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'Dawson’s Creek' 20 years later: How well does it hold up?

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Dawson’s Creek

Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the debut of Dawson’s Creek, one of the most acclaimed teen TV shows ever. When it premiered, the show was praised for creator Kevin Williamson’s witty writing and mature thematic content. The series launched the careers of its stars: James Van Der Beek, Michelle Williams, Katie Holmes, and Joshua Jackson. So how well does the show hold up two decades later? I decided to look at the pilot episode again, for a re-review.

In the tradition of so many TV shows and movies aimed at an adolescent audience, Dawson’s Creek begins during a period of transition for its protagonists. In this case, 15-year-old Dawson Leery (Van Der Beek) is about to start high school, along with his pals-since-childhood Joey (Holmes) and Pacey (Jackson). The opening scene sets the tone of the series, set in a sleepy small Massachusetts town. Joey scales a ladder and climbs into Dawson’s second-story bedroom, something she’s been doing since she and Dawson were little kids. Buddies, not romantically entangled, Joey and Dawson share their anxieties about starting school and their dreams for the future. Well, it’s Dawson who does most of the dream-sharing. He’s a budding filmmaker, and his bedroom is a shrine to his hero, director Steven Spielberg — posters of all of Spielberg’s movies adorn his wall, and a bit later we’ll see him directing a no-budget horror film that’s an homage to Jaws.

The other subject that arises between Dawson and Joey is key to the series: They acknowledge that they’re getting older, that adolescence has taken hold and will inevitably change their relationship whether they want it to or not. Or as Joey summarizes it: “I have breasts. You have genitalia.” Until now, it’s been common for Joey to slide under the covers next to Dawson in his bed as they have their cozy meaning-of-life chats, but now, this innocent intimacy seems a little awkward. As the camera looks down at them in a shot that hovers over the bed, Dawson wonders grumpily why Joey had to go and make the both of them self-conscious about their bed-sharing. We are meant to understand what Dawson doesn’t, and what Joey implies — she has a crush on her childhood pal.

The next scene introduces us to Pacey, Dawson’s closest male chum, a genial goofball who peppers his conversation with wisecracks. Dawson, Pacey, and Joey are introduced to a new girl in town, Jen (Williams), who has moved in with her grandmother to help care for her ailing grandfather. (Grandma, by the way, is played by Mary Beth Pell, later to be Julianna Margulies’s mom in The Good Wife.) Dawson and Pacey are immediately struck by Jen’s attractive appearance — a reaction Joey notices and is irritated by. After a polite introductory conversation, Jen goes her way, and Pacey boils down the encounter to a summary that would not fly in today’s current climate of sexual political correctness: “You think she’s a virgin? Want to nail her?” Pacey asks Dawson teasingly.

At the time, Dawson’s Creek got a lot of attention for the unusual frankness of its dialogue. This show was, in a sense, Kevin Williamson’s industry reward for writing the script for the hit movie Scream (1996), and, as was also the case for that movie, he was adept at taking the clichés of a genre and enlivening them with dialogue that rang true for the target audience. But network TV — Dawson aired on the WB, scheduled as a new time-period pairing with the great Buffy the Vampire Slayer — was more conservative than feature films, and that’s one reason Joey says that Dawson has “genitalia” rather than a more graphic appendage. Later in the episode, Jen intentionally shocks her grandmother by asking the old lady to say the word penis, and the viewing audience was also dared to be shocked as well — you didn’t hear that word much on TV back then, and it’s likely Williamson had to negotiate with the WB to use the word for one pungent moment. It was good publicity and added to the idea that Dawson’s Creek wasn’t your parents’ kind of teen show.

Speaking of parents, Dawson had two of ’em, played by Mary-Margaret Humes and a once-and-future Flash, John Wesley Shipp, and there are a couple of moments when they embarrass their son with their vigorous make-out sessions. It was Kevin Williamson’s clever idea to flip convention and make the teen characters the thoughtful moral arbiters and the grownups either clueless bluenoses or recklessly sex-addled. The other prominent adult character in the pilot is a 40-something woman played by Leann Hunley who’s dressed and positioned as a jaw-dropping siren for Pacey — poor Joshua Jackson was required to do everything short of drool whenever this woman entered the scene, and he makes repeated references to younger-man, older-woman movies such as The Graduate and Summer of ’42. (The movie references are easy to work into the action, since Dawson and Pacey have after-school jobs in that now most-quaint of business establishments: a video rental store.)

Over the course of the pilot, Dawson will have occasion to tell one character after another about his dreams of busting out of this small town and becoming a big-time, Spielberg-inspired director of humanist blockbusters. He’ll deepen his feelings for Jen, which in turn will inspire jealousy in Joey, who tells him at one point, “It’s not that I wanted to be the one holding your hand; I just didn’t want her to be the one holding it.” Pacey will make a clumsy pass at his English teacher and when rebuffed will yell angrily, “You blew it, lady, because I’m the best sex you’ll never have!” To say that Dawson’s Creek approaches sex from the point of view of the male gaze is putting it mildly.

Seen now, Dawson’s Creek can be viewed critically as retrograde soap opera, if you insist on imposing today’s standards on its characters’ approach to romance. I reviewed the show when it premiered and concluded that it “needs less cleverness and more emotional spark.” (The best line in my review wasn’t from me but was a quote I had from my then 16 year-old daughter, who said Dawson’s “is like My So-Called Life without the life.”)

But Kevin Williamson constructed something sturdy here. The narrative flow of this hour-minus-commercials is strong and involving: Some of the dialogue now is cringe-y, but the characters are vividly drawn right from the start. For all the irony-drenched sarcasm in the way Dawson and Pacey talk to each other, there’s genuine admiration for the way Dawson, at least, is pursuing a dream that — thanks to both the sentiments expressed and Van Der Beek’s clear-eyed performance — does not seem out of reach for his abilities and ambition. Dawson’s Creek lasted for six seasons, which was too long for its subject matter and the age of its cast, but here at the very start of it, there’s something distinctive and special that you can still appreciate 20 years later.

Dawson’s Creek is available to stream on Hulu.

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