While watching the first season of Don’t Mess with the B**** in Apartment 23 (which is now canceled: thanks antiquated Nielsen Rating System), starring an often self-referencing James Van Der Beek, as some version of himself, I got the nostalgic notion to re-watch Dawson’s Creek. Yes, I was a creek-dweller in high school. How could I not be? The characters were exactly my age, living my high school (and life) aspirations every Wednesday night.
However, much like the characters themselves, when I went to college, it consumed me and I left the creek behind for nights in my boyfriend’s dorm room, hanging out with his friends, none of whom were creek-dwellers—at least not that they let on. While I loved the show, I loved James Van Der Beek the most. The actor stole my gutsy heart when I saw The Rules of Attraction in theatre my freshman year of college. Now there was a piece of the Van Der Beek catalog even my boyfriend could get on board with (make no mistake, though: he’s now my husband and we watch(ed) Don’t Mess with the B**** in Apartment 23 together). However, realizing that I only followed the show through my first semester of college, I saw it was time to dig up the past: to see what happened to Dawson, Pacey, Joey, Jack, and Jen; to see if they held more for me than just nostalgic longing for my high school and college days; to see what I hadn’t seen when I left the creek the first time. What I discovered, as I’ve discovered with many of my other favorite shows revisited years later, was that Dawson’s Creek holds up for a number of reasons, nostalgia the least.
1. Nostalgia. Of course, if you’re a child of the ’90s, you’re going to appreciate the music, the movie and TV references, the clothes, the pre-cell phone infested high school existence. In fact, Class of 2001, you’re probably the last class to leave your high schools with that benchmark. You’ll also appreciate all the drama of high school (and life) themes—friendship, love, rejection, the search for a purposeful existence, family, mentorship. You just will.
2. Dawson’s Creek got “small town” right. You know those clichés that small towns get: everyone knows everyone else, everyone knows everyone else’s business, and everyone has a judgment call to make. Capeside certainly upholds those clichés, but it also represents the strong ties to small towns that people who grew up in them seek desperately to both maintain and escape. Growing up in one of those small towns (though not nearly as ocean-side-beautiful as Capeside), I, like Joey and the others, clawed at the doors to get out. It portrays the seeming damnation of anyone who would tie themselves to the town after high school.
However, the series shows that all those who leave are as damned to return as any who never escaped. Holidays, traditions and tragedies bring Dawson, Joey, Pacey, Jack, and Jen back to Capeside, as they often do any of us. Such returns foster an appreciation for small town and home that one can only gain after leaving them. For people who never leave, the small town either breeds discontent and resentment because they never got out or total isolation because they no longer strive to get out. However, the series shows both the community and seclusion of a small town and showcases the appreciation and disdain through the characters’ lives.
3. It got sex right. TV and movies often glamorize sex — not the need and desire to have it (which is in reality a big deal), but the results of it, the conditions under which it occurs, and the feelings surrounding it. TV and movie sex is often one-dimensional. It’s hot and successful and everyone’s happy it happened and love leads to it or results from it; or, sex is met with an unshared experience—one partner had a great time while the other did not and conflict of the story ensues. However, Dawson’s Creek illustrated the complexity of sex, particularly teen sex through the story of Joey. The poor girl can’t seem to have any fun sex because of her own fear and feelings of rejection. Teen sex is often portrayed as forbidden, and when a teen indulges, the consequences are dire and the teen can’t stop having sex. Dawson’s Creek knows that teen sex is complicated, that it often has little to do with morality or lack of understanding the consequences of unprotected sex. Not that those aren’t factors for some teens, but for smart teens who reside in a purgatory of being teenagers with the minds of 35-year-olds (read: all the Dawson’s Creek characters), sex is more complicated by hyper-awareness of the consequences, both emotional and otherwise. As a result, the show gives us Joey, whose rejection by Dawson, makes it nearly impossible for her to relax and enjoy sex with Pacey, and Dawson who remains a virgin because he can’t ever find the emotional release to be able to enjoy sex. Dawson’s Creek rewards viewers after all the awkward near-sex with very hot actual sex. (I could write another essay on how Dawson’s Creek network TV sex is every bit as hot as Don Draper sex on AMC’s Mad Men. Earlier in the series, there’s even hot almost-sex between Jack and Joey, and later Jen and Jack, despite different sexual orientation.)