By Sandra Gonzalez
January 11, 2012 at 12:00 PM EST
Fred Norris/The CW
  • TV Show

Early on in One Tree Hill‘s eventual nine-year run, Mark Schwahn remembers clearly how one critic described the show: “painfully earnest.” Personally, he’s always preferred “heartfelt.”

And while not too much about the show’s heart-tugging tendencies will change in the show’s final season, which kicks off tonight, he didn’t take the opportunity to go out on bold terms lightly. “I felt like we had to worry less about our safety net so we could take more risks on the high wire,” says Schwahn. “We didn’t want to do a season of just looking back and self-congratulatory in a way. So I wanted the season to be challenging.” And fans will get a chance to see what challenges await the characters in the first minutes of tonight’s premiere.

The scenes shown in the opening come from various points during the upcoming season, and were made possible by Tree Hill‘s somewhat odd scheduling situation. For the first time in nine years, they had shot the entire season before their premiere. Schwahn didn’t want to waste the chance to do something different. “So we planted these seeds, but you don’t know what context you’re going to be seeing them and you don’t know when they’re going to happen,” he says. “So stay tuned, because all of these moments are coming and they’re all going to impact the character’s stories.”

For one, we know the first episode will mark returns from at least two big characters — Chris Keller (Tyler Hilton) and Dan Scott (Paul Johansson), “one of the best villains on television,” says Schwahn. And the ep “sets the stage for this confrontation we’re going to see,” he adds. “[Overall] the tone is a little darker this season, I think, but in a really wonderful way.” Wonderful, maybe, but definitely a little more dangerous, too.

“There [are] a little more guy genes that invaded the season this year,” he says. “I think part of that was having Tyler Hilton back this season. Chris Keller can be a really great straw to stir the drink, especially for Nathan. Chris Keller can always be a bit contentious because he always had his sights on [Nathan’s wife] Haley. And it’s a been a while since we had characters who stirred the pot.” He admits that the show had, over the past few season, “gotten kind of comfortable with the couples and with the romance of the show,” but they weren’t afraid to whip out the big guns in their final year — literally. “What’s weird about this season is that there are handguns and shotguns involved. I directed a lot of those episode and [James Laffrety] and I would look at each other and just say, ‘What are we doing?! What is happening right now?!’ But in a good way,” he says.

The evolution was natural, though. After 187 episodes of television and a faux series finale last year that gave “closure,” Schwahn says he was more than glad to have an action-packed season that highlighted what the show has grown to be. “It’s less about brothers playing basketball and more about an ensemble now,” he says. “When Gilmore Girls was our lead in early on and we had such a female based demo, I think we started playing less basketball. But that happened a long time ago. We told stories that were slightly romantic and more sexy [and] heartfelt. I think that continued. But the face of the show does evolve and change with an ensemble cast and with what we had in front of you.”

But what’s in front of him now? Well, Schwahn is in early development stages of a show for The CW that revolves around the staff at guests at an inn in Maine. “I’m really excited about it. I’m just going to script now, so there’s no guarantees of a pilot or pick up. But I feel very excited about it, and I think [the network is] as well,” he says. “So my plans are to be back on the network next year in the fall — unless I drop the ball.”

Follow @EWSandraG

Read more:

‘One Tree Hill’ returns for final season on Jan. 11

Hurricane Irene shuts down ‘One Tree Hill’ production

Chad Michael Murray returning to ‘One Tree Hill’

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