TV Shows

Before she met Tom Cruise

In the early parts of 1996, I remember picking up my Seventeen Magazine and reading a tiny blurb about a show that was in the works for a new network. They weren’t sure what they were going to call the show, but they knew it would take place in Cape Cod and involve teens. I think I stared at that little photo for days, pining away at this would-be program, because frankly, at the time, us pre-teens needed a pick-me-up that the early-to-mid ’90s failed to bring us (or rather, cancelled, and pried from our fingertips i.e. My So-Called Life) It wouldn’t be for another two years until the show they had been toying around with finally made its debut on a network called The WB, a window of television momentum that would come to represent the adolescence of us ’90s pre-teens, generating major, major hype. Because of this new show, I learned the fine art in handling middle school boys the Joey Potter way, began a fond appreciation for the work of Kevin Williamson, and wondered how a dude like Pacey Witter could speak so, so eloquently…

Dawson’s Creek. The theme song was originally slated to be “Hand in My Pocket” by long-haired ’90s female power singer Alanis Morissette. I’m glad they picked that Paula Cole song, or whatever. I am. Mostly because it would be so typical of 2012 to just put all the popular kids in the same classroom, and instead, the went with a particular up-and-coming singer (only to be cut-off as a one-hit wonder for a TV theme song…)

The Creek had two strengths: setting and dialogue. The small, fictional town of Capeside wasn’t pretentious. It wasn’t the Upper East Side. It wasn’t Beverly Hills. It was some seaside town in New England with a pack of average looking kids, for the most part only a few years older than their characters were supposed to be (unlike Andrea Zuckerman a la 90210, the oldest high school senior of all time, God love her.) And, nothing was too over the top. I know what you’re thinking. Pacey. Tamara Jacobs, his teacher. Endless, soul-crushing, Dawson-hysterically-sobbing-on-his-dock cliffhangers. But, even the most scandalous of sub-plots were played out in the most realistic ways. People talked things OUT. I mean, these kids didn’t let things go. They analyzed, they fretted, they thought about other people. They weren’t necessarily devious or rebellious. Their motives were simply: to be high school kids. No one was surveying them (i.e. the voyeur shows of today like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars). This was about being normal, as normal as normal could be–but that’s not to say there weren’t near-fatal boat outings between sour bro friends, sudden but expected kisses between friends who claim to hate each other, and new girls who see their dead brothers in bathrooms. Oh, and it also didn’t mean they were going to shy away from real issues–like having a gay kid at school. Because guess what, people are blonde, tall, short, and yes, gay. Even in Capeside.

I remember listening to the soundtrack for Dawson’s Creek on my school bus in 8th grade; my best friend would talk to me on the phone about her romance in New Hampshire with a childhood best friend, and how every time she heard the song “I’ll Be” by Edwin McCain, it was like she was Joey and he was Dawson and the world was confusingly perfect and adolescent. It was like living x 200. We saw the world through the eyes of these characters, we sat inches away from the TV screen, we even cradled the familiar and like-minded shows that followed it like Felicity, Charmed, Buffy, Popular, and Gilmore Girls. I shot homemade videos out on the beach with my goth friend Kiersten, to be shown in a science class presentation, and probably thought that the boy on Captiva Island would decide I was cool enough to hang out with, but really, I just sat and cried to “At the Stars” by Better Than Ezra, wrapped tightly in the everlasting feeling of being 13.

Now, if you were still tuning in post-’00, when the gang went off to college–a death trap for any high school-type TV series that follows a group of young people, you were just pining away after Van Der Beek’s new hair cut. Yes, he joined the ranks in Varsity Blues, toughened up, appeared in The Rules of Attraction as the ultimate asshole, and you kind of liked it. (It beats him crying on a dock.) Joey’s hair on the other hand started looking super funky (and bad) and then, at the end of this voyage, they decided to kill off the slut from New York, Jen Lindley (Michelle Williams). Poor Jen, she really got the short end of the stick in every single corner of this show. If it weren’t for Grams and her endless love, or for Jack (Kerr Smith) and his unconditional gay love, Jen would be an absolutely character-tragedy (more so than she already is.)

What I liked, truly, undyingly liked about this show (despite what my friend Jimmy used to say in 9th grade math class when he’d call it “Dawson’s Crack”) went beyond the innocent, American Eagle ’90s culture (which isn’t that great, looking back at it) but for the way Kevin Williamson delivered it. That show was Kevin Williamson. Those lines were his lines, his nostalgia, his obsessions, his feelings, his um, awesome vocabulary. That genre, those actors, that whole time period was Williamson. A favorite episode of mine called “The Scare” paid homage to the horror classics, but rather, the horror newcomers at the time, poking fun at the work Williamson was doing with movies like Scream. There were dimensions (see what I did there?) to this show that go unnoticed. We can’t say it was ahead of its time. It was exactly what someone should think about when they think about 1998 pop culture, a Jaws poster hanging on a kid’s wall while he and his bronzed-skin BFF watch videotape rentals from the store he works at, and a cool breeze rushes in with alternative music and absolute innocence.

I don’t know if I’ll ever look at a second floor window the same–lit from inside, Joey’s shadow vulnerably standing before Dawson in her Gap jean jacket inside the teenage boy’s bedroom as we all hold our breath to see what happens next season. Long live The WB, and the character of actors that saw us through a time before cell phones, Facebook, DVDs, and college.

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