Dawson’s Creek defined a network—and for a fleeting moment, a generation

Photo: Warner Bros. (Getty Images)

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

“I don’t want to wait for our lives to be over, I want to know right now, what will it be?”

To an entire generation of television viewers, the plaintive sounds of Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want To Wait” don’t call up memories of Lilith Fair or ’90s adult contemporary radio, but grainy handheld images of four fresh-scrubbed teens frolicking carefree alongside a creek. For better or worse, “I Don’t Want To Wait” will always be Dawson’s Creek’s accidental legacy, just as good for an easy punchline as it is genuine nostalgia. But this somewhat facetious legacy belies the show’s importance; for a moment in time, it burned bright, defining the network it aired on and capturing the attention of millions of teens and young adults who related to its hyper-articulate dialogue and straightforward emotional bombast. But is that how will the show be remembered?

Without Dawson’s Creek, the WB network would not have existed as the world knew it. It’s easy to get lost in the hyperbole of that statement but before Dawson’s premiered, The WB had only been in existence for three years, during which time all the network had to show for itself was one strangely titled (and begrudgingly respected) show with decent viewership in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, a few little-seen family dramas, and a bevy of failed sitcoms. It was a network in search of an identity, a place in the television landscape to claim as its own and then hardscrabble into something bigger. Enter Dawson’s Creek, which came along and by virtue of its immediate success emphatically planted a flag for The WB, declaring it a place for teenage dramas and coming-of-age stories, and defining a term that sticks to this day: The idea of the “WB show,” a descriptor that survived the very network it was created to describe. The WB took this success and ran with it—launching Felicity and Charmed the following fall, the latter of which would run for three more years after Dawson’s Creek left the air— and eventually creating an entire network around the concepts Dawson’s Creek introduced.

Much of Dawson’s Creek’s allure came from its contradictions; it was like no one’s childhood, yet was wrapped in the façade that it was like everyone’s childhood. There was truth there, but only far beneath the surface, under a mountain of affectation and angst. The irony of this façade was that the show itself was semi-autobiographical, created by hotshot screenwriter Kevin Williamson from pieces of his own teen years growing up in coastal North Carolina. At the time, Williamson was in the midst of one of those legendary meteoric Hollywood ascensions due to his work on teen-horror smashes Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, but despite his demands elsewhere, Dawson’s Creek—and the reshaping of his own story of the girl down the creek—remained his passion project, at least at the beginning of its run.

Williamson’s passion for the story, along with savvy casting and an ace promotional campaign by The WB, paid off with a show that came bursting out of the gate almost fully formed, with a story that immediately captured the hearts and minds of a swath of teenagers. While teens embraced the show, instantly making it the most watched show on The WB (and what would have been a certifiable hit with the teen female demographic no matter the network, as the series premiere garnered a massive 41 share in that demo), critics and the press were much more reluctant to see its appeal. Much of this was due to the show’s frank discussion of and sometimes preoccupation with sex, which starts in the very first scene of the pilot and continues unabated throughout the first 13 episodes. Outrage was especially focused on one subplot where class slacker Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson, who was previously best known for his role in Disney’s The Mighty Ducks trilogy) embarks on a racy affair with a teacher 20 years his senior.

But it wasn’t just that these teens talked about sex, or even sometimes had sex—it was how eloquently and rapid-fire this sexual discussion came out of their mouths that left a lot of detractors scratching their heads. Dawson’s Creek’s signature hyper-articulate dialogue, metatextual references, and aforementioned preoccupation with sex combined to create a world in which everyone talked about sex like they were in a television show, and then remarked upon how they were talking like they were in a television show. It was tacit acknowledgement that these were kids who consumed pop culture to the point of rabidity and then used this knowledge to frame their own lives in a way that was simultaneously relatable and ridiculous. It was this artifice, this wink-wink removal from reality, that created an interesting juxtaposition with the very real, adolescent emotions the characters were experiencing. It isn’t an easy tone to embrace, but those who did embraced it wholeheartedly, creating a divisive mix of ardent fans and detractors alike.

As much as the show’s dialogue contributed to its notoriety, the cast of characters was equally, if not more, important. The titular Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek) was a moony dreamer, a wannabe-Spielberg who was constantly trapped inside the movie of his life he was always creating in his own mind, reframing moments and conversations in an attempt to get them as perfectly scripted as in the films he so admired. His wholesome romanticism needed some kind of sardonic balance to make him at all relatable, so although it was called Dawson’s Creek, it was the girl down the creek who was ultimately the key to the show’s success. Joey Potter, portrayed by Katie Holmes in the kind of wide-eyed performance that launches careers, was this balance; her blue-collar realism was a welcome contrast to Dawson’s naïveté. Joey’s secret love for Dawson was the audience’s window into his character in the first season, turning his potentially off-putting dreaming into something worthy of rooting for. Rounding out the foursome was troubled temptress next door Jen Lindley (Michelle Williams, whose post-show career has surpassed her peers three times over), sent to throw a wrench in Dawson and Joey’s budding love, and teacher-seducing underdog Pacey Witter.

But despite all its successes and triumphs, the thing likely keeping Dawson’s Creek’s legacy to a punchline about that earnest theme song sadly might be the show itself. While the first 13-episode season is a fine coming-of-age love story about two childhood friends who tentatively find their way to something more, season two squanders a lot of this innocence by almost immediately separating the main couple, indulging in a bevy of meandering (and ultimately dead-end) threads about Joey finding herself, Dawson and Joey finding their way away from each other, and Dawson’s parents having an open marriage. Season two feels like a show that isn’t really about anything when it’s not about Dawson and Joey falling in love, and that amount of story focus is unachievable over the long run.

Despite this sense of floundering, Dawson’s Creek did manage to break some new ground in season two by having new character Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith) date Joey, only to later realize he was gay. The story of Jack’s coming out was like a beacon of season-one honesty in the midst of what was a storm of season-two floundering, and it was only when Williamson left at the end of season two to pursue his film obligations and create other television series that the show found itself again. Seasons three and four, under the watchful eye of now super-producer Greg Berlanti, finally figured out the focus the show would take going forward, for better or for worse: Falling in love with Joey Potter. What Berlanti and the writing team figured out was that season one worked not because someone was falling in love with Dawson, but that it was Joey doing the falling. The show quickly morphed to reflect this realization, introducing many new suitors to fall in love with Joey Potter through the years and most significantly creating the Dawson-Joey-Pacey love triangle in season three, which changed the course of the show for good.

While that triangle served the show incredibly well in seasons three and four, its storytelling power couldn’t survive the transition from high school to college, and it’s these final two seasons of Dawson’s Creek that truly tarnish its legacy. Moving the focus of the show from its creek-side location to bustling Boston was the most logical choice, but logic doesn’t always for good television. With Joey in college in Boston, Dawson pursuing his film dream in California, and Pacey stuck in nonsensical storylines about living on a boat, working as a chef, and eventually becoming a stockbroker, it was clear the show didn’t have much of a creative vision as to how to translate the high school triangle into a more adult setting. Once the main setting moved to Boston, the show flagged both creatively and commercially, with the lights of The WB’s signature series going out for good in 2003 after six seasons.

Similar to the rapid rise and fall of Dawson’s Creek, The WB didn’t go on forever, and in 2006 the network merged with rival upstart UPN to create The CW. Many of what were commonly considered “WB shows” made the transition—Gilmore Girls, Smallville, and One Tree Hill being the most notable examples—but these shows, shows that might not have existed if not for Dawson’s Creek, are now long gone, replaced by The CW’s new, more polished take on teen programming. Even the accidental legacy of “I Don’t Want To Wait” is in danger of being lost to history, as the show’s subpar DVD and streaming releases strip the episodes of their recognizable theme song, replacing it with the theme originally used in overseas airings, Jann Arden’s “Run Like Mad,” which results in a far different viewing experience for old fans and the next viewing generation alike.

Yet despite the show’s frequent qualitative faults and how easy it is to wrap the whole series into one pithy musical punchline, there’s no doubt Dawson’s Creek changed television. For The WB, it was a springboard upon which to build an entire programming strategy. For a generation of young adults who grew up on The WB, it created a sort of safe space on television that—if not exactly—at least somewhat mirrored their angst. For this to get lost to the annals of television history would its saddest punchline.

Next time: Stephen Bowie digs into the illustrious history of Playhouse 90.