‘One Tree Hill’ pilot review: Why does it take 42 minutes for a kid to join a basketball team?

In the past, I’ve done two daily blogging projects that involved reviewing television pilots. First there was “30 Pilots in 30 Days” in August 2017, and then “100 Pilots in 100 Days” which ran from January 1st to April 10, 2020. Outside of these projects, I’ve never reviewed any of the television pilots I’ve come across in my normal day-to-day television consumption.

Until now.

Because I have seen a television pilot that DEMANDS the ButcherThoughts treatment, right here and right now. I can’t wait until I put together a methodical list of pilots to review every day over a predetermined amount of time. No, I just need to talk.

I need to talk about the pilot for One Tree Hill. So here we go.

When it was originally on: 2003-2012

Original network: The WB (became the CW in 2006)

Where you can stream it now: Hulu

Had I seen it before: No.

What IMDb says: Half-brothers Lucas and Nathan Scott trade between kinship and rivalry both on the basketball court and in the hearts of their friends in the small, but not so quiet town of Tree Hill, North Carolina.

Why I picked it: My friend Jess was adamant I see it. Not because she likes it, but because she was confident that my distaste for it would be entertaining.

What I liked: There’s a pretty lake in this town. That’s nice.

What I didn’t like: The drama here feels incredibly artificial. It’s so clear that characters are not making the choices based on logical or emotional motivations, but are instead making choices based on what will drive the plot line forward. I still can’t understand why Lucas would suddenly decide to play basketball for his school team when he was completely content to play in the park with his friends. I can’t understand why the friends he plays with in the park insist on NOT playing in the park because they’re supposedly holding Lucas back. I still can’t understand why Lucas’s father simultaneously is scared to let Lucas play as it will threaten his other son’s status on the team, but also insist that said other son is super good and would just embarrass Lucas anyway. I don’t understand why Nathan and Alternative Cheerleader Girlfriend are together.

Also, even if all these questions were answered, it doesn’t negate the fact that this pilot takes 42 minutes for a kid to join a basketball team. That’s one of the major reasons this pilot doesn’t work. It’s trying to force drama around a relatively undramatic event. Why spend 42 minutes weighing the pros and cons of joining a basketball team when you COULD be exploring things like why Lucas’s mother chose to stay in this tiny town, what kind of relationship these half-brothers had beforehand, etc. There’s so many missed opportunities for character development and building tension because we’re hung up on whether or not Lucas is going to join a basketball team.

A kid deciding to join the school basketball team does not NEED to take 42 minutes, especially when we know on some level that Lucas not joining isn’t a realistic possibility. The things that are supposed to raise the stakes of this decision just… don’t. MAYBE there’s potential that Lucas’s mom will have to interact with Lucas’s estranged father more often… but then his mom also insists this shouldn’t be a problem and she doesn’t want to be the reason Lucas doesn’t play. Maybe Lucas is forced to interact with his estranged father and half brother? Maybe there’s some increased sexual tension between Lucas and Nathan’s Alternative Cheerleader Girlfriend? Which ya know, might cause some drama I could get invested in if I actually thought Nathan and Alternative Cheerleader Girlfriend made sense as a couple and weren’t bound to break up soon anyway.

A lot of tv pilots are all about creating a sort of new world order. We learn what business-as-usual looks like, and then circumstances force that world order to change. One of the issues I have with One Tree Hill is that we sort of get a new world order… but is it THAT different from the old one? Let’s go through that list of things again. Sure, Lucas and his mother might have to interact with Lucas’s estranged father and his other family, but also they’ve lived in the same North Carolina small town with them this whole time. Lucas and Nathan have been going to school together since they were young children. At one point, they also played basketball together. The pilot keeps wanting to say “OMG!! EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT NOW” but I keep coming back to “no, a kid just joined a basketball team. Everything else is the same.”

Imagine a version of this where Lucas’s mother had moved him out of Tree Hill, and then in the pilot they move back home. Lucas has spent most of his life blissfully unaware of who his father is or his father’s other family. He’s just been playing basketball and wants to play at his new school. He’s talented enough that making the team is a foregone conclusion, and instead the pilot is about these two brothers learning how to be teammates, and Lucas coming to terms with what a crappy dude his father is. We can have way more drama between Lucas’s parents this way. We don’t have to wonder “okay but it’s been 16 years hasn’t everyone adjusted to this status quo by now?”

I would’ve loved to have seen Lucas join the team much earlier in the pilot, and then we could actually start seeing the emotional fallout of that. Nathan in particular has a ton of potential to be a super interesting character. He isn’t one at this point, but he has potential! What’s going to happen when Nathan actually starts getting to know Lucas and realizes that his father is a piece of shit? What’s going to happen when he has to put family drama aside so that he can effectively play basketball with his brother? That tension between allegiance to his shitbag father and his not-shitbag brother could be THE central conflict of a decent television series, but it’s barely a conflict at all here. The pilot is too busy dwelling on Lucas and whether or not he’ll join the basketball team to give Nathan any kind of meaningful conflict.

On a related note, that fixation on whether or not Lucas will join a basketball team means that the pilot ISN’T really developing any of the sort of unresolvable conflicts that make for great television. The story is built around a question that is ultimately answered, without laying enough groundwork for other questions to be explored in future episodes. And again, did any of us REALLY think that Lucas wouldn’t join the basketball team?

Do I want to watch Ep. 2: I’d be willing to give this a few more episodes before I completely give up on it. There IS potential for good drama here, even if the pilot didn’t use any of it.

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