Revisiting ‘Dawson’s Creek’ – “Pilot”
As I mentioned earlier this week, it has come to my attention that several of my peers are not familiar with the pop culture phenomenon that is ‘Dawson’s Creek’. Because this show is such a big part of my personal past and our popular culture, I’ve decided to revisit the teen drama in all of its terribly dressed glory in the hopes that it will inspire those who maybe missed it when it was on or who were too young when it originally aired to watch it with me now.
It’s natural for me to mock this show when I watch it, and I did plenty of that last night on Twitter as I watched the first four episodes of season one, but in the following analyses I will attempt to analyze the show as I would any other. I’ll also attempt to refrain from spoiling or alluding to future plot developments in case you’re one of those who hasn’t seen it before. But if you want a good laugh, please check out the 90s fashion our stars were sporting in those first four episodes. Perhaps I’ll start a gallery so you can see all of the late 90s/early 00s glory all in one place.
I’ve set no exact schedule for this revisit, but as it stands, I’m going to try to do at least two episodes at a time, hopefully on a weekly basis. However, I’ve decided to make this first one a standalone piece because it’s the pilot and is monumental in setting up the show.
Though The WB’s current incarnation, The CW, is often looked down upon as being the red-headed stepchild of the adopted second cousin at the family reunion, The WB is fondly remembered as the network that gave birth to the teen soap. But the difference between The WB and The CW is that The WB existed at a time when primetime TV was aimed almost completely at adults, not teens, and when the only choices were the regular networks and a few pay cable dramas on HBO (and if you want to read more about how the world of television has changed over the last decade and a half, I suggest you read Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution was Televised). Today our TV sets are overrun with original programming on nearly every channel, but back in the mid-1990s this was not the case.
‘Dawson’s Creek’ premiered on the WB (itself born in 1995) on January 20, 1998, at which time The WB was attempting to corner the fresh teen market. Fox, which had been the home of ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’ (1990-2000) and ‘Party of Five’ (1994-2000), was beginning to lean toward more adult fare with shows like ‘Ally McBeal’ (1997-2002). In August 1996 the WB premiered the conservative family drama ‘7th Heaven’ (1996-2007) and in March 1997 Buffy staked her first vampire (‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, 1997-2003).
Nine months after Dawson and Joey became household names, ‘Felicity’ (1998-2002) and ‘Charmed’ (1998-2006) premiered on the same network. A few years later ‘Gilmore Girls’ (2000-2007) and ‘Smallville’ (2001-2011) would follow suit and The WB would become known as the network for teen drama. But it never would have happened without ‘Dawson’s Creek’ as the show became the breakout hit for the network. It was paired with ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ on Tuesday nights and together they propelled The WB’s popularity to new heights.
But as for the pilot episode itself, there’s not much to say. It’s not a groundbreaking pilot. It’s not in real time, there’s no plane crash, there’s nothing truly extraordinary about it. If it were a pilot script in today’s current television landscape, I highly doubt it would ever see the light of day let alone be ordered to series. But because the teen soap was a new concept in the mid-to-late 90s, it was fresh and new and the world gobbled it up.
The pilot episode does what every pilot of every show has ever done. It:
A) Introduces us to our lead characters – Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek), Joey Potter (Katie Holmes), Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson) and Jen Lindley (Michelle Williams), all of whom are beginning their sophomore year at Capeside High.
B) Sets up a backstory for said characters – Dawson, a naive movie fanatic who believes his life should be as romantic and magical as the movies he worships, and Joey, the ultimate tomboy from a broken home, have been best friends since they were children. They are now 15 years old and trying to navigate the waters of puberty, crushes and every other problem that plagues teenagers. Pacey is a ridiculously cute teenage boy with a never-ending supply of witticisms and is Dawson and Joey’s other best friend, though Joey finds him annoying.
C) Sets up a conflict – Jen moves in next door to Dawson creating the first of many love triangles on the show as Joey also secretly harbors a crush on her best friend. She’s also the polar opposite of Joey, not just physically – Jen is short with blonde hair, while Joey is a tall brunette – but personality-wise as well. Joey is a cynical and sarcastic tomboy (as evidenced by the masculine nickname for Josephine) and Jen is friendly and feminine and gives off the vibes of the typical girl next door.
That being said, one must not forget that Jen is from the City. Being from New York means that Jen is more worldly than our other three teens who grew up in a small town on Cape Cod. We’re told of Jen’s maturity not by words so much as actions and character traits. Jen is an atheist, which causes conflict between herself and her grandmother, who happens to be very religious, and she doesn’t eat breakfast in the morning, she just drinks coffee. This being 1998, the Gilmore girls and their coffee addiction hadn’t yet happened. And as best as I can remember from my own experiences in the late 90s, most teenagers did not drink coffee – it was still seen as an adult characteristic. From these two instances alone we are supposed to infer that Jen is more advanced in life than Dawson, Joey and Pacey.
The pilot also introduces us to the adult figures in the characters lives against whom we will inevitably compare and contrast our intelligent and articulate, but ultimately emotionally immature, teenage lead characters.
In addition to Jen’s aforementioned Grams, Dawson’s parents are introduced. His mother Gail is a local news anchor and his father Mitch is the perfect male specimen. Much to Dawson’s chagrin, they’re deeply in love and strongly believe in PDA. It is worth noting that for having very sexual parents, Dawson himself is completely inexperienced with the opposite sex, despite having been best friends with a girl his entire life. He is incredibly naive and actually giggles at the idea of Joey having breasts. There is also this exchange which comes during the opening scene in the pilot after Joey tells Dawson that she probably shouldn’t sleep over anymore:
Joey: I have breasts! You have genitalia!
Dawson: I’ve always had genitalia.
Joey: But there’s more of it.
Dawson: How do you know?
It is obvious from this alone that Joey is not only more mature than Dawson, but she’s also come to view their friendship differently than she used to. Dawson is slow on the uptake, but to his credit, boys tend to mature less quickly than their female counterparts so I’m going to let this one slide. In the end Joey does stay the night after the two promise that they’ll always be friends no matter how much body hair they acquire (oh, Dawson, really?) and that they’ll never talk about this again (they go on to talk about it every week for the next six years), but it’s clear from the way she turns her back on Dawson and quickly says goodnight that her feelings for him have changed and spending the night in his bed is now uncomfortable. No doubt this was seen as scandalous in the mid 90s, and all I can say for that is, thank goodness we didn’t know about ‘Gossip Girl’ yet.
As the episode progresses Joey’s insecurities and changing feelings continue to be exposed as she watches Dawson fall for Jen. But instead of telling Dawson how she feels (because then what’s the point of the rest of the season?) she covers up her true feelings with her trademark sarcasm and cynicism, ruining what is essentially a date between Dawson and Jen that Dawson is too nervous to go on alone and thus has invited Pacey and Joey along on. Throughout the evening Joey’s remarks to Jen veer past banter and sarcasm and into lover scorned territory, but Dawson is too blind to see the truth and thinks Joey’s just being a bitch.
In the B story of the episode, while Dawson and Pacey are at work at the video rental store (yes, you read that right, an actual video rental store with VHS tapes – hi, first non-clothing obvious indication of it being 1998!), we’re introduced to an attractive older woman named Tamara. Pacey is instantly attracted to Tamara and the two strike up what appears to be a flirtatious conversation. We later find out Tamara is the new English teacher at Capeside High and thus the meet cute between the two is less cute and more illegal.
I’m not certain if this was the first case of a student/teacher relationship on TV (can anyone think of any other relationships prior to this one?), but if Joey and Dawson spending nights in the same bed wasn’t shocking, I feel pretty good about saying this was downright scandalous for a teen drama. Today these kinds of things litter the television landscape (Aria and Ezra/Mr. Fitz on ‘Pretty Little Liars’, Taylor Townsend and Dean Hess on ‘The OC’), but back then, this was very progressive for a teen show.
At school, Pacey insists to Tamara that they’re both feeling the same thing, but Tamara tells Pacey she really was just looking to rent ‘The Graduate’ the other day and that she didn’t mean for him to read into it and assume it was a sign of their own relationship. Later when everyone goes to the movies, Pacey sees Tamara enter and sit by herself and he, being Pacey of the stupid ideas and completely ridiculous storylines of season one, leaves Joey alone as the awkward third wheel, and joins Tamara, who again rebuffs his advances and gets punched by her movie date.
At the end of the episode both stories climax as Pacey confronts Tamara telling him, “I’m the best sex you’ll never have!” Yes, Pacey is a virgin and comes off as a petulant and immature virgin, but Tamara still ends up kissing him and leaving abruptly.
On the Dawson/Joey front, the two sit in his bedroom as she tells him once again she is leaving because their relationship has changed. Dawson insists that she is still the person he can tell anything to and Joey, the more mature, more confident, more outspoken of the two, challenges him by asking him outright how often he walks his dog (yes, 90s euphemisms!). Dawson, clearly embarrassed, doesn’t answer and Joey leaves. What follows is a good minute of teen drama angst while Joey leaves and runs towards her boat in a huff and Dawson beats himself up in his room. The episode ends with Dawson screaming out the window he likes to walk the dog in the morning to Katie Couric (really, bro?). Joey laughs and paddles her way down the creek, but is brought up short at the sight of Gail Leery kissing her co-anchor as the episode comes to a close.
Some stray observations:
- Signs that it’s 1998: Belly shirts, high waisted jeans, VHS, Dawson’s giant shoulder-based video camera, frizzy hair/absence of hair straighteners
- There’s not much to discuss at this point, but the gender reversal of Joey and Dawson is an interesting and intriguing part of the show’s dynamic and I look forward to tackling it more as we work our way through the first season.
- Dawson: “I’m having a climax issue.”
- Forget Dawson’s horror movie, the scariest part of the episode is the late 90s footwear – chunky heels?
Note: Screencaps are from cap-that.com.