Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Do I still hate this? A second chance for ONE TREE HILL's school shooting episode

For a while, I've been keeping a list for some posts on pop culture "second chances." The concept was that I'd rewatch something that I notoriously hated, particularly something where my opinion ran counter to consensus and see if I would have to own up to missing the mark. The only reason I've not pursued this yet was that there's so much NEW content to consume and react to that I couldn't justify burning time on something I already was expecting to hate. Then about a week ago I ended up revisiting one of the items at the top of the list and found that - SURPRISE - my original, strong reaction had evolved. It took a couple of days of thinking about it before I realized, "Dammit, I'm gonna have to write this up, aren't I?"

I'm in the middle of writing a spec pilot, and for the first time, I'm attempting a teen drama. A few of my friends have been saying for a while (but especially after my posts on 13 Reasons Why) that it's shocking I haven't done one yet. The closest I ever got was the half-hour drama series I ran in college, but I've never tried a teen series formally. My fear has always been that I'm TOO much of a fan to bring anything to the genre but imitation. (It's similar to Bryan Singer's stance that he should never direct STAR TREK because "you'd feel like you were watching WRATH OF KHAN again.") I reasoned one thing that might help would be to revisit some of my old favorites that I haven't seen in a while that I didn't watch to death. (In other words, not The Wonder Years or Dawson's Creek.) I spent a week revisiting Roswell, which was surprisingly helpful in getting me started. Then, just as I hit a wall in development, I saw that One Tree Hill would be leaving Netflix at the end of the month.

I watched the series from the very first episode, mostly because I was still relatively new to LA, had very little money, knew very few people, didn't have cable OR DSL, and was very bored that Tuesday night. The first few episodes showed promise as the writers and the actors got a better handle on the characters, there was a decent part of the first season where it felt like it could have evolved into a thoughtful teen drama that we might have talked about in the same breath as Friday Night Lights. The show choose a different course, embracing a more soapy direction and becoming the very definition of a guilty pleasure.

Here, I'll prove it. If you're outside the target demo and you've heard of this show, you almost certainly know it as "the show where the dog ate the heart." (Be sure to check out this awesome oral history of that scene.)

I want you to remember this as I drop the following quote from Les Moonves, President and CEO of CBS, speaking about the decision to pick up One Tree Hill when the WB and UPN merged into the CW: "Qualitatively I think it was the best show the WB had." 

This was in a season that included Gilmore Girls, Everwood, Smallville, and Supernatural. Was Les Moonves seeing something that I wasn't? Had I been watching One Tree Hill wrong all these years?

I never watched the original Melrose Place, but I know the appeal that show had for its audience, and that's more or less what kept me coming back to OTH. (Okay, that and Bethany Joy Lenz as Haley, who was the show's best character, best actress and almost certainly in my Top 2 WB crushes.) I wasn't alone in this opinion in the internet circles I traveled in back there, but there was also a teen audience that watched this show in earnestness, and it's that audience that creator Mark Schwahn wanted to speak to in the third season when he wrote a school shooting episode.

The episode is the sixteenth episode of the third season, written by Mark Schwahn and entitled "With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept,"  It aired on March 1, 2006, placing it less than seven years after Columbine and in a time when the subject was still seen as being off-limits. Schwahn recalled in one interview that, "The studio and the network were scared to death of that episode. They tried to convince me not to do it."

They weren't the only ones. Cast member Hilarie Burton recalled the actors didn't like the idea much either. "None of the actors were into it, none of us wanted to do it. We got the script, we were very upset about it. Um, we were like 'This hasn't happened in so long. Why would we bring this up? We don't want to encourage or give attention to that kind of behavior.' Then literally while we're having this conversation with our creator and our bosses, two incidents happened. It was heartbreaking to know that stuff was still going on, it just wasn't receiving media attention that it used to."

For years after the airing, I've seen this episode cited as one of One Tree Hill's best episodes. I've even seen it place on other lists that cite intense, powerful or otherwise relevant episodes of TV. This always got under my skin because when it first aired, I hated this episode. I felt it was a story that the show wasn't capable of doing, that they had no business trying to touch it and that the whole thing felt very preachy and melodramatic in a way that cheapened the very message they were trying to send. And all of that was before the final moment of the episode, which threw away any goodwill the show had otherwise built up. I found the whole thing offensive and disrespectful to the real tragedies it was reflecting.

Last week I rewatched it and much to my shock, my reaction was significantly distant from my earlier encounter. I still think the ending risks throwing the whole thing in the trash (more on that later), but the route there didn't get under my skin nearly as much.

The setup: In the previous episode, the school's time capsule was released 20 years early and among the video confessions was that of Jimmy Edwards, a minor character who'd appeared in the first couple episodes. In his confession, the nerdy outcast laid into all the jocks and the popular kids, which only made him a target for bullying. The episode opens with Jimmy returning to school, and when he gets hassled in the hallway, he pulls out a handgun and fires a wild shot. Lockdown is declared, everyone who can flee does while others barracade themselves in classrooms.

From here, the story follows four tracks, and as some of this is teachable with regard to television production, I'm going to break them down. In writing for television, you always have to be thinking about budget. In the case of this particular episode, it also helps to know that it was not a popular episode on the network end. From the stories I've heard over the years, Mark Schwahn was a very savvy man when it came to managing the network and finding ways to do the show his way without running afoul of them. My theory - and this is only a theory - is that he wrote this episode as a relatively cheap bottle-show so that the budget couldn't be used against him to extract creative concessions.

Fortunately, a school shooter standoff can easily lend itself to the sort of limited location tense thrillers that I'm so fond of. I'm also gonna guess Schwahn's next creative decisions were based on two and seasons of knowing his cast's "strike zones" when it came to acting. As a showrunner, you figure out what your cast can and can't do and you write to that. As seriously as the show was going to take this scenario, it demanded that some actors not be taken too far out of their comfort zone. There are four locations, and so you want to place your MVPs where they can get the most out of those story tracks.

Outside the school - For most of the hour, this is where the adult actors are, as all the parents get to show concern and argue with the police that enough isn't being done. This part probably has the most extras - which don't come cheap - but more than likely was knocked out in a single day of location shooting.

The school hallway - This is where Jimmy fires the gun while everyone's at their lockers. After that one scene, there's no need for extras and we only return to this location at the end of the hour, in a confrontation featuring far fewer actors.

The Library - Peyton (Hilarie Burton) is hit by a bullet and in the commotion, ends up hiding alone in the library. Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) actually joins his brother Nathan (James Lafferty) to sneak back into the school and help. He gets to Peyton and this turns into one of those stories where two people trapped and afraid of dying end up confessing their feelings for each other. At this point in the series, Lucas is dating Brooke (Sophia Bush), Peyton's best friend. Brooke/Lucas/Peyton was the show's big love triangle almost from the start.

So the show basically uses this to restart some tensions. That's one reason for isolating these two (two of the bigger leads of the show) in what's basically a B-story. The other reason might be that Burton's efforts at conveying terror are often pitched at soap opera levels, and I'd go 50-50 if Murray was the guy I'd want to bet on when it comes to delivering tension in a hostage scene. Could they have risen to the occasion? Maybe, but Schwahn lobs them easier pitches and plays to the relationship fans at the same time.

The Gym - After evacuating, the students are taken to a nearby gym to await pickup from their parents. This is Brooke's story to carry, and again, it feels like Schwahn made sure one of his better players was the anchor for this. This part gets a little preachy with the message, as Brooke realizes she doesn't know a less popular student who's nonetheless in her grade. That same student also hides when her mom arrives, saying she wanted to see if her mother even would miss her if she was gone. The show feels like it's trying to use this plot as an appeal to reach out to kids who feel unloved or like they don't belong.

I remember this subplot seeming ridiculous to me at the time, and so I was perplexed by my non-reaction on the rewatch. I didn't revisit any of the immediately surrounding episodes, so my best guess is that maybe Brooke's empathetic attitude didn't quite mesh with whatever her current storyarc was. The sheer earnestness of this plot is also likely easier to taken out of context from the show. It's a series often about beautiful people doing horrible things to each other and escaping consequences, so a story about "hey, we should all be nice to the unpopular kids" might mean well, but it's coming from the wrong messenger.

But as I said, if you're not coming to this ep as a hard core viewer, that's gonna blow right past you.

The Tutor Center - When lockdown is called we see Haley lock the door after some kids take shelter. She tells everyone to get down and the camera pans past the six students in there before finally coming to rest on.... Jimmy Edwards. It's an effectively chilling moment, as no one in the room realizes the shy, awkward kid they've known for years is the guy who fired the gun.

The Tutor Center is a perfect setting for this story for a lot of reasons: it's a small, producible set; there's a built-in reason why no adults might be there; it can strand some of our regulars with new characters who MIGHT turn out to be cannon fodder... and it's a very logical place if you want to put Haley at the center of the action.

As I said before, Bethany Joy Lenz (billed in this ep under her then-married name Galeotti) is the clear MVP among the cast. Also, the Haley/Nathan relationship is pretty clearly the show's most popular pairing and Schwahn himself has said, "I think Haley is probably the most beloved character." If you're doing an OTH story with a lot of emotion at its core, Lenz is someone you're gonna want to send in.

It's also pretty obvious that you'll need to put Nathan in there, as James Lafferty tended to do his best work in scenes with Lenz. The characters got married at the end of the first season (yes, while they were both still high school juniors), and it's interesting to note that this episode doesn't hang a lantern on that fact. I don't think there's a single direct reference to the fact they're married. Nathan doesn't say anything like, "My wife's in there!" when he charges into the school. 

I very much suspect this was intentional and that the creators, knowing this episode would get extra attention, decided to downplay one of their more absurd developments. This is the rare episode where these characters ACTUALLY feel like students and not mini-adults or college-aged. They're not running fashion lines or touring as music superstars. They feel like regular kids stuck in a terrifying situation.

That's another case of something working within this one-hour confine, but throwing the whole series off-kilter to do it. The following week, things are business as usual and one story has the teens throwing a late night kegger at the site of the shooting as a way of coping with their feelings. Even Lucas calling that out as inappropriate can't mitigate the sheer insensitivity of the scene.

But damn if the scenes in the Tutor Center don't make it easy to forget all of that for a while. In addition to Haley and Nathan, two other characters in there have close ties to the shooter. Mouth and Skills were his buddies at the River Court until they drifted apart, and the actors do a decent job of conveying their disbelief and horror at what their friend has started. There are also two other characters never seen before on the show who are there to more or less add other pressure on Jimmy.

For crying out loud, even RACHEL - possibly the worst character on the show up to that point - gets in a strong moment or two.

Tomorrow: I dig deeper on the big themes of the episode and if the show's big twist is as much of a miss as it used to be for me.

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