Let’s just say up top that we recognize Dawson’s Creek isn’t what you’d call a good show. The teens of the erstwhile WB drama—with their logorrhea, grad school vocabularies, and dramatic self-absorption—are insufferable to witness. The entire series, which ran from 1998 to 2003, seemed built around the idea that in order for young viewers to get to what they really wanted (Joey and Pacey together at last!), they first had to suffer through a great deal of characters whining and talking about the facts of their lives as though they were pieces of a plotline. The Sopranos, on the other hand, is a good show. Great even! Critically lauded, one of the shepherds of the golden age of television, etc etc. But, and it gives us no pleasure to report this, Dawson’s Creek may have a leg up on The Sopranos with regards to one thing (but one thing only): The teens of Capeside bemoaned the loss of American actor Gary Cooper and what he represented nearly a year before Tony did on The Sopranos.
In season one, episode eight of Dawson’s Creek, which aired on March 10, 1998, Dawson (James Van Der Beek) bemoans to his best friend and future love interest, Joey (Katie Holmes), the loss of a specific kind of good guy:
Joey: Dawson, Gary Cooper’s kind of a snoozer.
Dawson: Exactly. See, in the ’40s you could be a well-intentioned geek and still end up with the girl. Whatever happened to the standard Gary Cooper types? You know, likable but not too self-involved. Smart without being arrogant. I mean, come on. What happened to that guy?
The very first mention of Gary Cooper on The Sopranos (there was more than one) occurred nearly a year later in the series premiere, which aired on HBO on January 10, 1999. Tony (James Gandolfini) mentions Gary Cooper to Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) in their first therapy session:
Tony: Whatever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know is that once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings is that they wouldn’t be able to shut him up. And then it’s dysfunction this and dysfunction that! And dysfunction vaffancul’!
The notable difference, aside from the air dates, is that both characters miss the “Gary Cooper type” for distinct reasons. Intolerable “nice guy” Dawson is pained that his own brand of cloying romanticism and suffocating attention to the object of his affection, which he equates with Cooper, is not always rewarded. On the other hand, Tony, who grows increasingly uncomfortable in his session with Dr. Melfi, misses the days when men swallowed absolutely all of their emotions and killed people without feeling bad about it or having panic attacks or talking about their manipulative, abusive mothers.
Whereas the scene in Dawson’s Creek comes across as mere table setting for an episode about “good guys” versus “bad guys,” the scene from The Sopranos is electric, as so many between Tony and Dr. Melfi are, and exemplifies a compelling dynamic of the protagonist’s character: The harder he tries to hide his feelings, the more he tips his hand. While Dawson’s Creek may have gotten there first, it’s no surprise that the mafia boss gets the last word. It’s just too bad there was never a cross-over; silly as it is to imagine, we would have loved to see Tony dump Dawson’s body into the creek.