish by Dawson himself, James Van Der Beek.

This show is TV crack.

On one hand, I'm tempted to salute executive producer Mark Schwahn. What the man lacks in talent, he surely makes up for in passion for his show and its survival. Most show-runners tend to become more hands-off in later years, turning their attention to other projects as they get bored with their creations. New showrunners who follow in their footsteps often have trouble maintaining quality.

I'll give Schwahn credit for staying loyal to his show and then going to the mat for it at every opportunity. The series has always been an underdog. I recall the Hollywood Reporter story when the series hit 100 episodes, which pointed out that it barely got on the air. OTH was set as a mid-season replacement, only to get promoted at the last moment when another anticipated show proved to be unmanageable. The first two seasons the show earned a renewal by the skin of its teeth. Then, in season three it looked like a goner for sure. UPN and the WB were merging the following fall and it soon became clear that there were only a few open slots and that if One Tree Hill stayed, it would likely be at the expense of critical darling Everwood.

So Schwahn "bet on his show," ignored network requests not to end on a cliffhanger and closed the season with several characters in peril. The fans rallied and got their fourth season. Amazingly he mobilized them the following year as well, and the CW ordered 13 episodes for season five as a midseason replacement, fully expecting that to be the end. And it might have been, had it not been for the writer's strike that allowed OTH to relaunch with little competition on any other networks. They were so far ahead that once the strike ended, additional episodes the CW ordered were able to be produced and aired without missing a beat. Ratings justified a sixth season, and then somehow, a seventh.

Schwahn claims he gets little respect from the network despite all the money he's made for them. In another context, I might find it in myself to salute his dedication. He found money to keep the show going by taking product placement to a new level. The show might as well be named "Synergy" for all the external tie-ins and sponsors it's shilled for. The short-list includes not only the typical soundtracks, but also tours and "benefit albums" that were actually incorporated into show storylines. Then there have been in-your-face product placements by Sunkist and Maxim, which was part of an entire storyline when one girl posed for their "Hometown Hotties" feature (which was naturally also cross-promoted in the magazine itself.)

Take a good look because this is what all TV is going to look like as costs continue to rise. You've never seen product integration until you've seen it the One Tree Hill way.

But the one factor that completely keeps me from giving Schwahn his props is the fact that he just comes across as so... skeevy. From the start of the series, every interview he gave carried a disturbing subtext - his inappropriate crush on the character Peyton and Hilarie Burton, the actress who played her. This went to dirty-old-man levels when he hired terrible actress Danneel Harris to play the new skank in town, Rachel. Rachel was introduced by performing a stripper routine as her cheerleading tryout, and when every scene she was in seemed to revolve around either posing in lingerie or washing cars in a wet T-shirt, it was pretty clear she was brought in to do some of the skankier scenes that the other actresses might have resisted.

I admit, that in the early days of the show I wasn't terribly attuned to Schwahn's interviews. However, the show's debut coincided with my discovery of the wonderful site Television With Pity and they had no small measure of snark for every Schwahn quote. I probably should blame/credit TWOP with my continued viewing, as there's this morbid fascination with just how low the series could go. (I don't visit gossip sites, but TWOP regularly passed on tidbits from the set that suggest that if E! ever does a True Hollywood Story about this series, it will be a must-see.)

Thus it came as no surprise to me or anyone else on TWOP when Schwahn eventually wrote himself into the show. As one reader had predicted quite a while prior to that, he played a mentor to Peyton's character, the owner of a record store she frequented.

So Mark, since I'm sure you're the kind of guy who Googles himself I just want to say "Thanks for seven years of jaw-dropping, eye-rolling, what-the-hell-are-the-writers-smoking, so terrible that it laps 'bad' and cycles back to 'Brilliantly awesomely awful,' how-the-hell-are-tweens-watching-this-show-unironcally, bad writing." I know you can't take all the credit; The Chad certainly did his part to make this the TV equivalent of The Room. For now, thanks for the laughs.

Now go away. And if you come back at the expense of the consistently improving Life Unexpected, I swear I'll use my upcoming "Lessons from TV Episodes" series to explain why your "brilliant" school shooting episode is one of the most offensive episodes in television history.

7 comments:

  1. Who wrote this post? Was it written under the influence of alcohol?

    I'm not even halfway done and I've seen five errors: "Privledge," "to" instead of "too," "shephard," "writer's" instead of "writers," and "atempted"

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  2. Luke - Thank you for the copy editing and the completely tactful way you handled it.

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  3. "(I don't visit gossip sites, but TWOP regularly passed on tidbits from the set that suggest that if E! ever does a True Hollywood Story about this series, it will be a must-see.)"

    Can you link where I can read some of these "tidbits"? Just recently discovered TWOP and I am a curious viewer of OTH..

    "And if you come back at the expense of the consistently improving Life Unexpected, I swear I'll use my upcoming "Lessons from TV Episodes" series to explain why your "brilliant" school shooting episode is one of the most offensive episodes in television history."

    Now that LU is off-air, I'd be interested in hearing your views on why "school shooting episode is one of the most offensive episodes in television history."

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  4. Hey y, unfortunately the gossip isn't easily archived at TWOP, but rather scattered throughout the One Tree Hill thread in the Drama discussion session. If you're willing to wade through several hundred pages of posts, you will probably come across some interesting stuff, but bear in mind that most of information dropped there was never verified.

    I've thought of taking a swing at the school shooting episode, but I've never been quite motivated to take yet another shot at One Tree Hill. Maybe as the series approaches its end, I'll do a wrap up for it like I did for ER three years ago.

    My issues with the school shooting episode (and the way Schwahn promoted it) are many. There's one detail that really pushes it into offensive territory for me. After spending an entire episode trying very hard to make what they believe is a meaningful statement aimed at its younger viewers about understanding people who are different, being a good friend, and surviving just the general trauma of being a teen, the episode ends with one character executing another in cold blood, then framing the school shooter who had just taken his own life.

    Dan killing Keith would have likely been a horrible soap opera twist no matter how it was done. The fact that it came in this episode, under these circumstances, after an hour of hammering the viewer with a completely unrelated moral, is what launches it into crass territory for me. Even if Colombine had never happened, it would be pretty bad for the show to go this route. The shadow of the real-life school shootings hanging over this particular story only makes it far, far worse.

    What's funny is that now there are at least three shows on the CW alone that (in my humble opinion at least) are far worse than One Tree Hill. I took some shots at it because I joked it was the worst show on television, now it's not even the worst show on its own network!

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  5. Interesting thoughts. Thanks for the reply. It'd also be interesting to hear what you have to say about the show STILL being on air. I am guessing (from your words "never been quite motivated to take yet another shot at One Tree Hill") that you haven't been keeping up with the show. It's funny that this post was written during the end of season seven, and the show still has one more season to go. How do you think it has survived all the way to season nine? I know the fanbase has had quite an influence in the past but can fanbases really be so strong of an influence?

    I was once a fan of the show, and I recently caught up on some of the more recent episodes (despite the bad writing and the terrible overly done soap-opera elements, I keep watching... Alas, it's as if the inner middle schooler in me can't seem to let go of this teen drama of my younger years, sad to say I'll always have a soft spot for it), and I am genuinely surprised to see how many years the show has survived with several time jumps, the loss of two of the show's main characters, and its continuously ridiculous storylines. In my opinion, the show should have ended when the main characters' high school careers ended.

    Also, I am curious, what are the shows you think are worse than OTH on the CW?

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  6. Much to my deep shame, I haven't been able to quit this show yet. I stuck around for what I thought was going to be the final 13 last year, only to see that turn in to 22 episodes, and then get renewed yet AGAIN!

    I think the fanbase is actually a big part of what's kept the show going all these years. I don't have the ratings numbers at hand, but OTH was pulling pretty good numbers for a series in its 8th year on a netlet AND it's shown to be a good utility player that the audience follows no matter what night it ends up on.

    Now, that's probably a bit of an "in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king" sort of response, but there you have it.

    I agree that the end of season four felt like a natural end, but I also recall thinking that season five felt reenergized if one was willing to just accept that looney stuff like the "Nanny Carrie" plotline was business as usual for the show.

    As much as I hated Lucas and Peyton, I'm a bit shocked the show weathered the loss of those two characters. OTH hadn't really been "about" anything for several seasons at that point, so losing the central characters made less impact than it normally would have on a character-driven show. For my money, Bethany Joy Galeotti is the MVP of the series. (And color me shocked they got her and Sophia to sign on for S9.)

    As for worse shows than OTH, 90210 has shown to be more terrible than OTH at its worst. It's almost too terrible to even be a guilty pleasure. That's a real shame because at least half the cast is pretty talented and the writing gives them nothing to work with.

    I'm also deeply disappointed in Hart of Dixie, as they hyped it as being in the mold of Everwood and Gilmore Girls, but most week's it's been unwatchable.

    That disappointment is dwarfed only by the let-down that is The Secret Circle. Britt Robertson is really, really talented and I was excited to see her teamed up with the EPs behind The Vampire Diaries. Even allowing for the fact that TVD took a while to get its legs, TSC is way behind the curve. There I think the problem is mostly in the writing/concept, but casting some lesser actors in supporting roles didn't help much either. Maybe they'll surprise me and turn it around by February sweeps.

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  7. Thanks again for the reply! I agree with many points, especially giving the MVP to Bethany Joy. I love her, and I love that they managed to keep her on the show full-time all the way to the end. Sad that James Lafferty signed on only for part-time, because that definitely takes away from Naley. He may not be the strongest actor (I'd say he's improved a lot over the years, though), but I love me some Naley. I think they're really what got me hooked on the show, and I just continue to have a soft spot for them. I am curious, what keeps you coming back to the show? Will you be tuning in for the last season that premieres this week?

    I've not been keeping up with any CW shows since many shows look disappointing (The Secret Circle for one, and I didn't know 90210 was still on-air..). I have, however, checked out Hart of Dixie even though I was warned by your reply that it's not that good. It's okay, for the most part, I would say. I'm still interested (I've watched two episodes), and I wasn't disappointed because I wasn't expecting much to begin with. If anything, I am disappointed in Rachel Bilson. For some reason, she's not doing it for me as Dr. Zoe Hart.

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