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Throwback Thursday - One Tree Hill - Pilot

1 Jul 2021

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Throwback Thursday is a weekly article in which we look back at our favorite TV episodes from the past.

Remember, remember, it was the 23rd of September, 2003 and One Tree Hill aired on what was, at the time, the WB for the first time. That's almost twenty years ago! To celebrate the newly released podcast Drama Queens hosted by OTH stars Sophia Bush, Bethany Joy Lenz and Hilarie Burton Morgan and chronicling their time on the series, let's take a look back at the show's pilot and how it had all the necessary ingredients to make a successful show.

Set the fictitious town of Tree Hill, North Carolina, One Tree Hill was a teen drama in all that it entails. It featured 20 year-olds playing teenagers, moody teen characters, family feuds, and all that good stuff. It is first and foremost the story of Lucas Scott (Chad Michael Murray), a regular kid who has been living in the shadows of his family history. Indeed, Lucas is the son of Dan Scott (Paul Johansson) and half-brother to high school jock Nathan Scott (James Lafferty). But here is the thing, these three are not a family. Dan abandoned Lucas's mother Karen (Moira Kelly) when she was pregnant, and never considered Lucas his son. Then he went off to have another kid, Nathan, and decided to groom him to his own image. As a result, Lucas has always been an afterthought, the black sheep no one wants to engage with. Until this story starts.

At its core, One Tree Hill was a story of love and family told through the lens of basketball. It's on the basketball court that the drama unfolds, it's on the court that the story starts. The pilot opens on two games, one at Tree Hill High and one by the riverfront. We see two Scotts showing off their talent on the court, and we meet our hero and his nemesis. When Keith Scott (Craig Sheffer) convinces the Ravens' coach that his nephew Lucas would be a great addition to the team, all hell breaks loose. Lucas is catapulted into a world that belonged to his no good father and Nathan, and he is not welcomed there. But the thing is that Lucas is talented, and he is entitled to purse his dreams just as much as Nathan is, no matter what Dan Scott or anybody else thinks. After making sure joining the team isn't going to cause to much trouble to his mother, Lucas then decides to take up Coach Durham (Barry Corbin) on his offer.

But wait, it's not all that simple! Remember, this a teen drama so there's a lot more to it. For instance, there's Peyton (Hilarie Burton) who almost runs Lucas over and gives him a reason to notice her. Despite the fact that she is Nathan's girlfriend, Lucas is intrigued by Peyton, and in retrospect a lot of what happens in this pilot foreshadows later seasons of the show, when Lucas will make it clear that Peyton is the one for him. Take the last scene of the pilot, when Lucas turns to Peyton after winning the game against Nathan: that's very similar to the famous "It's you, Peyton" scene in season 4 when the Ravens win the State Championship. In fact, that Season 4 scene used images from the pilot to hammer in that point. 

But if Lucas and Peyton are meant to be from the pilot on, some character arcs are only hinted at in this first episode, and that's what makes the viewer want come back for more. Nathan is a prime example of that, as most of his scenes in this pilot make him come across as an absolute jerk. Yet, there is something else about Nathan that is easy to pick up on: everything he does, he does for his father, and as his father commands. So behind his nasty attitude, there is a kid who doesn't get to be himself, and who is living somebody else's life. It is clear from his interactions with his father in this episode that there is more to Nathan than meets the eye, and that this character is bound to experience tremendous change.

The structure of this pilot is solid. We have a clear bad guy, a multi-layered conflict, and characters who are all introduced in a way that makes the audience want to know more. What is up with this Dan Scott guy, why does he only refer to Lucas as "this kid"? What's the deal between Karen and Keith? What's Peyton's problem? How come Haley (Bethany Joy Lenz) is the only one who comes across as really nice? Who taught Lucas to be a book nerd? And so on.

Remember that One Tree Hill came out after the likes of Dawson's Creek and The OC, and that it had to rival with the huge popularity of these shows. With this pilot, it showed that it was going for a small-town angle, for a story about family, friendship, love and betrayal. It was anchoring itself in a world made of basketball and music, and it promised, from the very beginning, that we weren't in for a smooth ride. The drama was on.