Though "One Tree Hill" ended its last season seven months ago, it might seem like four years.
The reason? The show is flashing that far forward as it returns.
Characters have moved on as the drama's fifth round opens with a two-hour premiere Tuesday, Jan. 8, on The CW. Now parents, Nathan and Haley (James Lafferty, Bethany Joy Galeotti) face fresh domestic strife; Peyton (Hilarie Burton) is disenchanted with her music-business internship; Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) is an author with writer's block; fashion-world success Brooke (Sophia Bush) longs for her friends and hometown; and Mouth (Lee Norris) struggles to finds his niche in broadcasting.
"It's basically doing a brand-new show with characters we already have a great deal of affection for," says Burton, who adds that the new twist "revamped everybody's energy."
Such a boost counts to a cast and crew isolated from Hollywood by working in North Carolina. "It's great to be able to explore with new depth," actress-singer Galeotti says. "There's an undeveloped maturity you can only hit to a certain point when you're playing someone in high school, so being able to play the adult levels of people who have lived through something really means a lot."
A big benefit of the "One Tree Hill" time warp: The actors now play closer to their real ages.
"I feel extraordinarily flattered to have been able to play a 17-year-old for as long as I did," Burton reflects. "That is the ultimate compliment to an actor, and I'll take it - but at the same time, it was a huge eye-opener when we did that Honey Grove episode (on location in Texas last season) and we were shooting with actual teenagers. The kids were talking about prom for real, and I looked so old! This jump was well worth it."
The quantum leap also lets Galeotti appear convincingly as the mother of a toddler, played by cast newcomer Jackson Brundage. While she and her husband (musician Michael Galeotti) aren't parents, she maintains she has "a real maternal instinct. I've always been drawn to kids, and I've been able to watch a couple of my girlfriends who have children that age. Little things that wouldn't have occurred to me, I get to tap into, hold onto and use in my performance. And Jackson is so great, it's a really fun dynamic."
Galeotti and Burton both praise series creator-producer Mark Schwahn's decision to advance the "One Tree Hill" timeline, as weekday repeats of earlier stories continue on SoapNet.
"What Mark did that was so generous," Burton says, "was that he killed himself before the writers strike to not only get enough scripts to shoot our 100th episode, but also to shoot until the holiday break, so our 200 crew members had money to buy Christmas presents for their kids. They also had enough warning to play it safe and put the extra paychecks away, and it was a wise leadership move. I'm just proud to be a part of this show."
Earlier, Burton envisioned the new season of "One Tree Hill" as possibly being its last. She's not so sure now.
"The strike has us on hold for a bit," the MTV alumna reports, "but this is an environment I could continue to work in for decades. The crew is phenomenal, the cast members are great friends ... it's such an ideal situation and so family-oriented. It's just a matter of telling the stories, and I think there's still a lot to tell. A sixth season wouldn't be out of the question."