Removed from its debut buzz, forgotten fashions, and crying-face .gifs, Dawson’s Creek has as promising an introduction as any teen soap. The opening scene is remarkably efficient, introducing Spielberg, sex, and the central romance of the series, all in Kevin Williamson’s snappy, pop-literate dialogue. Part of the seduction of the scene is that Dawson speaks with lines so self-conscious he may as well be another life form, but he’s totally oblivious to the basic truth that Joey is reacting to: Adolescence is changing their intimate friendship. On some level he’s aware. At the end of the scene, in Steve Miner’s promo-ready overhead shot of the two characters lying in bed, Dawson can’t get comfortable. He closes the scene by asking, “Why’d you have to bring that up?” At the end of the episode, he accepts that the two friends shouldn’t keep sleeping next to each other, but it seems like acquiescence more than any conscious understanding. This is still the same guy who, a few hours earlier, accuses his father of making everything about sex for deigning to broach The Talk before Dawson’s quasi-date. It’s going to be a long, slow journey for Dawson Leery.
To compensate for his slow social uptake, Dawson throws himself into movies, which is how our cinema savant is able to discern his mother is sleeping with her co-worker simply from her on-air intonation. The VHS close-up—apparently Dawson tapes his mother’s daily news program—approaches Scream-style analog nostalgia, but maybe that’s hindsight. Regardless, the scene is absurd, but Williamson undercuts Dawson’s arrogance with knowing lines like “I believe that all the mysteries of the universe, all the answers to life’s questions, can be found in a Spielberg film” that out Dawson as a kid. This is a coming-of-age story, after all. Dawson’s going to find out time and again, not just in the opening scene, exactly how little he knows.
The small-town setting of Capeside charmingly distinguishes Dawson’s Creek from its urban cousins, though it takes some generosity to look at real-life North Carolina and see fictional Massachusetts. After all, it’s not every day you see characters rowing down a creek to one another. Even the temporal setting, both in American cultural history and these teenagers’ lives, provides the perfect confluence of self-consciousness to support Williamson’s stylized writing. What’s more, the show has plenty of funny to match its earnestness. Nothing surprised me more on revisiting the première than to see what a light touch Williamson applies to most of the episode in spite of his heavy wording.
Dawson’s goal to become a director also affords the show a more cinematic quality, allowing for scenes like the dockside creature attack with no warning. Even beyond literal in-universe filming, Dawson’s Creek revels in embracing some of its more heightened elements, which is what Joey’s getting at in her repeated accusation that Dawson is trying to turn his ordinarily perfect life into a movie. The meet-cute with new arrival Jen Lindley is staged so absurdly it almost has to be a fantasy sequence, but, luckily, Joey grounds the scene with some hilariously instantaneous jealousy. The episode’s climax, pun almost certainly intended, is a grand, moving gesture subverted by its comical insignificance. Dawson finds a way to comfort Joey with honesty, in this case by shouting out the window to her about his masturbation habits, which is the Kevin Williamson version of stopping the female lead from getting on a plane.
One heightened element goes too far for this basically small-scale coming-of-age, though, and that’s Pacey’s affair with his English teacher, Tamara Jacobs. My first exposure to the series was hearing a brief news story about this subplot before the show even premiered, obliviously attacking Dawson’s Creek for going edgy purely for buzz. How self-fulfilling. Tamara’s introduction—a jazzy femme-fatale sequence in the video store—fits right into this movie-loving universe, but the whole point is that the characters aren’t actually living in a movie, and Tamara making out with Pacey on the docks is a stretch. Later episodes will deal (or not) with the fallout of this affair, but even here it’s the kind of soapy story destined for moralizing or side-stepping that just makes me anxious. It helps that Pacey doesn’t look like a high school freshman—but only a little.
Fortunately, Tamara doesn’t take up much time in a pilot with places to be. This episode is a machine. After that opening, a self-mythologizing little vignette that introduces the leads, the main series plot, and some themes, the pilot proves to The WB just how fertile this premise is for story. Jen’s arrival is the A-plot, as her mere presence tests Joey and Dawson’s recently confusing relationship and promises to continue doing so into the future. But Jen is no object, and she finds stories of her own, courting conflict with her grandmother over religion and worrying about her grandfather’s health. Joey behaves like a brat to her pregnant older sister Bessie (with whom she lives) and drops a line about their incarcerated father (“conspiracy to traffic marijuana in excess of 10,000 pounds”). Bessie, meanwhile, has an interracial relationship with chef Bodie—which, 14 years after the show premièred, still isn’t especially common on television. And then there’s the Leery marriage, hot and heavy yet troubled by the final-act confirmation of Gail’s infidelity. And I haven’t even mentioned Dawson, who’s working on a movie for a festival in two weeks and trying to negotiate confusing relationships with two different girls while fitting in time to watch Katie Couric every morning. Add a few characters and that sounds like a show that could run a good six seasons—well, don’t hold me to “good.”
The pilot of Dawson’s Creek doesn’t require nostalgia—except maybe for the Katie Holmes half-smile—and it doesn’t demand cringing—except maybe for the very sincere piano and flute cues. It’s an accomplished pilot with tons of promise that introduces so much that it doesn’t have time to reveal many retrograde or complacent attitudes (not to mention fashions). Even Dawson’s hair is tolerable. Let the growing pains begin!
- As usual, please mark spoilers for the benefit of those who might be watching for the first time.
- Starting next week, I’ll be reviewing two episodes at a time. Netflix Watch Instantly has the series in a form that I can only describe as “when your pet dies and your parents try to replace it without you knowing,” which is to say sans Paula Cole’s anthemic “I Don’t Want To Wait.” Starting in season two, other music that wasn’t licensed for the DVD is altered, too. Even on the DVDs, there’s a different theme song starting in season three. Is nothing sacred?
- As if Dawson’s Creek weren’t self-aware enough, in the background of the pilot are movie posters for Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, both written by Kevin Wiliamson.
- Joey’s second-half boldness sure feels cartoonish, but I tend to have boundless leniency for fictional teenagers behaving unbelievably. Which will serve me well as the series goes on.
- That said, most of Joey’s lines are pretty funny and Katie Holmes gets to practice her six-season fallback of giving good scowl. I particularly enjoy her introduction to Jen as Dawson marvels at how much she’s changed. “You look different,” he says. “Puberty.”
- Video-store attendant Nellie sounds like Tina Louise’s impression of Marilyn Monroe, but it’s nice to see Williamson gives her the same branching dialogue he trusts his regulars with.
- Movie Topic Of The Week: Best picture of 1982: E.T. or Gandhi? Somehow I find Richard Attenborough’s point-and-click is somewhat below the task of immortalizing a revolutionary like Gandhi. At least E.T. has some style. But I’d drop both for Missing. What about you? Fitzcarraldo fans? Blade Runner lovers? Dare I hope for some Querelle-heads?
- Dawson doesn’t understand Joey’s hesitance to sleep next to him. “I’ve always had genitalia.” “But there’s more of it.”
- Ugh, Dawson: “Don’t get female on me, Joey. I don’t want to have to start calling you ‘Josephine.’”
- The Leerys, ladies and gentlemen: “Your mother and I were just discussing—” “—whether or not—” “—we needed a new coffee table.”
- Pacey’s curious about Dawson’s given name: “So if your dad is Mr. Man-Meat, does that make you Mr. Man-Meat Jr. or Mr. Man Meat II?”
- Next Week: Dawson and Jen grow closer in “Dance,” and writer Rob Thomas negotiates Pacey’s affair in “Kiss.”