Sophia Bush, Chad Michael Murray, Hilarie Burton and James Lafferty, <EM>One Tree Hill</EM> Sophia Bush, Chad Michael Murray, Hilarie Burton and James Lafferty, One Tree Hill

Named after a U2 song and just as rockin', One Tree Hill has defied the critics, survived the UPN-WB merger and — with a post-high-school jump four years into the future this season — redefined its teen-soap image. Now, as the gang heads out of their fifth season (tonight at 9 pm/ET, the CW) amid a storm of adult angst ranging from Brooke's adoption heartbreak to Haley's music-career breakthrough, it's clear that OTH is one hot spot still worth visiting. Here's why.

1. It's the little show that could.
OTH has always been under the ratings radar. But thanks to its Web-savvy fans, including the 300,000-plus members of Facebook's "Addicted to One Tree Hill" site, the show makes up for its lack of Nielsen numbers with an online visibility other nets would give their repo'd bionic women for. "Viewers save [this] show…all the critics in the world can't save a show that nobody is watching," exec producer Mark Schwahn says.

2. It's softer than your average soap.
Sudsy without being splashy, and unabashedly emotional (nobody cries better than Hilarie Burton), OTH's distinctive pace moseys along, unlike that of The O.C. "What's funny is networks never want [you] to slow down," Schwahn says. "It's not a sexy concept." Maybe not, but knowing — and respecting — your audience is.

3. The kids are all right…as grown-ups.
"Being twentysomething is a great, messy time in life," says Schwahn of fast-forwarding past the gang's college years. Not only did this spare us the 90210-ish forced inanity of the gang attending the same school, but it also put the cast closer to their own ages, turning OTH into "more of a universal show, rather than a teen drama."

4. History actually matters.
The time warp also gave diehards a payoff by fulfilling the characters' teen dreams. Emo babe Peyton (Burton) now runs an indie label, "Tutor Girl" Haley (Bethany Joy Galeotti) is Tree Hill High's hottest teacher, and fashionista Brooke (Sophia Bush) has her Clothes Over Bros line. "If you change [too much], you might as well create a new show," explains Schwahn. Plus, if Lucas didn't publish after all of Chad Michael Murray's lit-inspired voice-overs, Burton wouldn't have been the only one crying.

5. Love is always in the air.
Whether you're Team Nathan/Haley (James Lafferty, Galeotti) or just falling for misfits Mouth and Millicent (Lee Norris, Lisa Goldstein), OTH is all about couples you can adore. Even potentially doomed ones. "Lucas and Peyton have a very classic, romantic architecture," Schwahn says. "That doesn't mean it will work out." What it does mean is we can expect their on-again, off-again romance to go on (and off) well into next season.

Use our Online Video Guide to watch clips and full episodes of One Tree Hill.

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