Who knows, this might just be the year for teen soap operas. Fox’s “The OC” bowed to encouraging summer numbers, and “One Tree Hill” — an 11th-hour replacement for postponed crime drama “Fearless” — strings together enough cliches that it just might work as a companion to “Gilmore Girls.” Tapping into the WB’s seemingly bottomless reservoir of youthful talent, this series about half-brothers and basketball won’t rival “Smallville’s” ratings, but it should get some sampling by the young and restless before Fox’s baseball-delayed “24” can get into the game.
In some ways, “One Tree Hill” offers the flip side of the WB’s “Popular,” which involved two teenage girls reluctantly thrown together. Here, it’s half-brothers Nathan (James Lafferty) and Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) — the former a spoiled high school star hoopster, the latter the out-of-wedlock son their hissable father (Paul Johansson) wouldn’t acknowledge.
When half the basketball team gets suspended, the gnarled coach (Barry Corbin of “Northern Exposure,” a cross here between Bobby Knight and Mr. Clean) tries to recruit Lucas, leading to the inevitable sibling rivalry, further complicated by a triangle involving Nathan’s girlfriend, Peyton (Hilarie Burton). OK, so call it “Popular” with balls.
As trite as it sounds, the series plays it all earnestly enough for its target audience, and the show is beautifully shot in North Carolina, the basketball mecca where the fictional town is set. Even the sports scenes are well staged (in the pilot, anyway) and less schlocky than “The White Shadow” norm, with Lafferty, at least, looking like he’s actually got game.
On the downside, a few of those strategies out of the WB playbook are starting to wear a bit thin, down to Lucas’ adorable platonic friend (Bethany Joie Lenz), who even alludes to “Dawson’s Creek” and the Dawson-Joey relationship. Then again, when you’re appealing to teen girls, referencing the 1990s is the equivalent of paying homage to “It Happened One Night.”
“One Tree Hill” also borrows the “Gilmore” template of having parents who were teens at the time of conception, the better to cast the likes of Moira Kelly as Lucas’ mom and Craig Sheffer as his uncle. If not exactly Charlie Brown’s parents, the adults clearly take a back seat to the teen angst, though having them around at least provides the series some moving parts with which to play — always a plus in establishing a new sudser.
Whether that’s enough to help “One Tree” take root is anybody’s guess, but with a logical replacement waiting in the wings, the show seemingly has nothing to fear but “Fearless” itself.