Every generation seems to have their own ubiquitous teen show, and this was mine. In 1998, the WB launched the low-key antidote to the overblown Hollywood wackiness of Aaron Spelling's FOX serials, a show that quickly became one of the most inexplicably controversial series of its time, made stars of its four leads, and along with Buffy the Vampire Slayer spawned a creative resurgence in teen-oriented programming. It's also one of the few shows that can instantly transport me back to my childhood -- just hearing those shrill wails of Paula Cole gets me a little weepy. It's a show that's achingly sincere and full of characters that repeatedly strain your patience, but it's also crazily endearing and wonderfully acted. Welcome to Dawson's Creek.
Watching the pilot, it's instantly noticeable that while Kevin Williamson is desperate to distance his script from the Jennie Garth era of young adult drama, it's still patently ridiculous. This is a world where fifteen year-olds have the vocabulary of neurotic twenty-somethings, where every attractive blonde has their own personal wind machine and make slo-mo entrances into every room, where I Know What You Did Last Summer posters cover every bare surface and a screening of Waiting for Guffman is the hottest ticket in town. It's so fanciful and romantically realized, yet immediately engaging.
Growing up, I was in love with Katie Holmes. She had that chubby-cheeked wholesomeness that was instantly desirable: the girl next door that really would climb up a ladder into your bedroom to watch movies and maybe make-out with you. But watching this pilot again, I have no idea why I wasn't instantly infatuated with Michelle Williams. Jen Lindley breezes through this episode stealing every scene, Williams conveying an interesting, flirtatious quality that is so fascinating and sort of badass. She's able to articulate her feelings without descending into over-analytical word salad, smokes cigarettes, had a shady party girl lifestyle in the big, bad city of New York, and dares to be (gasp!) an atheist!! She's so obviously this dangerous bad girl with a heart of gold, and you can see why Dawson would immediately fall head over heels for her.
Don't get me wrong, Joey Potter is still an adorable tomboy with guy problems, but she's also kind of a drag. She's instantly dismissive and bitchy around Jen and later attempts to embarrass both her and Dawson on an awkward double date, leaving her kind of unlikable. Then again, she's fifteen and emotionally erratic, so I guess you can understand why she's acting out the way she is.
This, of course, brings me round to Dawson Leery. Anybody in D.C. fandom will tell you that Dawson is a creepy, manipulative jackass, and he unsurprisingly displays that kind of behavior from the very beginning. He's the kind of guy who has no problem flirting with Jen while casually ignoring Joey's deep-seated love for him, all the while keeping Joey's infatuation intact by dropping romantic hints every once in a while. Then there's his directorial ambition, worshiping the unremarkable Steven Spielberg and attempting to grab a spot on a prestigious film-maker's program by shooting some horrible rubber-monster movie. I'm sure a lot of my latter-day dislike of the character is influencing my opinion of him in the pilot, but he's already pretty insufferable, spouting annoying movie facts like he has a mental disorder.
Finally, there's Pacey, a complete horndog desperate to lose his virginity and bone the hot new teacher in town. Joshua Jackson is perfectly cast in the role, but I had never realized how gross this storyline was. A forty-something teacher with a fifteen year-old? I needed to scrub the creep right out of me after their kissing scene.
Kevin Williamson's script is noticeably sexual, with lengthy discussions about masturbation and virginity -- the real clincher being that hilariously lame moment where a jealous Joey asks Jen if she's a size queen. Some of it is a little extreme, but far more realistic than the annoying treatment of virginity back in the early '90s, where Donna Martin treated sex like it was some divine act of eternal holiness. It also feels a lot more genuine than the sex-crazed insanity that is spread through modern teen shows, where you see sixteen year-olds having drug-fueled orgies and indulging in drunken molestation. Okay, I know I'm sounding like an old man, but the articulate mystery of sex and the awkward fumbling of it as a concept is far more in keeping with my own teenage years than something you'd see on Gossip Girl. Dawson's weirdly uptight sexual morals (where he praises Spielberg for keeping sex off-screen where it, apparently, 'belongs') not withstanding, these are kids that are still trying to figure out what sexual attraction is, and discovering those first lingering feelings of chemistry and identity. It's sweet and relatable, and I think everybody can somehow identify with at least one of the four leads.
While it still tows numerous teen show tropes, this is a confident pilot that sets every chess piece in place. There's the central love triangle, the romantic longing that is completely unfulfilled, the teenage desperation to come into your own and be treated like a real adult, as well as the eagerness to break out of what you perceive as a small town with little personality. Capeside is a gorgeous fantasy land, but one that features characters that you instantly kind of fall for. Except for Dawson, of course. Naturally. A
Guest stars Nicole Nieth (Nellie Oleson); Mitchell Laurance (Benjamin Gold); Leann Hunley (Tamara Jacobs)
Writer Kevin Williamson Director Steve Miner