When an established television series loses two popular (and central) original cast members, there's bound to be some nervousness about moving forward with new blood. That said, any nervousness about the new season of the CW's "One Tree Hill," which returned a few weeks ago without departed stars Chad Michael Murray and Hilarie Burton, was quickly quelled after the first two episodes delivered solid ratings and, subsequently, a full season order from the CW. Jim Halterman talked with "OTH" series creator and executive producer Mark Schwahn about how time jumping brought longevity, how's it good to be bad and writing shirtless scenes for the sexy group of men on the show.
Jim Halterman: Congratulations on the full-season pickup. Did you expect it so early?
Mark Schwahn: Thank you. I guess it was a surprise to get it that early but it wasn't a surprise. We always plan on getting a full season and I thought we would this year too even with all the changes. I just felt like creatively we were all in such a good place. Obviously, the audience has only seen two episodes but our studio and our network had seen five or six episodes and I thought there was a real sense of enthusiasm from the powers that be. That being said, I think it's probably the earliest we've ever heard about a full season and, being in Wilmington, NC, it was really nice to be able to give that gift to the crew and cast. Everyone is really excited about it especially in this economy and in Wilmington where there's not a ton of films and television production right now so for the crew to have that gift well in advance of the holidays is really smart business on behalf of the network and studio.
JH: The four-year jump was definitely not something done on most shows. Was there a level of trepidation about whether the fans would follow?
MS: Obviously, you do something that the studio and network has no architecture for there is fear because it's unknowable and there aren't a lot of things they run into on a day-to-day basis that they haven't done before. I can turn to Peter Roth, who has such a great career running a studio, and ask him what he did on the first "90210" or what did you do in this situation and almost 100 times out of 100 times he'll tell me, "I'll tell you, we did this or we did that." But nobody had ever jumped a show like this so there was trepidation. I like to think arrogance can bite you in the ass and it usually does and I approached it with an open mind. I said my instincts are telling me this is the way to go but I can't tell you if it will work. If my fan base is more interested in these high school or college stories or if they've matured to the point where if we lose some of our younger fans we'll gain some older fans because the show is now relevant to them in a way that it never was. You look at a show like "Grey's Anatomy" and you see the fan base for it and I thought if we get a trickle of fans from that show that now feel that this show is telling stories about people in their 20s as opposed to high school a few fans will help whoever we drop along the way.
JH: Taking nothing away from Chad Michael Murray and Hilarie Burton, has it been a blessing in disguise creatively this season?
MS: I would say yes and I would also say taking nothing of the success that we had with Chad, Hilarie and the original cast because we'll always be indebted to them and that version of the show but, sure, creatively the writers are like painters and you're basically giving them a new canvas and now you can work with different colors and do some different things that you like to do. Having the space to introduce new characters and having the story time to invest in their characters arcs, you have to clear some room somewhere to do that and I know there are people who watch the show for Lucas and Peyton and I was accused of loving that couple as much or more as anybody to a fault but I would say when you're at episode 140 like we are and you're looking for some adrenaline in your storytelling, to be able to say, "Here are some new characters, who are they, where are they going and how are they going to inhabit this world and be involved with the core characters," it does sort of invigorate you a way in your storytelling.
JH: Lucas (Murray's character) was always such the moral center of the show but does someone kind of step into that role now that he's gone?
MS: That's such a good question. I think sometimes the moral center can bite you in the ass. I think that sometimes when you position a character to be the moral center it's hard for that character to make mistakes because the audience will hold those mistakes against the moral center so much more than they will to the other characters so that character becomes a little safe and a little vanilla. So I don't know if we looked at it that was as much. I think that this show has been accused of being very earnest and very heartfelt and that's okay. I think the journeys of all the characters have been about right and wrong, good and bad and our characters usually end up on the positive side of that. I think it's easier for your characters to make mistakes and be more human and more fallible and you don't position them as being the moral center. I don't know too many people who go through life and declare themselves the moral center of their friends and family and that's a really good question and nobody has asked me that before but I don't think we tried to replace that color of the world and say 'Who is going to be the moral center?'
JH: The opposite of the moral center would be Dan (Paul Johansson), who fans always love to hate.
MS: Paul used to call me when he was reading the scripts and ask, "When are we going to redeem him?" and I'd say "Just be patient." Then he said that he met Larry Hagman (a.k.a. J.R. Ewing from "Dallas"] at an event and told him he was playing Dan Scott and he was the villain and this character that pushed everyone's buttons and Larry Hagman said to him it really is the best character to play. I remember Paul telling me that story and I said that's because you met a guy who knows that the villain will always be relevant and always have something active to do. For an actor to be active and to be able to make mistakes and still be relevant in everyone's world... I used to have that conversation with Sophia [Bush, who plays Brooke] when she was playing high school Brooke and the fact that the audience will still be compelled to watch you and even if it's hate, they'll feel something for you week in and week out. Paul embraced that and he wasn't afraid to be hated.
JH: Of the new actors this year, Robert Buckley is already turning heads along with the many other good-looking guys on the show. Have you been thinking of how can you keep these guys shirts off?
MS: [Laughs.] I looked at the first few episodes this year and I think there was more skin on the show than there had ever been but most of it was guys. There was the "From Here To Eternity" shot of Julian (played by Austin Nichols) and Brooke. It wasn't a conscious effort but they are good looking guys and we have a female fan base. For Austin, I started writing shirtless scenes for him because I thought he was sexy as hell. We talked about Rob and we talked about James [Lafferty] but Austin is in great shape, too. I tease those guys "Don't fight it because you'll be happier when you're old like me and you have a nice, recorded history of how sexy you were at some point in your life." It's funny because we added so many female characters this year and we have such a female driven demo but the guys we do have are certainly good looking and, as I tell them, it will never be the point. It will never be the scene about you being shirtless but once in awhile it's not a terrible thing to have a sexy show on TV, that's for sure.
JH: The new character Alex seems like she's going to be the kind of hot mess who will mix things up but does her character get fleshed out more along the way?
MS: Jana Kramer is so good. The great thing about her when you watch her perform is the playful choices that she's making as an actor. Again, you have to be brave to do that. Actors really want to be protected and sometimes they make the safe choices because they know those choices are comfortable and they'll be good at it. Jana came in and was frankly playing a bitchy dumb girl and I had long conversations with her about how bitchy and how dumb. I'd tell her, "Don't be afraid of it because if you seem a little dumb but you're likeable then the audience will want to help you and they'll want to protect you. If you seem really bitchy, they won't like you but they'll be compelled by you." We found a balance with that character and she's just killing it. You're going to find that she's going to be a series regular soon because she's been such a good solider and so willing to commit to a role that we think is important and essential to the success of the show this year. So we're going to learn more about Alex like we do all our characters. Usually we introduce them one way and then we peel back their layers.
"One Tree Hill" airs Mondays at 8:00/7:00c on The CW.