Friday, September 19, 2014

The 'Creek' Mystique: Why Teenagers Fell For Dawson's Creek

If you were a child of the nineties, then Paula Cole's I Don't Want To Wait will inevitably evoke memories of a certain creek, namely Dawson's Creek.  In its heyday, Dawson's was so prevalent that even if you didn't watch it regularly, you constantly heard about it.  Reviewers criticized its seemingly "too smart for teenagers" dialogue, the Parents Television Council and other like-minded organizations continually called it the most offensive show on television, and your parents either forbade you from watching the show due to its implied sexual content or they tuned in with you (like mine did).  Dawson's was created by Kevin Williamson and starred James Van Der Beek (Dawson), Joshua Jackson (Pacey), Michelle Williams (Jen), and Katie Holmes (Joey).

Before Dawson's even aired on the fledgling WB network, the show garnered a lot of buzz, thanks in part to a huge marketing campaign (see TV Guide covers left and right) and its very photogenic stars.  Since Buffy the Vampire Slayer had become a critical and commercial success in the beginning of 1997, the network decided to shift its focus to the teen market.  When Dawson's premiered in January 1998, it opened to the highest ratings in the network's history.  It also became the most popular show on the WB and the highest-rated on television for teenage girls. Dawson's helped to solidify the WB's status as a network geared toward young adults.  As television is so fragmented and specialized today, it is hard to believe that a teen-focused network was such a departure from the norm, but at the time, there was nothing else like it.  So what did the show tap into and why did it resonate so much with young people?

Though many critics believed that the conversations among Dawson's teenage stars were far too sophisticated to be believable, the show managed to convey what it felt like to be at the in-between time of your life when you are no longer a child, but your choices are not fully your own.  Growing up can be difficult, and whether it's idle school gossip or your mother's infidelity, it can feel like the end of the world. That Dawson's didn't dumb itself down, but rather, treated its audience with respect, added to its popularity.  The characters spoke and expressed themselves with a maturity and eloquence that teens appreciated.

Michelle Williams in "The Scare" season one episode,
a nod to Drew Barrymore in Scream
Dawson's was also current and cool, thanks in large part to Kevin Williamson, known for his introspective characters and clever pop culture references (see Scream or his homage to the film, photo left).  The show was self-aware and occasionally poked fun at itself, as it did in the season one finale when Dawson and Joey discuss the ways cliffhangers are used to increase ratings.  Joey remarks that television characters are put into contrived situations and the audience is fooled into thinking something critical will change, but it never does. When Dawson suggests it might be different this time, the show is speaking directly to its audience: This is the episode when something will shift.  Other memorable references include a nod to Luke Perry's return to Beverly Hills, 90210, all things Spielberg, a detention episode where the characters acknowledge their situation is just like The Breakfast Club, and Pacey's reference to Emilio Estevez's part in those "great Mighty Ducks movies," considering Joshua Jackson, a.k.a. Pacey, starred in those films with Estevez.

Dawson and Joey
Although much of the public outcry and critical analysis of Dawson's focused on its sexually provocative storylines, the heart of the show was really about holding hands and first dates.  In fact, its entire first season was focused on Dawson and Joey's friendship and how their hormones and emerging feelings for one another might affect their relationship.  "I don't wanna lose you Joey.  What we have is the only thing that makes sense to me.  When I saw you in the movie theater with that lipstick on, I remember thinking how pretty you looked.  I mean, I ignored it.  But I thought it."  Dawson's was a show about growing up and all of the angst and fear that is a part of that process.  

The show was also ahead of its time, as it didn't shy away from the fact that when you're a teenager, you are considering all aspects of your identity, and that includes your sexuality.  Mentioning masturbation and condom use is not crude, but practical, given the show's audience.  Dawson's examined the deeper issues and concerns that teens sometimes confront, along with their more basic frustrations: Joey is tired of being seen as just a good friend to Dawson, and she is dealing with her father's incarceration; Pacey wants desperately to lose his virginity, and he feels like a disappointment to his father.  Although some of the show's storylines were heightened for dramatic effect, they were always rooted in relatable emotions that connected with viewers.

Jack and his boyfriend Toby
So much has changed in the last fifteen or so years that it is hard to believe Dawson's was actually the first network show to ever air a romantic kiss between two men.  The show's comfort level with homosexuality as a topic of conversation was very progressive for its time.  When Kerr Smith (Jack), was introduced on the show in season two, he was initially interested in Joey and even dated her for a bit.  When Jack recites a revealing poem aloud in class and rumors circulate about his sexuality, he feels moved to confront the truth about himself.  When his father argues that he's not gay, Jack breaks down in tears: "I see how you look at me, and I know you know...And as hard as you've tried to stamp it out and to ignore it, I have tried harder.  I've tried harder than you, to be quiet, and to forget it, and to not bother my family with my problem.  But I can't try anymore, because it hurts. I'm sorry, Dad.  Andie, I'm sorry.  I don't want to be going through this, but I am."  His last statement could sum up the entire coming of age process.

Jack's journey to accept himself is handled thoughtfully and with great care.  We watch him resolve issues with his father, deal with the small town's reaction to his romantic choices, and navigate relationships with men for the first time.  Jack never becomes a gay stereotype and his character is defined by a lot more than his sexuality, which is not always the case on-screen today.  Dawson's was an inclusive show; when Jack wasn't allowed to bring his date Ethan to the Junior Prom, his friends created an "Anti-Prom" that everyone could attend.  Dawson, Joey, Pacey and Jen were misfits in high school, but they never seemed bothered by the label.  They always had one another to depend on and they actually enjoyed being nonconformists.  Dawson's had some of the spirit of the show Glee years before Glee existed.

Jack, Jen, and Grams: Family
Last week I watched the Dawson's pilot with my thirteen year old "little sister" Lexi and it was fascinating to see her watch the show the same way I did at twelve.  From the show's opening scene, she was completely enthralled; she laughed at Pacey's antics and Joey's one-liners, and her eyes lit up when Dawson is there for Joey in the final moments as The Pretenders' I'll Stand By You plays in the background.  That over fifteen years later, Dawson's still resonated with Lexi supports the notion that the show did more than just tap into the zeitgeist of the time.  It was a show about the complexities of growing up and the years when we begin to create the lives we want for ourselves, forming bonds with friends who become like family and learning to love them for exactly who they are.  In other words, the show is timeless.

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