“Dance”/“Kiss” (season 1, episodes 2 and 3; originally aired 1/27/1998 and 2/03/1998)
Now here’s the show the pilot was smuggling, the scrapbook of late 1990s adolescence that’s more like one long whine than the première’s charming sequence of good jokes. “Dance” keeps every narrative ball in motion, but with a reversed (and unfavorable) ratio of angst to levity thanks partly to the increased focus on the arbiter of all that is right and good, Dawson Leery, high-school freshman. The première lets the audience have some fun seeing through Dawson’s eyes, as in Jen’s slo-mo sex-comedy arrival, and it has so much to introduce that nobody is forced to endure the holy one’s unmediated presence for too long. “Dance,” on the other hand, successfully revels in Point A on Dawson’s 11-year mission. He’s going to grow, maybe, but for now he’s an awkward kid. Dawson’s most telling line of the season comes in a scene where he’s asking his dad for romantic advice: “I clearly don’t condone yours and mom’s perverse sex life.” Clearly. It’s probably just Williamson-speak for “Stop having sex in the living room, Dad,” but stay tuned for more behaviors of others that this kid does and does not condone.
Still, “Dance” gets to the heart of Dawson’s romanticism. It’s already clear he thinks of the world in movie terms. If his image of Jen in the première is mostly fantasy, “Dance” shows the torture. He’s still cozying up to her via his movie, but she’s a new girl in town in the shape of Michelle Williams, and cool guys like Scott Foley’s Cliff are taking an interest. Jen’s off to the school dance, and Dawson imagines some magical romance between Jen and Cliff. “What did he do that I didn’t do?” he whines. Joey brings him back down to earth: “He asked her out!” So Dawson heads to the dance and charges through Savage Garden and social cues until Jen leaves upset. He still doesn’t realize that his fantasy for their great romance is selfish.
That’s another angle that “Dance” nails: These actors may look like twentysomethings and they may speak like Tarantino’s used thesauruses, but they’re kids. They rarely comprehend the world outside of themselves, hence Joey’s brattiness with her sister and Pacey’s single-minded pursuit of a movie of the week. Then there’s Joey’s freighted “I know” to Gail, which recalls all the Dawson’s Creek subplots Freaks And Geeks later grounded (like the new girl hanging with outcasts but getting poached by popular kids). Dawson’s most tolerable moments are those when James Van Der Beek plays young, as in his giggly “No” when Mitch suggests he practice kissing a styrofoam head. It’s amazing how young Van Der Beek looks when Mitch squeezes Dawson’s bottom lip.
The way these kids speak is adorably self-conscious, too, as when Joey calls Dawson a sphincter for not understanding her crack about leather straps and Crisco. Yeah, because Joey Potter is worldly. Later Dawson explains his infatuation with Jen to Joey by saying, “She challenges me the way you do,” and somehow Joey doesn’t scoff for once. Jen doesn’t challenge Dawson at all, much less to the extent that sour Joey does. Dawson thinks he’s being self-aware, digging to the root of his lust, but it’s just good, old-fashioned teenage horniness. Maybe he is a sphincter.
“Kiss” is the first episode whose screenplay credit doesn’t go to Williamson, this one scripted primarily by Rob Thomas of Veronica Mars and Party Down fame. Dawson’s Creek is too serialized for “Kiss” to feel fresh, though, and the episode continues all the relationships of “Dance” and throws on a mistaken-identity (or at least mistaken-class) romance for Joey. If only Joey hadn’t already exhibited such delightful banter with Pacey. No amount of rich-girl role play can match the simple pleasures of Joey shooting down Pacey talking about the woman of his dreams with a quick “Lucky her.” But that’s still deep in the subtext. What’s right there on the surface is how Anderson both looks and is named like Dawson’s upper-class brother. Dawson’s Creek isn’t the only show with intertwined romances, but so far it’s juggled all these hormones pretty well.
Joey calls herself Deborah Carson, a Mrs. Doubtfire-ism based on Deborah Kerr, because “Kiss” spins out of Dawson’s giddy affection for the beach scene in From Here To Eternity. Joey points out the artifice of that romantic touchstone, the salt water kiss and the sand in their crotches, but that’s just proof to Dawson that it’s possible to stage such an encounter. Hence his meticulous, passionate setup for Jen, seduced by the promise of “catching that magic-hour shot” with her young Terrence Malick into going to what turns out to be a popular hookup site. By in the end, “Kiss” has three budding relationships at three different levels. Joey the cynic winds up enjoying her Deborah Kerr scene, but still wants to take things slow on account of pretending to be rich and all. Eventually she does kiss Anderson, but she throws his number away. Dawson the romantic gets called on his creepy attempt to film a passionate kiss with Jen, but after an irritating cut just as their fight begins, the two talk about it and come to understand each other better. And that’s when Pacey busts in, making out with Miss Jacobs on camera and eventually losing his virginity. He just had to show up all these first kisses.
The Tamara storyline is still discordantly unsettling relative to its presentation, but the writers are saying all the right things. It’s Pacey in hot pursuit. Tamara has a speech about how it’s illegal and wrong. Their final scene of “Dance” is practically tender before getting gross again, as she sincerely wants to be free of the irresistible 15-year-old Don Juan in short-sleeved button-downs and baggy chinos. But they wind up making out again, and “Kiss” escalates it. Time will tell how seriously Dawson’s Creek takes its reality—or how willing the writers are to point out all the sandy crotches—but the ending of “Kiss” is the first time anyone else has learned about Pacey and Tamara, and it’s played for concern.
I am starting to wonder about the voyeurism angle, though. Every episode so far has ended with someone—usually Joey—witnessing others in intimate moments. Metaphor for cinema? Adolescent longing? Whatever happens next week, I look forward to Dawson filming it.
- The time capsule really opens up this week. Every scene breathes life into the question, “What are they wearing?” Even Dawson’s hair is starting to achieve its ecstatic righteousness, which makes the pre-dance scene even better. “Two seconds, I gotta check my hair.”
- “Dance” is primarily school-bound, but “Kiss” opens up the world again. Bessie and Bodie’s restaurant, The Icehouse, makes an appearance, and it even hosts a scene where Joey and Jen both kick Dawson. Bessie, by the way, is pregnant and resting her hands on her belly. Bodie’s sympathetic to Joey because he didn’t grow up with her. Grams is still at church.
- The “Mrs. Leery, I know” scene concludes with Joey walking away from the camera and into the horror scene, accompanied by a piano bang. If only every edit were so glorious.
- Mitch and Gail saw Ordinary People on their second date. So that bodes well. In case I don’t get to say it enough, I love their scenes, and I have no idea how Dawson got to be the way he is.
- Helmets Of Glory, the film class’ entry in the Boston Film Festival, looks cheesy, but I love everything about Dawson’s sea creature movie except for Joey using it as a metaphor for Dawson himself. It looks like kids playing with their parents’ camcorder, and I can’t wait to see how Jen’s performance fits in with Pacey lopping Joey’s head off.
- Dawson: “In honor of the school dance tonight, I’ve rented Saturday Night Fever, Stayin’ Alive, and Grease.” Jen: “In lieu of going?”
- Movie Topic Of The Week: Is the beach scene in From Here To Eternity your fantasy romance? Not to be a cliché, but right now mine’s probably Game Of Thrones.
- The Tamara subplot is almost worth it for her getting flustered in class as she lectures on Wuthering Heights. “Catherine was essentially a mess. Heathcliff was basically a decent guy who had a lot to learn about life and he was inherently better off without some whimpering, mentally unstable wet rag following him around.”
- Next week: Dawson finds out about his mother’s affair in “Discovery,” and “Hurricane” traps everyone in the crucible of the Leery household.