Hilarie Burton Morgan, Sophia Bush and Bethany Joy Lenz talk shop on their podcast Drama Queens for their fans but, also, for themselves.
When iHeartMedia announced in June that actresses Hilarie Burton Morgan, Sophia Bush and Bethany Joy Lenz were working on a podcast called Drama Queens, about their time on the teen show One Tree Hill, CW millennials — 20- and 30-somethings who grew up on a television diet consisting heavily of shows on the CW, a network founded in the early aughts for teenagers and young adults — lit up.
Within days, a preview of the podcast along with its theme song, composed and sung by Lenz, was at the top of Spotify and Apple's charts. It was clear that even though the show premiered two decades ago and ended nearly a decade ago, there was still interest — if not in the show itself, then certainly in the three women who anchored it for many years.
"What I've learned about the fans is that they don't even necessarily care so much about the show anymore," Burton Morgan, 39, said in an interview. "They like the people involved, so whether it is a charity that I do here in Rhinebeck, New York, or it's my book or it's some other side hustle, they support it like it's their favorite thing ever."
The idea for the podcast, which came from Bush, was similar to that of other rewatch podcasts: The three women would view episodes and give a behind-the-scenes look at how they came to be. Each woman admitted to having only seen part of the series more than a decade ago, so it would be the first time they would be watching the show in its entirety. They would also bring co-stars on to talk about their characters and experiences.
For fans, the podcast was a welcome surprise.
In 2017, the women were part of a group of cast and crew members who wrote a letter about the harassment they faced on the set of One Tree Hill at the hands of its showrunner, Mark Schwahn. Schwahn has not publicly responded to the accusations.
The experience of working on One Tree Hill, which the women described as traumatising, signalled to fans that the show would never come back.
While Lenz and Burton Morgan will guest star in an upcoming episode of Good Sam, the new CBS show Bush anchors, the women say they still feel conflicted about a One Tree Hill reboot. A podcast, however, allowed them to revisit the series on their own terms.
"What if just me and the gals sat together to hear some of that conflict to heal some of those past wounds and traumas?" Bush, 39, said of the podcast's inception. "What if the OG girls got together and reclaimed our show, and by doing that together, shifted a power dynamic and took our power back and invited all of our friends and co-stars to come along with us as we do this?"
'I felt bullied'
On Drama Queens the hosts talk openly about the challenges they faced, including the impossible beauty standards they were expected to live up to, being young and mostly inexperienced in show business, being hypersexualised, with limited control of their characters' fates and being pit against one another on and off the set.
"I felt bullied," Lenz said. "I felt like I couldn't trust anybody because the power dynamic on the show was constantly telling me and, from what I understand from Hilarie and Sophia telling them as well, 'Nobody likes you; nobody trusts you.' " Her sentiments were echoed by Bush and Burton Morgan. All three were never fully able to express these feelings when they were on the show, but with age and experience, they're now able to talk about it.
"Having a daughter was a big game-changer for me," Burton Morgan said. "Stuff I was willing to put with, put up with on my own, I was no longer willing to tolerate on account of her."
In some ways, the timing for Drama Queens was ideal. During the pandemic, many people have been looking back at what they loved. Leaning into the past by rewatching shows or having the opportunity to watch them now while listening to podcasts about these series became a common way of coping because of the comfort and familiarity it provided.
In addition to dissecting the podcast on TikTok and Instagram each week, One Tree Hill fans post about each episode on Facebook, Reddit and other online communities that have remained active in the nine years since the show ended.
When people are afraid of the future, they reach into the past for comfort, said Clay Routledge, a professor of business at North Dakota State University, who has been studying human motivation and nostalgia for more than 20 years.
"Nostalgia helps comfort people when they're stressed or anxious or frayed or lonely," he said. "Engaging in these sorts of nostalgic activities is largely beneficial. If it's watching One Tree Hill, maybe it makes you feel good when you watch it. It makes you happy, makes you laugh. It's comforting. It takes you back and helps you connect with old memories."
'We were accessories for the boys'
In 2006, when the WB and UPN networks shut down and the CW emerged, One Tree Hill, along with Gilmore Girls, Supernatural, Girlfriends, Veronica Mars, America's Next Top Model and Everybody Hates Chris were carried over to appeal to a younger audience.
The combination of these shows alongside the creation of The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl and 90210 made the network popular among teenagers and young adults drawn to dramas. Change may again be on the horizon for the CW, as this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that ViacomCBS and WarnerMedia are exploring a sale of the network.
When One Tree Hill premiered on the WB in 2003, it was billed as a show about two half brothers, Lucas and Nathan Scott, played by Chad Michael Murray and James Lafferty, who had the same father and different mothers in a small North Carolina town. The brothers went to the same high school but moved in different social circles. A shared love of basketball and a common dislike for their father brought them together and their friends alongside.
But the most engaging characters, for many viewers, were Peyton (Burton Morgan), Brooke (Bush) and Haley (Lenz) — teenage girls navigating high school in the early 2000s. Their storylines dealt with self-esteem and confidence, drugs, loneliness, grief, teen pregnancy (a New York Times columnist once called out the show for "refusing to lay out the grim consequences of premature motherhood") and complicated familial and romantic relationships. At its peak, One Tree Hill averaged 4.3 million viewers, and not surprisingly, a significant portion was young women.
Bush said the actresses still, despite their popularity, had to fight for their characters' development and growth.
"It isn't lost on us that the boys had fully formed characters with parents and that literally none of the girls on our show had parents," she said. "We were kind of treated like the early 2000s character versions of small dogs and purses. We were accessories for the boys."
One Tree Hill wasn't perfect, and it certainly did not have a diverse cast — issues Burton Morgan, Bush and Lenz contend with on the podcast. At its most absurd, a dog ate a human heart, a stalker pretended to be a character's brother, and a nanny tried to seduce a man before kidnapping that same man's child. And Drama Queens doesn't shy away from the cringe-inducing moments, making it all the more delightful.
"It wasn't heightened Riverdale, " Bush said. "It wasn't about werewolves or vampires. It was just about families. And you saw kids struggling with abandonment, with privilege and with poverty, and when they were introduced to potential sexual intimacy."
Watching Haley, Brooke and Peyton move through the lows and highs of female friendship, of marriage and motherhood, was certainly entertaining but also a source of hope. After every fight, the characters found a way to come back together.
Hearing the actresses themselves talk about navigating adulthood while remaining friends in real life is heartwarming and a touching reminder that behind those characters were people who grew up together in the industry.
"Girls, especially, were really looking for authentic, positive female friendships," Lenz said. "It was the right place at the right time with the right combination of grounded authenticity and positivity and female friendships."
Lenz said that during the show she was part of a "controlling group and that kept her from bonding with castmates as much as she would have liked to. The podcast has given her an opportunity to make up for some of those missed moments and has made her think about what she can teach her own daughter about female friendship.
"I now get to have Take 2 on these female friendships and learn to trust and learn to let my guard down and be vulnerable, and that's only good for my daughter because I'm learning things that I can pass on to her," she said.
Coming together for the podcast has also reminded the actresses of just how much they meant to loyal viewers.
"The memo I got over and over again was how replaceable I was," Burton Morgan said, tearing up. "What has been really humbling is that after getting that message, to have this fan base show up for a podcast 18 years later and tell you that you're not replaceable is really nice."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Tariro Mzezewa
Photographs by: Lila Barth, Luis Mora and Bethany Mollenkof
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