I think it’s fair to say I’ve had pretty much the worst high school experience anyone could ever have.
— Amy (Emily VanCamp), “Where the Heart Is”

For three seasons, Everwood has successfully incorporated both sides of the WB coin — impossibly charismatic young performers and heart-rending and -warming family matters — without careening too far to either end. And I can’t believe more people don’t watch it. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a modest hit for the Frog, now regularly pulling in four to five million viewers. But those numbers feel puny in light of the series’ dependably nuanced mix of the funny, the sad and the true.

If nothing else, I’d expected the series to expand viewership through notoriety, as last summer the Parents Television Council named Everwood the previous season’s worst show for families. But I guess I’m old enough (in TV years) to know better, having watched My So-Called Life sputter through 19 episodes (averaging nearly twice as many viewers, by the way) a decade ago on ABC. Creator Greg Berlanti’s tale of the interconnected Browns and Abbotts isn’t quite the equal of Winnie Holzman’s one-season wonder, but it’s increasingly evocative of another series from MSCL‘s executive producers, the still-missed Once and Again. Both shows repurpose age-old stories (first love, parent-child strife, jealousy, failure) by finding the off-moments in the action, privileging emotion over plot twists and messy contradictions over stereotype. As O&A examined the interior life with microscopic intensity, it chanced falling into the mundane (or as detractors said, the “whiny”). Everwood doesn’t burrow quite as deep; judging plotlines alone, the series seems almost routine. Its charm lies in the details.

These details are just what the PTC ignored in casting aspersions on the show. The group disliked that high school junior Ephram (Gregory Smith) got his coed girlfriend (Sarah Lancaster) pregnant — and Ephram’s father (Treat Williams as Dr. Andy Brown) sent the girl away without letting her inform Ephram of the pregnancy. “Sex without consequences,” the PTC complained. Yet it was anything but. Lingering questions about Madison (Where did she go? Did she have the baby? When would Andy’s deception come back to sting him?) cast a pall over much of this season, giving already compelling stories an extra oomph of melodrama and foreboding. (And of course Ephram didn’t see the error of his sex-having ways when he finally learned the truth in the 18 April episode. Rather, he lashed out at those who had lied to him.)

While it’s disheartening to see any group attack a series as rewarding and thoughtful as Everwood, what should we expect from an organization that regularly praises the spastic, preachy Seventh Heaven? Paired on Mondays for the last three years, the series were TV’s odd couple (Everwood moves to Thursdays next fall). Where Seventh Heaven lines up issues just to knock them down with platitudes and prayer at episode’s end, Everwood‘s citizens don’t see the world in black and white. While the minister’s kids “learn” from brief encounters with homeless people, Ephram and company are repeatedly touched by tragedies.

Indeed, tragedy has been woven into the series since the pilot, when Andy, a world famous neurosurgeon, moved grieving kids Ephram and 10-year-old Delia (Vivien Cardone) from Manhattan to Colorado for a fresh start after their mother’s death. Ephram fell hard for Amy (Emily VanCamp) before he learned what she really wanted: for his dad to work a medical miracle on her boyfriend. With the specter of the comatose, then recovering, now deceased Colin (Mike Erwin) looming over their relationship, Ephram’s affection for Amy blossomed into TV’s grimmest and most delicate thwarted teen romance.

Yet it wasn’t hard to keep the pair apart, because Everwood never forgets that the teens’ romance is just one aspect of their lives. Having spent a year in single-minded support of Colin’s recovery, Amy struggled to rebuild friendships and find new purpose after his death. As her father (Tom Amandes) observed to wife Rose (Merrilyn Gann): “She’s grieving for the life that she wanted and expected. I met you when I was Colin’s age, and now the rest of her life is like a second choice.”

The series’ other teens have problems, too. Amy’s brother Bright (Chris Pratt) was Colin’s best friend, and Hannah’s (Sarah Drew) father is dying of Huntington’s disease. “It’s like tragedy’s the only thing we have in common,” Bright observed. “At least we all found each other.” No such luck for Madison, who was sent off with a check by the doctor she thought she could count on. Hers is also a second-choice life. In “Fate Accomplis,” she tells Ephram:

Sometimes I look at the life that we choose for ourselves when we’re, what — 17? It seems crazy. I mean, how do we know what we want then? What if something terrible happens? Who can predict that? Where’s the Plan B? There are all these people out there that are living the Plan B, just confused, second-guessing.

If the teens’ lives are unusually fraught, they nonetheless remain believably, refreshingly young. Finally coupled last summer, Ephram and Amy had a good stretch of awkward, everyday happiness — a rarity on most adolescent-based series. Again, the show can handle such romantic stasis because, even agog for each other, the characters have other things going on.

The show does, too. As in Gilmore Girls and The O.C., Everwood‘s adults have 3-D lives of their own. One of the series’ chief delights has been the ongoing back and forth between Andy and Harold. Of opposite backgrounds as parents and doctors, they have developed a genuine friendship, largely because Andy wore his prickly colleague down. While Andy has the greater medical gifts, Harold is the shrewder judge of people — an insight he wields for good and ill.

Fearful for his wife’s fate (Rose has cancer) in last week’s finale, Harold first gave God orders (“You fix this,” he prayed, elbows propped on a hospital bathroom’s changing table), then lashed out at Andy for heading back into the OR even though he hadn’t wielded a scalpel in a year. “Everything you set out to do by moving here you’ve failed at,” he told his friend. “You thought this magic little town would save you? Well, it hasn’t. No town could.”

His rant hit home: Andy decided it might be time to move on. Scrambling to dissuade him, Harold marshaled a cavalcade of Andy’s patients from episodes past. Hilariously, these included a cheating husband who forced Andy (doc-patient confidentiality) not to tell his wife he’d given her an STD — hardly a ringing endorsement for the good doctor’s local worth. But another bit of history compelled him to stick around. Having crashed and burned romancing several high-wattage guest stars (Marcia Cross, Anne Heche), Andy finally recognized what he was on the verge of losing with Nina (Stephanie Niznik), his single-mom confidante next door. Poor Nina got the declaration and kiss she’d so long wanted — just as new boyfriend Jake (Scott Wolf) was moving into her home.

Happily, the finale’s other big smooch — between Hannah and Bright — was unhampered by such complications. They met with very different aims last fall — nerdy Hannah fell fast for Amy’s lunkhead older brother (“I’m surprisingly shallow,” she explained), but Bright was busy sleeping with attractive coworkers (until a sexual harassment complaint zipped his pants). Thrown together by their respective connections to Amy and Ephram, they bonded in their own way. Though Hannah has the brains, Bright is prone to flashes of plainspoken, even garbled insight. Here he is screwing up the courage to confess his feelings have changed: “When we first met and you said you liked me, it was really weird, you know, but then we started hanging out and we became friends and — you got hot. And I’m not talking in the take off your glasses kind of way.”

That bit about the glasses is key to the show’s appeal. When Hannah hit town last fall, dwarfed in her big frames and an uncool beret, visions of She’s All That danced in my head. But Everwood doesn’t play that way. Feel-good/feel-bad television at its most stirring, the series’ characters know the tropes of teen entertainment as well as viewers do. Like the rest of us, they can only wish their lives were as simple.