Craig Sheffer’s career has been defined by two roles

  1. Norman Maclean, in A River Runs Through It, a remarkable movie, intimate on a grand scale.
  2. Pretty much everything else.

Sheffer earned a fan for life after River, but outside of that film, the 43-year-old actor has spent 20 years in the business doing little better than his role as the nasty boyfriend in the Lea Thompson-Eric Stoltz-Mary Stuart Masterson time capsule, Some Kind of Wonderful.

Nevertheless, the power of River is such that when I flipped channels after the Cubs-Braves game ended Tuesday and saw his name on the opening credits of rookie WB drama One Tree Hill, I instinctively paused. The presence of two other favorites, Moira Kelly (last seen vanishing from The West Wing four years ago without a trace) and Barry Corbin (Maurice from Northern Exposure) kept me on the channel for the full hour.

Turns out, Sheffer’s role on One Tree Hill is metaphorical for his career – he’s still One Role Actor. Once again, the material is beneath his talent, and he’s barely visible on the show at that. One Tree Hill let Sheffer on screen for just a few minutes, finding other ways to focus on a melodramatic conflict between two half-brothers in the same small town.

Central to the program is the fact that the father of the two high-schoolers, Dan Scott (Paul Johansson) is as rotten a domestic case as you’ll find on commercial television. He fathered a son named Luke with a woman named Karen (Kelly), abandoned them, then fathered a second boy (Nathan), in whom he is forcefully inculcating the lesson that selfishness is the key to success. Nothing wrong with creating such a character – and nothing wrong with him getting away with his cruelty for the time being.

But like I said, he’s central. Though the show is about the Nathan-Luke battle, Dan is the true antagonist. With such an obviously reprehensible character occupying such prominence, all that’s left for us is to see how other characters deal with his destructiveness.

How do they deal? Uninterestingly. They brood, they fight, they have sweet talks with people they are close to. None of it is particularly surprising or insightful. There wasn’t a twist in Tuesday’s episode, unless you’re the kind of person who doesn’t expect an insecure young artist who trashes her wonderful drawings to have her portfolio rescued by a young suitor.

Well, one thing is surprising: Moira Kelly, who is 35 years old and who looks younger than anyone on, say, Friends, playing the mother of a high-schooler. Conicidentally, Kelly’s career-making performance in The Cutting Edge was airing on American Movie Classics (of all places) at the same time as One Tree Hill. Maybe I didn’t have enough teen pregnancy in my life, but if the two roles were both cast today, I’d say that Kelly is still better suited to play the young skater.

Kelly is game in her newest role, but as with Sheffer, One Tree Hill just makes me sad about talent being wasted.