“Boyfriend” (season 1, episode 8; originally aired 3/10/1998)
Only on Dawson’s Creek does the off-brand Real World style make room for a Manhattan homage as if it means something. Not that this WB soap necessarily needs the expressionistic force of the images from, say, The Sopranos, but it should at least be able to keep up with Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Until “Detention,” the première had established a show with more visual wit than Dawson’s Creek ended up delivering, but even that episode wimped out on the most iconic shots from The Breakfast Club. Now “Boyfriend” delivers the most standard teen-soap episode ever—or more accurately, three of them at once—in the most generic style ever.
But Dawson’s Creek isn’t generic. It’s a pop-art melodrama unified by self-consciousness. Not that the contrived, exhausting trouble between Dawson and Jen, would-be masters of messy, whiny, faux improvisational dialogue, deserves it, but the script is full of clever film allusions. Consider its take on The English Patient as a soporific and the Gary-Cooper-gets-the-girl metaphor, both reverberating with the episode’s narrative. It’s the filmmaking that can’t keep up. Wasting a Manhattan reference on Jen and her slithering ex, not to mention totally divorcing the reference from its semantic meaning (the original being a scene of infatuation), is just pretentious. It’s like Quentin Tarantino wrote a script for Dawson Leery to direct.
The Real World influence first started creeping in during “Discovery” with that squealing sound cue, but here it’s undeniable. The electric guitar chords walk through the set crying, “Drama!” while the usual soft rock is reserved for moments of poignancy. The editing comes courtesy of establishing shots of seagulls and docks and sunsets like it’s B-roll of local flavor. By the looks of him, Jen’s ex Billy must have driven straight from a Real World house, or at least stolen a cast member’s luggage. The plot takes us to a house party on the beach where the underage girl gets drunk for the first time. Even the blocking is forced—as when Pacey almost gets run over or when Gail runs into Mitch because she just has to drink her morning orange juice while leaning on the island next to her standoffish husband. Who’d have thought Capeside would look exactly like everywhere else?
“Boyfriend” doesn’t totally give up, and the dramatic high- and low-angle sequence of Dawson avoiding his parents tells us more about his simmering alienation than the bit where Dawson hears them arguing from his bedroom. Best of all, the final scene on the dock looking like a minimalist stage play is an evocative, personal take on a common plot point, much more moving than Pacey’s Hallmark Channel breakup with Tamara.
The plotting is hectic and ridiculous—Billy has to bunk with Dawson?—but a few moments stick, and most involve Joey looking uncomfortable. She’s overworked, exhausted because of the baby, and in an emotional holding pattern with Dawson. Two banter sessions with Pacey later—and what is banter on a show this wordy if not making out?—and she winds up getting drunk with some guy at a party. Luckily the plot is too packed to work in a date-rape situation, so Joey gets to trade jabs with Pacey, blow off some steam, and lose her inhibitions to kissing Dawson. How surprisingly message-free! Now if only she could uncrease those scowl lines.
- Dawson’s channel-surfing is delightful, not least because it’s a reminder that AMC once aired black-and-white movies. But the real draw is Dawson good-angel-edly leaving the scrambled porn before Joey suddenly arrives. On the one hand, so much potential wasted. On the other, remember the last time Dawson saw some softcore on his TV?
- Dawson on Jen: “I admit it got rough there for a while,” he says. When? That time he ruined her dance and she fell for him? Or the time he got jealous of her experience and she fell for him?
- One of these days I’ll have to focus on the fashion—perhaps another episode where Dawson whiningly tries on outfits in front of a mirror—but for now, behold the genius of Dawson’s denim-shirt-and-sweater-vest combo.
- Mitch and Gail are also wading through tropes, but John Wesley Shipp and Mary-Margaret Humes know their way around a good soap scene. “Gail, I love you. And I am willing to do whatever I have to.” Dancing and a crane shot? Who needs Manhattan?
- I loved the exchange between Dawson and Joey when they stumble onto each other at Cliff’s beach party. Dawson says, “I’ve had such a rockin’ time since I joined the JV football team.” “Oh yeah, and cheerleading has opened up so many doors.”
“Roadtrip” (season 1, episode 9; originally aired 3/17/1998)
In many ways, “Roadtrip” is another mediocrity, a disappointment whose only tie to writer Rob Thomas’ future work is the scene of Dawson wallowing in sentimental pop over a breakup (in fact, Veronica Mars’ breakup music is Dawson’s Creek’s theme song). The episode features Dawson and Pacey stupidly going with Billy—“This is exactly what I need,” says Dawson, rationalizing—to some club that’s pretty lively in the early afternoon, you know, like college bars are. On the way they get into stupid antics of the kind that would boomerang back on Lindsay Weir, a cop to the romanticism of Dawson’s Creek later supplemented by some film-loving girl who spends an hour somewhat interested in Dawson Leery. All the while Jen and Joey are getting revenge on Eric Balfour (in the Eric Balfour role, naturally) by spreading rumors about him getting Joey pregnant when there’s a perfectly good inadequacy rumor just waiting to be spread. In short, “Roadtrip” is a silly midseason diversion meant primarily to stave off confronting the romantic miasma that’s slowly deteriorating every relationship in Capeside.
However, in its final moments, Dawson blissfully conked out on his bed, Joey quietly sitting next to him, Savage Garden professing their street-overdose love, “Roadtrip” made me realize how invested I am in Joey Potter. Which is crazy. She’s the second least-likeable character, right? A scowl is her constant armor, a sour attitude her sword. Her mission—a glamorous role marked by acting out on Bessie, refusing to get along with Jen, glaring at Gail, bickering with Pacey, and bluntly speaking truth to Dawson—is to prove that misery loves company.
But as she sits there and agrees that dealing with her lovesickness can wait, we get a glimpse of the Joey who’s been unable to sleep because of a baby in the house. The Joey whose relationship with her best friend is suddenly freighted with unidentifiable angst. The Joey whose tears scrunch up her face instead of artfully glistening, forgetting for a moment that she’s on a magazine-looking teen soap. Her dad’s in jail, she’s working like crazy, and her crush drones on and on about his romantic problems utterly oblivious to hers. Joey’s kind of like the girl whose birthday everyone forgets—only her birthday is every day. She lashes out with varying degrees of sincerity, but not for no good reason. She’s struggling. And maybe it’s Savage Garden slicing into their chests and pouring their heart-blood all over the scene, but it’s moving.
Part of that has to do with hindsight, knowing the character’s centrality to the show, but there’s already an underdog spark in Joey that compensates for her acid. Her problems are practically neorealist next to those of her friends, although that’s changing—and now’s as good a time as any to praise the way Dawson’s Creek simmers in its tensions, like Jen’s relationship with Grams and Dawson’s parents’ second chance—and I’ll take sarcasm over melancholy any day. The unfiltered way Joey glowers at people who deserve it is counterintuitively charming. She’s funny in every scene with Pacey, and her moment with Dawson at the beach party is surprisingly cute, the two of them celebrating their outsider status at the most stereotypical event in history. And however mean Joey is to Jen, she always shows up at the end for an ice cream anti-social.
By the end, after I laughed off the return of “Truly, Madly, Deeply” over the sunset equivalent of “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” I found myself genuinely moved by Katie Holmes’ performance, and not for the first time. That she only uses half her face to express herself is infinitely more charming than 1998 Michelle Williams’ enjambment or 1998 James Van Der Beek’s knowing smile. And I might never have properly appreciated her if “Roadtrip” were good.
- Interesting how Billy uses the wholesome Joey Potter ladder-bedroom routine like an evil counterpart. Thankfully Grams shows up to smite the cockroach.
- Jen describes her relationship with Dawson as “on hiatus.” Oh, Jen.
- Joey: “Just picturing Dawson so male, I don’t know, it’s made me nauseous all day.” How revealing. Then she asks Jen, “You think he’s already… ?” Oh, Joey.
- The Spielberg debate returns! Dawson’s fantasy tells him, “Scorsese, Kubrick, those were directors. I can’t believe you’re a Spielberg fan. The guy makes slick fairy tales.”
- Movie Topic Of The Week: Favorite Gary Cooper movie? Much as I love westerns, I’d have to say Morocco, which falls in line with the Dawson model.
- Next week: “Double Date,” in which Dawson and Jen are totally not awkward with each other, and “The Scare,” a small-screen Scream that traps everyone in the Leery household for Halloween.