One Tree Hill

[29 September 2003]

By Tracy McLoone

One Trick Hill

One Tree Hill is obviously meant to be a replacement for the WB’s now terminated soap opera Dawson’s Creek. It even references that show, when one character refers to a “Joey loves Dawson scenario.” But there are significant differences. Where Dawson’s was about relationships, especially between boys and girls, One Tree Hill tries to be about masculinity, especially as negotiated through sports.

This may be an attempt by the WB to appeal to a young male as well as a young female audience. But if the melodrama of the pilot is any indication, One Tree Hill will likely be cast as a “girl’s” show (much like Dawson’s), despite its focus on male athletes. This doesn’t mean boys won’t watch it, just that they won’t talk about it.

The story is familiar: a contest between a stoic conformist and a rugged individual, two different flavors of traditional masculinity. The premiere episode opens by cutting between two scenes. In one, high school basketball star Nathan Scott (James Lafferty) plays hoops before cheering crowds. In the other, his half-brother Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) plays two-on-two on a street court, with only a few people watching. This sets up their dynamic. Both are skilled players, each has his own style. Nathan represents establishment and conformity, while Lucas represents rugged individualism.

Their stereotypical differences are apparently underlined by the “dark secret” of their shared father, Dan (Paul Johansson), though really it’s really no secret at all. Everyone in Tree Hill, NC, knows already. Lucas actually stopped playing organized team basketball (he was in the same league as Nathan) because of being teased that he was the “bastard son,” and to spare his mother Karen (Moira Kelly) from having to confront Dan on a regular basis, reminding him of his other “family,” the one he would rather forget.

One Tree Hill is less about the two brothers than about Lucas, the sympathetic “outsider.” He’s intuitive, reads Steinbeck and Shakespeare, and “keeps it real” by having some black friends—one called Skills, the other nameless—whom we only glimpse on the streetside basketball court.

By contrast, Nathan’s world is all white and letter-jacketed. Further, he’s rude to his girlfriend Peyton (Hilarie Burton) and engages in un-sportsmanlike conduct when he elbows Lucas in the face while the two are playing ball. Lucas toughs it out and refuses to call the foul, and so wins the moral upper hand: not only is he sensitive, but he’s also resilient—and a gifted athlete.

This last trait makes him look good to the Tree Hill Varsity coach, Whitey (Barry Corbin), who was also Dan’s high school coach, who sees Lucas playing one day and decides he wants him for the team. At first Lucas refuses, preferring the playground to the high school gym. Dan also doesn’t want Lucas on the team, thinking he’ll somehow hurt Nathan’s chances to be a star as well as tarnishing his image as a family man.

After a midnight basketball shootout between Lucas and Nathan, Lucas has a change of heart and decides to be on the team after all, setting up the competition for future episodes. Lucas and his version of masculinity are victorious, with the individualist winning out over the conformist. But that’s just one battle, and the war isn’t over yet.

Another battle being set up by the show is over who is hotter, Lafferty or Murray. Since our sympathies are with Murray’s character, and if the WB website message boards are to be believed, Murray is winning by far. Murray, whose career was spawned on the WB (with small roles on The Gilmore Girls and Dawson’s, and his own failed series last fall, The Lone Ranger), here plays the surly lad from the “wrong side of the tracks,” even if that “wrong side” comes with a charming home and a loving mother, Karen. This is the WB’s version of a rough life.

Lucas is devoted to Karen, who raised him alone after being abandoned by Dan, a smarmy car salesman to boot. A former high school basketball star himself, he puts tremendous pressure on Nathan, his “legitimate” son, to succeed, and says he wishes Lucas were never born. Dan’s brand of masculinity is conventional to the point of aggravation: he’s the provider and the ruler of his household. Again, all of this setup is old (recalling other small-town melodramas like Peyton Place), even as it’s appealing to young viewers; perhaps the target audience won’t recognize the source materials.

It’s no coincidence then that Lucas and Nathan compete not only on the court but also for Peyton, a cheerleader with blonde curls (and who, like many high school students on the WB, looks older than a high school student). Perpetually cranky Peyton tears around town in a vintage car, listening to loud rock, and wearing a Ramones T-shirt, none of which fits with a typical cheerleader image. At one point Lucas asks her why she’s a cheerleader, noting that she’s “the least cheery person I know.” She responds, “You don’t know me.”

In fact, she’s right. The girl is a walking contradiction. Peyton embodies aspects of the good girl (cheerleader) and bad girl (rocker), clumsily incarnating the split between the half-brothers, serving as the prize to be won by the coolest one. Nathan is certainly the coolest guy in his school, but Lucas is the coolest guy on One Tree Hill. Ultimately, One Tree Hill is not as concerned with Peyton herself as it is with her relationships to the boys.

As on Fox’s other new soap opera focused on young white males, The O.C., this series promises many fistfights. But the important battles will concern basketball and girls. The focus of One Tree Hill promises to be on relationships rather than on keeping score or the thrill of a game. This will make it popular among teenage girls, but whether the boys will follow—even with the fistfights—is less certain.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/one-tree-hill/