by Cory Barker, November 10, 2010
Perhaps more so than any other genre, teen dramas exist in a very specific moment that can tell us things about the how, what, when, where and why they came to be and were successful. Teen dramas depict trends of certain times with relative ease and serve as time capsules for their moment. But how do the genre’s capstone series relate to one another? How do they differ? What have been the evolutions in the cycle since the early 1990s?
It seems pretty easy to take pot shots at the super earnest and often pretentiously annoying Dawson’s Creek, but it served as a nice recalibration of the teen drama genre. Creek, particularly the first few seasons, are some the best around, especially when considering teen dramas that don’t include any additional gimmicks (i.e. Buffy, Smallville, Roswell, etc.).
In 2003, it was already out of its time. Even though the series finale aired in May of that year, my vague recollections of the chatter in things like Entertainment Weekly or TV Guide suggest that time had already passed Creek by. Part of that is the declining quality of the series, part of that is that teen dramas seem to have a shelf-life (Beverly Hills, 90210 being an outrageous exception) and part of that is that things like The O.C. were right around the corner to take the genre into a new era.
And really, an argument could probably be made that Dawson’s Creek never really existed in any “time.” As the pilot depicts, these characters and this world they lived in felts both wholly realistic and completely unrealistic. Meaning, there are few moments (read: absolutely none) on Creek that could stand up to even the mild antics of something like Beverly Hills, 90210 and especially the teen dramas of the aughts. Capeside felt like a real place, populated with real people. But on the other hand, the dialogue and the emotional maturity of the teen characters is, from the beginning, unbelievably unbelievable. Combined with a strong attachment to earnestness and idealism, Creek exists as something of an outlier in a genre that is filled with hyper-sexual, glossy and manic series.
Which, of course, makes it hilarious that most of the discussions surrounding the series before its debut where all about its hyper-sexual nature. The pilot episode does include conversations about sex, genitalia, masturbation and probably a few things I’m forgetting at this point, which led critics like Tom Shales to deride the pilot and Kevin Williamson’s “pandering.” Just like and actually, more so than the original 90210, these in-episode discussions wouldn’t even be mentioned in a terrible Television Without Pity “recap.”
However, the moral outrage over Creek‘s sexual content seems fitting based on the time that it came onto the airwaves. The series debuted on January 20, 1998. Three days prior, the country’s biggest sex scandal ever broke, as The Drudge Report detailed the story of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky online. A day after the series aired its pilot episode, news of the story reached the mainstream media.
This is a total occurrence of serendipity, but it’s a great example to use to frame how people were thinking in the late ’90s. After the conservative Reagan years and the “scary” early ’90s powered by countless stories about AIDS, the late ’90s seemed to exist as this bridge between said AIDS scares and the more openly sexual society we became in the first decade of the aughts. I am not trying to say that the late ’90s weren’t progressive or didn’t feature some sexual awakenings or something, but it seems like a time where the battle for America’s so-called was being fought.
President Clinton was notably liberal personality-wise and perhaps there was some concern that his personal outlook on life was trickling down to the American public. Or perhaps cultural and television critics were just upset because they’re oftentimes old curmudgeons who don’t like anything sexually risqué unless it’s on HBO.
Nevertheless, the discussions about the Clinton-Lewinsky centered around the balance between what’s public and what’s private and how those lines blur when someone is a public figure. In a way, Dawson’s Creek was apart of that conversation, as it took conversational topics that everyone knew teens were discussing and put them out and in the open as if they were nothing. I don’t think Kevin Williamson was trying to be overly progressive or even glib with his approach to the sexual topics in his dialogue, but because of the moment the series came to be in, it seems as if people viewed Creek as one or the other. I tend to side with the idea that the series was progressive in how it handled teens and sex without being too idealistic or moralistic, but the kinds of people who found Bill Clinton’s actions deplorable probably had similar feelings about Joey and Dawson talking about masturbating to Katie Couric (although, obviously, infidelity is a bigger issue that teens talking about self-pleasure on TV, I see the scales here).
But aside from its apparently sexual nature, the series on the surface existed more in opposition to the late ’90s than it seemed to embrace them. While the series is certainly post-modern (I’ll get to that), its softness, its general ideology don’t work in line exactly with what now appears to be the late ’90s televisual aesthetics. It wasn’t really interested in the breakdowns of society, the fears of the coming millennium or anything particularly political.
However, one thing that’s particularly interesting about the pilot and the series is how it does actually portray exactly what we think of as the late ’90s. By 1998, the teens in this series and those watching it at home had grown up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a time that’s generally thought of as one of the best in our country’s history. Teens of that era grew up during an economic boom, one where the advertising, apparel and entertainment industries honed in on how to turn young people into consumers.
In that sense, Creek depicts and represents an age group of people who had little real cares in the world, and not in the Reagan era style where everything was covered in a sheen of gloss hiding all the terrible things out there. No, teenagers in the late ’90s grew up in the blockbuster era of films, a booming time for MTV and so they were groomed into self-reflexive consumers that were bank-rolled by their middle- to upper-class parents. Of course Dawson Leery is obsessed with movies, of course Pacey works at a video store and of course Joey’s “lower class” family is still fairly successful. It was the late ’90s, man, things were goooood, good enough that people could generally feel good about life. They had time to watch every new movie, check out the great new music and wear the best kinds of clothing. (Of course, this is an oversimplification of how the economic and political circumstances of the late ’90s developed.)
Thus, Creek needs to be celebrated for its two major contributions to the teen drama genre: it’s self-reflexivity and its ability to turn its series into a brand that provided ancillary products and content to its fans.
Williamson’s dialogue, while oftentimes overwrought and pretentious, is a great example of intertextuality and self-reflexivity. Creek had no problem continuously referencing other popular culture texts in a way that Beverly Hills, 90210 didn’t seem to, or perhaps it did so more effectively during a time that the audience was more responsive to it. Countless episodes of the series are exact riffs on popular films or specific television plots and the characters always existed in a world where popular culture was super-important. I’ll never forget the time Jen and Pacey discussed watching Roswell. My mind was blown.
Similarly, part of that self-reflexivity and intertextuality came with the series’ influence on the WB network and the teen film boom of the same time. I don’t want to make a baseless claim that Creek was single-handedly responsible for the countless films starring the same 15 people (Joshua Jackson, Paul Walker, Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, etc.) but the WB’s success with the series and similar programs like Buffy helped it create a brand equity and identity that the CW would kill for today. Creek also served as the springboard for literally dozens of careers during the time — Chad Michael Murray, Scott Foley, Jensen Ackles, Jason Behr, Michael Pitt, Eion Bailey, Hilarie Burton, Monica Keena, Oliver Hudson, Ali Larter, I could go on for paragraphs with the people who guest starred on this series — most of which the WB kept in-house for later series or Warner Bros. used in moderately successful films. Thus, Creek feels like the start of a teen idol industry, one that just happened to coincide with the same kind of thing happening in music. (I wonder why these things tend to happen in cycles. I mean I know that’s just how culture works, but every 10 years or so, there seems to be a massive batch of teen heartthrobs and starlets coming out at the same time.)
Going off of that, the WB and Creek producers smartly figured out how to turn its success and eyeballs into more money and interactivity. I was just reading a book chapter about how the series was one of the first with a legitimate web presence and certainly one of the first 2-3 that featured original content online with its “Dawson’s Desktop” that allowed fans to look into the life of Dawson Leery through his “real” computer operating system. Both the pilot and particularly later episodes includes an emphasis on music and specific fashion trends, which though certainly present in 90210, feel particularly successful here. According to the aforementioned chapter (written by Jennifer Gillan — check out the book here), the network and producers made a crafty deal with J.Crew and I believe later American Eagle that integrated specific teen-targeted clothing brands to a welcoming audience at home. Thus, while not the first to do any of these things, Creek put the brand integration, product placement, music choice and talent development into a perfect mix that helped it exist as the most influential teen drama of the late ’90s, and one that spurred on countless other similar series and kept the WB afloat when it was probably on the verge of death.
Therefore, I feel like Creek is wrongfully derided for its dialogue and earnestness (which, are admittedly problematic) and forgotten for all the innovative and intelligent things it did do. This pilot is still a great representation of what teen dramatic television should and could be. The series seems idealistic and quaint now, particularly because most popular teen dramas after it focused on the super wealthy, hyper-aware brats of the 21st century, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t provide an updated template that built on what Beverly Hills, 90210 did for most of the ’90s. Future series have similarly built on the formula just as they should, but it’s important not to forget what came first.
It’s tempting to call the pilot of Dawson’s Creek an assemblage of teen drama clichés. They’re all here: BFFs with unresolved sexual tension, preternaturally eloquent high schoolers, student/teacher romance. But Dawson’s Creek didn’t borrow from the series that came before it—it set the stage for the series to come. The pilot is, in fact, a template for the teen drama. If you can get past the all-too-predictable storylines, it’s actually a fascinating time capsule.
To be fair, getting past that isn’t always easy. I didn’t watch Dawson’s Creek when it first aired, and my limited knowledge of the show was gained through fandom osmosis. I knew enough that I assumed the pilot would feel familiar, but I was genuinely surprised by how quickly the stage was set. Joey loves Dawson. Dawson probably loves Joey but doesn’t realize it yet. Dawson likes Jen because she’s exciting and new. Pacey likes Tamara Jacobs because she’s—to employ a more recent term—a cougar. From there, you have a good idea where this story will go. There will be break-ups and make-ups, heavily debated first-time sexual encounters, and—that fandom staple—shipper wars.
But let’s take a step back and put Dawson’s Creek in its 1998 context. I can’t think of a pilot that more aptly defines the (now defunct) WB brand. (I’d argue that Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which debuted in 1997, did much of the same, though its supernatural slant places it in a separate class.)
Dawson’s Creek surely didn’t invent the best friends who may or may not be in love staple, but the pilot gives it a teen twist. As Joey notes in the opening scene, “Things change, Dawson. Evolve.” These are two kids who frankly don’t know a lot about what’s happening to their bodies—Dawson’s kind of a prude, and neither he nor Joey had access to Gossip Girl back in the late ’90s. This is a surprisingly realistic look at the way puberty can change a friendship, as the innocence of Dawson and Joey sharing a bed becomes, well, not that innocent.
Looking back (and keeping Gossip Girl in mind), it seems ridiculous that parents’ groups lamented the freewheeling sexuality Dawson’s Creek supposedly promoted. It wasn’t the first show to deal with teen sex—Beverly Hills, 90210—covered that years prior. At the same time, it was a step forward in terms of double entendres and frank sexual discussion. Dawson and Joey talk about their developing genitalia, hair where there was no hair before, and even Dawson’s masturbation habits. Pacey tells his teacher that he’s “the best sex you’ve never had.” Dawson’s mom calls his dad “Mr. Manmeat”—which has nothing to do with teen sex, but is definitely icky.
While it may seem tame now, Joey flat-out asking Jen if she’s a virgin and later if penis size matters is really rather shocking. These are the kind of things we talked about when we were 15, but God forbid our parents know that. The Dawson’s Creek pilot disrupts the fantasy of shows like original flavor 90210, in which the characters were—at least initially—more soap opera archetypes than actual people. Because though Dawson, Joey, Pacey, and Jen would eventually become archetypes of their own, in 1997 they were a whole new breed of TV teenagers.
On the other hand, the kids of Dawson’s Creek don’t talk like kids. At all. Their problems, emotions, and dynamics are more realistic than what came before, but their language is downright unbelievable. I’d like to think I was that clever at 15, but let’s be real: I never once said, “I am simply trying to establish a rapport with you based on humor.” When confronted with an insult, I was much more likely to sulk than to fire back, “Did you toss a negative, disparaging remark my way?”
Not to mention all the pop culture references. The kids go see indie cult classic “Waiting for Guffman.” Pacey seduces his teacher with a reference to “Summer of ’42.” Dawson even bangs his head against a “Schindler’s List” poster. (Who hangs a “Schindler’s List” poster in his room? That’s just poor taste.) These teenagers are Generation-X media consumers, which puts them in line with actual late ‘90s teenagers. Of course, real 15-year-olds didn’t have Kevin Williamson writing their lines.
I can’t say the Dawson’s Creek pilot stands the test of time—it does, naturally, feel dated. But as a fan of series like Gilmore Girls, etc., I can appreciate what it did for the genre. “Wit!” Dawson exclaims. “We like that around here.” Which is great—I like it, too.