That Magical, Four-Syllable Universe
I believe that all the mysteries of the universe, all the answers to life’s questions, can be found in a Spielberg film.
—Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek), “Pilot”
Yeah, [Dawson’s] different. He’s… unfortunately, he’s just not as different as we thought.
—Joey (Katie Holmes), “Road Trip”
Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek) is not what you’d call a headlong rusher. He takes things slowly, he ponders and worries, reconsiders and reflects. Like a lot of 15-year-olds, he’s also eager to experience what he understands as life, afraid of his own feelings, occasionally inconsiderate and unreflective. Unlike a lot of 15-year-olds, he talks about all of the above, incessantly.
This last is one large reason that Dawson’s Creek became, for its moment, a singular phenomenon. Since its debut in 1998, the series has featured infamously chat-fests, primarily among its four beautiful principals; Dawson, Joey (Katie Holmes), Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson), and Jen Lindley (Michelle Williams) feel confined by the small town of Capeside, Massachusetts but also apprehensive about what lies beyond. Over the their six seasons on the WB, they have expanded their number (to include, among others, Andie [Meredith Monroe], Audrey [Busy Phillips], and resident gay boy Jack [Kerr Smith]), and survived parental infidelities and deaths, cast changes (for instance, Jen’s mother, first played by Mel Harris, then by Mimi Rogers), broken hearts, a move to Boston, rehab, bad driving, cliffhanging season finales, changing poster-décor in Dawson’s bedroom, and (briefly) production on Dawson’s movie, at long last. “Self-referential” doesn’t begin to cover it.
As Dawson’s Creek draws to a close on 14 May 2003, it’s good to look back at the first season, when creator Kevin Williamson was still working on the series (he left after season two, with vocal protests concerning the series’ wandering), and the show was generating all kinds of interest among teens and young adults (internet sites, energetic discussions over favorite characters and actors, and, of course, tie-in merchandising). The DVD includes commentary on two episodes (the first, “Pilot,” and the season’s last, “Decisions”), by Williamson and executive producer Paul Stupin, loving their performers and visual choices (the “sunlight dappling off the creek,” effect), recalling their initially low budget (until the show was deemed a “hit”), joking about changing hairstyles, creating locations, and erupting controversy about what Stupin calls the “fun and salacious” affair between Pacey and his English teacher, Tamara (Leann Hunley). Not to mention their happy first meeting, immediately following Stupin’s initial reading of the script for a little movie called Scream.
They also remember that familiar lament about the show’s dialogue and subject matter: “Kids don’t talk like that!” Both Stupin and Williamson dismiss this complaint with reference to their higher calling. Says Williamson, “It was sort of the style of the show, going for that magical, four-syllable universe.” The kids in this show talk like exemplary adults about their youthful “issues,” with care for the language as well as for what they mean to say.
In the very first scene in the very first episode, Joey tries to explain to Dawson that their since-childhood friendship will have to change: “Sleeping in the same bed was fine when we were kids but we’re 15 now. We start high school Monday. And I have breasts. And you have genitalia.” To which Dawson, flustered and desirous, responds, “I’ve always had genitalia.”
Their simultaneous intimacy and distance here—his inability to grasp what she not only understands intuitively but also articulates beautifully—is the basis for their evolving relationship for six seasons to come. As Williamson remembers, the show was early on criticized for its “sex talk,” high school students referring to masturbation; they had to change “How often do you masturbate?” to “How often do you walk your dog?” In an effort to demonstrate that he and Joey can still be friends, Dawson admits to her that he walks it in the morning while watching Katie Couric (as Stupin puts it, this moment typifies the show’s special brand of melodrama, “great emotional moments underscored by great music”).
While Williamson gets Stupin to concede that Dawson’s Creek, despite their earnest affection for it, is “so five minutes ago,” what’s still striking about this first season is how much (emotion, imagination, and irony) it was able to encompass, in the seemingly small space of Capeside. The scripts, performances, and even the look of the show, construct a world where kids are smart and confused, eloquent and angry, generous and fragile. The series is, in a word, “perfect” (the very word Joey uses to try to shake Dawson loose from his own romantic daydream). But the show (during its first two seasons, anyway) is hardly simple or even very syrupy. It is instead, respectful of kids who might watch, and groundbreaking for what kids might say on tv.
As one particularly self-respecting and terminally idealistic kid, young Dawson frequently accuses Joey of being “cynical,” because she resists the expectations conjured by movies (her reasons, as she attests repeatedly, have to do with being from “the wrong side of the Creek,” or, in her words, “sharing a house with your pregnant, unwed sister and her black boyfriend, while your father serves time on a drug conviction”). “It’s celluloid propaganda,” she says in “Kiss,” by way of dismissing the big beach scene in From Here to Eternity, just before she adopts the name Deborah Kerr (make that Carson), to impress a rich boy who cruises into town on his parents’ yacht. Not exactly by contrast, Dawson, the femmiest boy on tv (which is why we love him), insists on the fiction, the power of movies and myth, the truth in fantasy.
In Dawson’s Creek, fantasy engenders both self-delusion and self-expression, from Dawson’s dream of blond beauty Jen (“I mean, true,” he tells Joey, “Jen stepped into my life not more than two seconds ago, but already I feel that connection. That bond that says we’re meant to be together. You call it wish fulfillment or delusion of the highest adolescent order. But, Joey, I’m telling you, something primal exists between us”), to Joey’s frustration with his refusal to see “what’s in front of him” (“I don’t understand how someone so self-aware can be utterly clueless”), to Jen’s revelation that back in New York (the scary Big City), she was, indeed, one of “those wild kids” (“Well, I guess I’m no longer the Virgin Queen of Dawson Leery’s handheld fantasies”).
The major tension here lies between desire and experience, neither avoidable for 15-year-olds. Jen has, in her way, culled great wisdom from her experience (“The kiss is just the end result,” she tells Dawson. “It’s all about desire and wanting”). But she also upsets her virginal new beau, who wants so badly to believe in those happy endings that order Spielberg’s universe. Soon into the first season, however, he discovers not only that Jen slept around, but also his mother is having an affair and Joey knew but didn’t tell him.
With a crisis at every turn for poor Dawson in season one (and every one following, until his screen time drops off during the last two), he’s fortunate to have a crew with him to share his pain and revelations. Jen’s offenses don’t stop here. And, she has a foul mouth. In the justly famous seventh episode, “Detention,” Jen reveals her short temper during a class discussion on euthanasia, suggesting that for someone on his deathbed (say, her beloved grandfather), life can be “a bitch.” She’s slapped with a Saturday detention, just as Dawson and Pacey are for fighting in gym class, and Joey is for slamming a couple of crude jocks with her cafeteria tray. Before you can say “Molly Ringwald,” the crew, along with goady girl Abby (Monica Keena), is stuck at school for eight hours. As Dawson observes, “It’s so Breakfast Club.”
Beyond the clever homage to John Hughes by writer Mike White (who also wrote Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl), the episode also features sharp performances and plenty of emotional excess—equal parts sincere and witty. Beginning with Dawson’s artistic throw-down (“When movies get too unrealistic it depresses me, I can’t watch, I get a headache”), “Detention” challenges conventions of realism and romance with a game of “Truth or Dare” providing for savvy dialogue, handheld camerawork, and sensitive faces in aching close-ups. “Since when,” asks Joey during one, “did everyone become so obsessed with sex?”
Dawson’s Creek shows high school kids dealing with this obsession, from every which way, from timely pop tunes (I confess, though, I’d be content never to hear Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait” ever again) to allusion and metaphor, to long moments of kids’ serious, confused, and often enthralling conversations. This first season also shows them dealing with rumor and reputation, friendship and feminism, escapism and earnestness (and yes, they look fabulous). Though the series has turned increasingly strained (and repetitive) over the last two years, it’s well worth looking back at how it started. To this day, its shifting combinations of passion and ingenuity remain much appreciated.