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.)
4. The complexity of teacher-student dynamic. Both in its high school and college seasons, Dawson’s Creek recognizes that the student-teacher dynamic is more complex than most TV shows and movies (and even people) credit. These two roles are often both less and more adversarial than portrayed. There’s Pacey and Jack’s torment by a mean high school literature teacher who refuses to give Pacey a break and causes Jack to come out before he was ready. In the college years, there’s Joey’s experience with two teachers, who both challenge her and oppose her. As a student who has always won teachers’ high praise, Joey finds herself in the less-than-good graces of two college professors, both with whom Joey ultimately develops more rewarding and complex relationships.
5. The taboo nature of teacher-student affair without the creep-factor. As early as the first season, the show places Pacey in a relationship with his high school teacher. The audience can recognize the recklessness and youthful ridiculousness of Pacey and the teacher’s choice to pursue a relationship, but they cannot ignore the instinct to root for them, just a little. Again, hot sex between the two may have some influence, but also, the fact that Pacey shows maturity in the context of his relationship with his teacher and the fact that he strives for academic improvement while in the relationship helps. A similar feeling happens with Joey and her college professor. However reckless the choice to develop something more than a teacher-student relationship with him may be, the audience roots for Joey to do something a little reckless, and again, indulge the spark between them.
Though (for obvious reasons) we only hear about the gone-terribly-bad relationships between students and teachers, to ignore the inclination or temptation to indulge in such relationships or fantasies of them ignores human nature and the thirst of the human mind for education. Dawson’s Creek is hyper-aware of that.
6. It avoided the “after school special” feel through self-referential nature, despite the consequences characters suffer for drug use, underage drinking, and promiscuity. Jen is the poster-child for most of these. Nevertheless, she is never villainized by the audience as she villainizes herself. Jen’s story is tragic, through and through, but not without rewards and accomplishments, as is any life. I won’t give away details because I hope you’ll be inspired to watch the show.
7. It got teen homosexuality right. It didn’t preach about teen sexuality. Instead, Jack discovered his sexuality much the way any teen (gay or straight) would. It was a revelation that spread over a few seasons. We got to know Jack, we saw him build relationships with Joey and Jen, and then we witnessed him getting to know himself — all of this with sexual tension that kept us wanting more of Jack with whomever.
8. It avoided extremes: the girl with daddy issues wasn’t just the girl with daddy issues. While Joey’s daddy issues followed her throughout the seasons (she had trouble committing to all of her lovers and entangled herself in complex relationships with authority figures), she was more than that. We saw multiple facets of Joey—the striving academe, the small town girl trying to rise above financial distress, the tomboy struggling to embrace her own beauty, the sister striving to help provide for her family in the absence of parents but also trying to just be a teenager. Daddy issues get simplified in many movies and TV shows, but Joey was a complex character, a victim and a villain (okay, that’s a strong word, but still).
9. It got college (and college drinking) right. Do college students drink? Of course. Do they drink before they’re of legal age to do so? Mostly. Does every college student who drinks before legally able end up a Lifetime movie or counseling center poster subject? No. In fact, many college students drink irresponsibly responsibly. But the Capeside kids managed to enjoy drinking and endure some negative consequences without killing themselves or others. All college students ought to act so responsibly irresponsible.
10. It got the ending right. One of Dawson Creek’s great contributions to my creek-dwellers and television of my teenhood is the grace and satisfaction with which it concluded. Spoiler alert: Dawson doesn’t get Joey, but Pacey does, and that’s the way it was meant to be. If you watched Pacey and Joey’s first moments of intimacy or their summer on True Love, you cannot deny this. Furthermore, it doesn’t tie everything up in a neat package—Jen’s death supplies the tragedy, the reminder that death touches us all, even the young.
11. It got indie music right. Suffice it to say that were it not for Dawson’s Creek, I would not have been exposed to indie music. Granted, indie music is cheaper than scoring a television series with hits from pop radio or classic rock tunes; I get that. But it exposed me to a world of music my family, friends, and radio didn’t, and I don’t just mean the famed theme song. The show is rife with indie kings and queens of the 90s and early 2000s: Shawn Colvin, Pete Yorn, among others. It easily established my almost decade long love for Pete Yorn and lots of other indie bands and artists.
12. Religion and death. Dawson’s Creek supported diversity of religion even in a town that didn’t. Many of us in rural America grew up with such a monochromatic religious experience. The show introduced religious diversity through Jen as a nonbeliever. However, it also highlighted the beauty in all religions through Grams’ devotion: the comfort, togetherness, and uplifting of the humans practicing it. It sought to remove the divisiveness and otherness that people impress upon religion and other people. Though I watched the series in totality as a woman in my late twenties, I think had I stuck with it as a teen and young adult, I would’ve gained similar insight that college and exposure to different people brought me: nonreligious people are not immoral people; religious people are not moral people. People are people are people–a complex lesson to learn from a 43-minute drama on the WB.