As television critics ponder their post-mortems for the 2003-04 season, much attention will be paid to this year's crop of guilty pleasures. Whether it's the O.C., Simple Life or Average Joe, we all secretly harbor shows we're embarrassed to admit we watch.
So let me be the first to come out of the closet and rave about the WB's One Tree Hill. A melodramatic, deliciously awful teen soap, One Tree Hill follows in the tradition of Dawson's Creek, that other WB teen soap we all loved to hate.
Though lacking the wit and clever scripts of Creek, One Tree is just as much fun in a heavy-carb, high-fat kind of way. The show follows the impossible circumstances of two teenaged boys, Lucas (played by the frizzy-haired, scruffy-faced Chad Michael Murray) and Nathan (the drop-dead gorgeous newcomer James Lafferty).
Fathered by the same diabolically evil prick, Dan (Paul Johansson), Lucas was abandoned as an infant and forced into a life of near poverty with his single mom (Moira Kelly), owner of the local hipster coffee shop. Nathan, meanwhile, has led a life of privilege and opportunity, maturing into the high school basketball star and honey to teen blondey, Peyton (Hilarie Burton).
Fates collide (as they so often do in WB dramas), and Lucas and Nathan eventually end on the same hoops team, vying for the top slot as b-ball wunderkind, and for the affections of the prized Peyton, a moody, brooding gal, who freelances as a provocative, if not pretentious, cartoonist.
One Tree Hill suffered from a rocky start, devoting far too much time to the back story: how the brothers ended up apart and the inner emotional lives of the series' adult characters. The writers also dawdled on setting up Dan, One Tree's resident Bad Guy. Impossibly hateful in his rejection of Lucas and absurdly cruel to his favored son Nathan, it's a wonder no one ever took this creep out. Why his charming wife stayed by his side is a mystery.
Mercifully, after the first few episodes, the script doctors came to the rescue, and sent the show hurling back into the dramatic canyons of high school. Lucas and Nathan, once archenemies, enter into a truce of sorts, a kind of adolescent Camp David. Thusly, the cast's female characters figure themselves out too. Lucas's best friend since childhood, Haley, ends up falling for Nathan. And Peyton, Nathan's ex, goes for Lucas.
But, come now, things are never that easy. Enter Brooke (Sophia Bush), Peyton's bad-ass best friend, who ends up going after Lucas as well. Cue the heartfelt John Mayer song. This is beginning to get good.
Credit is due to the WB execs who championed this show and saved it from an early death when anemic ratings threatened its survival. In a TV season when promising shows were yanked entirely too early (Fox's Skin and Wonderfalls), One Tree was renewed rather early. Then viewers had the luxury to stick with it and watch it develop. We were richly rewarded.
At times, One Tree Hill can be too earnest and sensitive for its own good. Can you really handle a plotline about a high school dad who sings guitar lullabies to his infant daughter? Or the subplot about Whitey, the aging basketball coach/gadfly, who spreads his wisdom around like a Zen master?
But just before you reach for the remote, One Tree throws us the red meat: a locker room shower scene with bare-chested hotties, a drunken slut plying her wares at a boozy beer party, or the misty-eyed, hunky Nathan breaking down to say he loves the unpopular girl.
Sometimes I think it's utterly ridiculous when critics bemoan the collective creative output of the TV biz today. Not that I haven't written my share of Cassandra columns. But face it: sometimes TV's just meant to be distracting. If it comes down to One Tree Hill or the laundry, I'll happily go naked.