Once an afterthought to its own network, The CW series is taking chances -- and breaking out as a surprise hit

By Jennifer Armstrong
November 10, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST
  • TV Show

The setting: 1940s North Carolina. A young woman comes upon a horrible scene on a rusty, moonlit bridge where a black-hatted, mustached villain is directing his henchman to dangle a boyish reporter — cement shoes and all — over the grimy stream below. ”He killed Lucas’ Uncle Keith!” the bruised reporter cries as the lady emerges from behind an antique Lincoln, wearing a prim white blouse and navy pencil skirt. ”I said I was onto something and I was right! He murdered him!”

”Is it true?” the woman asks the dastardly villain. He tells her to wait in the car, then backhands the dame across the face for good measure.

Sitting behind the camera is One Tree Hill‘s Chad Michael Murray, who grins as he watches his onscreen lady love, Peyton (Hilarie Burton), get smacked around by his always-estranged-from-everyone TV dad, Dan Scott (Paul Johansson). After all, it’s not just any TV show that would dare attempt a Casablanca-inspired episode in which the characters are dropped into a 1940s-era caper (that, of course, is all a dream). But then again, One Tree Hill is definitely not just any TV show. Murder, prom-night hostage crises, a psycho nanny bent on kidnapping and torture: They’re all part of the ”Why not?” attitude that pervades The CW’s unlikely survivor, now in its sixth season. After years of living in the shadows of glossier — and, in most cases, far less guilty — WB/CW pleasures, One Tree Hill has developed such a rabid fan base that it’s earned the right to do whatever it damn well pleases. ”It’s a blessing not to be under the microscope,” says Murray. ”We’d never be able to make this episode if we weren’t under the radar.”

That what-the-hell approach has served the show well. One Tree Hill has outlived its zeitgeistier contemporaries, survived a network merger, and defied cranky critics by mixing just the right amount of crazy sauce (did we mention the nanny also chased a kid through a cornfield?) into its patented comfort-food, familiar formula. The most shocking twist of all? Its ratings have actually grown over the last two seasons at a time when most series’ audiences are shrinking; it’s up more than 20 percent over last year, averaging 3.6 million viewers this season on Mondays at 9 p.m., and beating its super-buzzy lead-in, Gossip Girl.

NEXT PAGE: ”I used to bristle at the fact that we didn’t get attention, but it’s honestly a big part of what saved us.”

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