THE WB, 9-10 PM STARTS SEPT. 21
Let's say that you're Chad Michael Murray, a WB stock player who's sent hearts aflutter with pensive, eyebrow-crinkling turns on Dawson's Creek and Gilmore Girls. It's the third week of September 2003. You've finally graduated to leading-man status with the role of high school basketball star Lucas Scott on the network's new drama One Tree Hill -- a role you took in lieu of playing Ryan Atwood over at Fox's same-season teen gamble The O.C. You've made no secret of the fact that you want a career just like critically beloved antihero Sean Penn's -- and you're willing to star in films opposite, oh, Hilary Duff (in the execrable A Cinderella Story) and Paris Hilton (in an upcoming remake of House of Wax) to get there. By the way, you've just seen the ratings for Hill's premiere episode.
Your show debuted at No. 95. Only 2.5 million people tuned in.
And as far as that all-important 18-34 viewer demographic your network so covets?
You were beaten by a sitcom called The Mullets.
Nearly a year later, Murray kicks back -- three large, needy dogs in tow -- inside a cramped trailer on Hill's Wilmington, N.C., set. He's sneaking a Marlboro Light while fiancée and costar Sophia Bush, who plays gold-hearted slut Brooke Davis, relaxes outside. His desk is littered with scripts -- the wannabe screenwriter says he's working on six -- and the air smells like dog food. He's gently reminded that he could have had Benjamin McKenzie's life.
Laughter ensues. ''Look, um, here's the thing: I'm not going to start any bad blood,'' says the 23-year-old Murray with a smile. ''Let's just say that I'm happy to be here. I was given a choice and I made it. And I have no regrets.''
As well he shouldn't. While The O.C. tops Hill in the ratings -- and grabs a larger share of hype -- it's structured like a classic ensemble series. Murray, however, has quietly emerged as Hill's confident, capable lead. The show, which tells the far-fetched story of two basketball teammates, Lucas (Murray) and Nathan Scott (James Lafferty), who discover that they share the same father, shone in an otherwise dim year for The WB. By the time its season finale aired last May (and The Mullets was just a footnote on Loni Anderson's résumé), Hill nabbed 4.5 million viewers and it won its time slot among teens.
With the cast regrouping in the sticky Wilmington heat, there's a rising sense that the show could be at the cusp of a breakout season. ''Nobody wants to phone it in,'' says Bethany Joy Lenz, who plays Haley, Lucas' best friend (and Nathan's new wife). ''But it's the writers in L.A. who have the most pressure because they have to keep coming up with good ideas. We just get to stay out here in North Carolina and play dress-up!''
The way series creator Mark Schwahn originally envisioned Hill was less dress-up and more dribbling. Stranded on the Vancouver set of director (and producing partner) Brian Robbins' test-takers-gone-wild thriller The Perfect Score, Schwahn shared his pitch for a basketball movie called Ravens. Robbins expressed interest, but movie studios didn't. The duo revised the concept for TV and approached Fox, NBC, and ABC before shooting a slam dunk at The WB, where even the slowest-starting dramas are often allowed to grow. (Except for, like, Tarzan.) ''We didn't have a doctor, lawyer, or cop hook,'' says Schwahn, ''but I knew that we would still get a chance to find an audience.''