I was a self-professed, slightly obsessed One Tree Hill watcher in the early aughts. I devoured new episodes weekly. I bought the DVD box sets for all nine seasons. I ‘shipped Leyton and cheered on Naley. But what I didn’t do as a teenager was pay any mind to the awful parents of the fictional Tree Hill, North Carolina. Sure, Dan Scott was the worst, but at least he was entertaining?

Now, as a mom of two energizer bunnies under 5, I’ve come to realize that one of my favorite guilty pleasures featured some of the most terrible parental guardians on television. These days, I turn on One Tree Hill whenever I feel like I’m failing as a mother, and I immediately feel better about myself. No matter how overstimulated or rundown I am, my mom guilt never even comes close to how the parents of this picturesque coastal town must feel about their personal choices.

Because, you see, they’re never actually physically there for their children. In fact, do they even exist?!

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For those who have never watched One Tree Hill, it follows two half-brothers, Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) and Nathan Scott (James Lafferty), who compete for positions on their high school basketball team while navigating friendships, romances, and, yes, very dysfunctional adults.

Yes. There are some parents who are home to look after and care for their hormonal, horny, mischievous teenagers — namely, Karen Roe (Moira Kelly), Deb Scott (Barbara Alyn Woods), and the aforementioned atrocious father of their sons, Dan Scott (Paul Johansson). Dan’s high school sweetheart, Karen, raised Lucas as a single mother after he left her to marry Deb, his college girlfriend. Deb welcomed their son Nathan just three months after Lucas was born, and the boys become archenemies on and off the basketball court.

Over the course of many seasons, however, Lucas and Nathan bond over common goals and truly become brothers — which is why an average of 2.8 million live viewers tuned in to The CW soap each week. (The series is now available to stream on Hulu.)

Karen, a small business owner, is by far the most idolized parent of the bunch — a present, loving mother fortunate to have Dan’s older brother Keith (Craig Sheffer) look after Lucas as if he were his own son. Keith, a mechanic, is the heart of Tree Hill and a standup guy who sets a strong example for sensitive, intelligent Lucas. On the other end of the spectrum are Dan and Deb, who, however much they love Nathan, are destructive, to say the least. Arrogant jock Nathan ends up changing his ways after falling in love with Lucas’ bookworm best friend Haley and seeks emancipation from Dan and Deb amid a bitter divorce battle. This leads them into further dysfunction: anger and addiction.

One Tree Hill recently celebrated 20 years.

Before we get into the main characters’ family backgrounds, I’d be remiss not to mention the stellar Jake Jagielski (Bryan Greenberg), who does a damn fine job raising his infant daughter Jenny as a single teen father with help from his parents. Another solid, dedicated parent on this show!

Then, there’s the mixed bag of other parental figures.

Moving on, Peyton Sawyer’s (Hilarie Burton Morgan) single father Larry (Thomas Ian Griffith in Season 1 and Kevin Kilner in Season 3) is lovely but pops in and out of his daughter’s life as he’s the captain of a dredging boat. This leaves budding artist and music aficionado Peyton to live on her own in the family home as she works through the deep trauma of her mother Anna’s fatal car accident and the absence of her father. (Her catchphrase is, “People always leave.”)

To make matters even more complicated, Peyton discovers she was actually adopted when her biological mom, Ellie (Sheryl Lee), returns to town to get to know her. Ellie is dying of breast cancer and only gets a short time to bond with Peyton before succumbing to the illness — leaving Peyton heartbroken and alone once again.

Although we never see Larry return after the time jump in Season 5 — a psycho stalker almost kills her in Season 4 and he doesn’t even come home! — we do watch Peyton meet her biological father, musician Mick Wolf (John Doe), in Season 6.

Another adult featured heavily in the series is Coach Brian “Whitey” Durham (Barry Corbin), who is there to offer grandfatherly guidance to basketball players and cheerleaders alike.

On an episode of her One Tree Hill rewatch podcast Drama Queens, Burton Morgan recalls to her co-hosts Lenz and Bush one moment that struck her between Peyton and Coach Whitey in Season 1. The two are standing in the cemetery, Peyton at her mother’s grave and Whitey at his wife’s, when they begin sharing in their grief.

“It shows how unmoored she is,” Burton Morgan says of Peyton. “She doesn’t have a mom, she doesn’t have a dad, she doesn’t have a grandma or a grandpa or anybody. She’s got to go to the high school basketball coach, like this dude she doesn’t even know! It speaks volumes.”

Peyton’s artwork on the show.

Moving on to Haley James (Bethany Joy Lenz), whose parents, Lydia and Jimmy (Bess Armstrong and Huey Lewis), are fun-loving free birds who allow their 16-year-old daughter to marry fellow teenager Nathan after dating him for just a few months. Then, after attending the wedding, they sell their house, hop in an RV, and disappear from their child’s life. They don’t even return home after Haley and Nathan reveal their teen pregnancy news — missing on their high school graduation and the birth of their son, James Lucas Scott. A widowed Lydia does return in Season 7 to tell Haley and her sisters that she has pancreatic cancer and sadly dies shortly after.

Lastly, there’s Brooke Davis (Sophia Bush), who, as a teen, has the “luxury” of living alone in her parents’ mansion and using their credit cards to fund her life. That is until her dad loses his job and she’s tossed out of her home, living with Karen before getting an apartment and then moving in with fellow abandoned-by-her-parents friend, Rachel Gatina (Danneel Ackles). Viewers finally meet Brooke’s horrible mom Victoria (Daphne Zuniga) in Season 5, and quickly realize why she always felt like she had something to prove.

In a touching scene in Season 6, Episode 3, “Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly” — which happens after the time jump in Season 5 — Nathan visits Brooke to check in on her following another argument with her mom over her clothing line, Clothes Over Bros.

“I know your mom has been pulling some stuff with the company, and I guess having dealt with parent insanity, I just wanted to check your head and see how you’re doing,” Nathan tells her. “The thing is, the two of us have been down very similar roads. We were in the same cliques first. We both felt the same pressures, same expectations. Our parents were like children. And we both grew into kind of bad versions of ourselves way too fast. So, I think you know, I get it.”

“They never really gave us a chance, did they? Our parents?” Brooke responds.

“They didn’t know how,” Nathan quips.

Bush spoke more about this scene in a recent episode of Drama Queens, saying it was Lafferty’s idea to add the exchange as he saw a connection between Nathan and Brooke.

“Brooke has had this terrible relationship with her parents, and they haven’t been there for her, and Nathan has had this terrible relationship with Dan, but Deb is finally showing up. In a way, now that he has a mom who’s showing up for him, he’s able to show up for Brooke as the dad he is: as Jamie’s dad,” Bush says. “I felt like he was being my father figure in this scene, and it was so kind. Brooke’s never had that.”

“The kids are now the parents,” she adds.

“One Tree Hill” teens turn to parents after a time jump in the series.

This scene sort of sums it all up: Most of the parents of Tree Hill chose themselves over the well-being of their children, who were left to fend for themselves, pursue their own dreams, and find their own way.

Alas, this is a TV show. I, for example, would never leave my teenage daughters unsupervised during their formative years to drive across country in an RV or take up a position as an oil rigger just to get away. I’d consider it, sure. But no way would I actually do it.

A silver lining here is the lack of parental oversight made the OTH protagonists more present fixtures in their own children’s lives. Nathan and Haley, as well as all their friends, give their all to their son Jamie and, eventually, daughter Lydia. Lucas and Peyton go on to get married and welcome their own daughter, Sawyer, and Brooke fosters a child before having twins with her husband, Julian Baker (Austin Nichols).

Even Dan Scott learns from his past mistakes and does everything in his power to form a close relationship with his grandchildren before he dies. Despite all the bad he’s done (how could anyone forget that the guy killed his brother?!), Nathan and Haley find it in them to forgive.

On his deathbed, Haley tells Dan, “When Lydia asks about her Grandpa Dan, we’ll tell her how much he loved his grandchildren.”

Maybe the teens of Tree Hill were somehow better off without their parents. Or at least that’s what the writers want us to believe.



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