As any veteran television viewer knows, the most important plot device is the love triangle. It can work in almost any scripted show. When executed well, it can make a show very desirable, very watchable, but when executed poorly, it can drag on and on and make viewers want to rip out their eyeballs and light them on fire.
This unsurprisingly leads to viewers no longer being interested in the show. They stop watching, ratings plummet, fanfiction ceases to be written, show is canceled. In order to keep this from happening, I’ve watched countless hours of television and conducted several years worth of research in order to determine the most successful way to execute the love triangle.
The product of this research is the Pacey Witter Theorem, and as you have probably guessed, it is named after the character of the same name from The Greatest Teen Angst Show of All Time, Dawson’s Creek.
The theorem dictates that in shows aimed at women between the ages of 14 and 30, and that wish to execute the love triangle as a successful plot device and ratings ploy, the show must have a good boy character, a heroine and a bad boy character to contrast the flaws of the good boy character.
First, the heroine must fall for the good guy, as he is the obvious choice. He’s generally good looking (exceptions do occur, however, as that forehead and bad haircut did nothing for Dawson), he’s intelligent, and he loves his parents and has big dreams. But after awhile, the heroine shall grow tired of the cheery, happy, monotonous life she has with the good guy and will come to recognize his flaws. Like his forehead. And that point, she rarely understands half of what comes out of his mouth. She will come to resent, at least to an extent, the relationship she has built with this boy.
In order to find someone who challenges her and stimulates her on a different level, the heroine will then choose the dangerous (I use this term loosely) bad boy, who isn’t necessarily book smart, who doesn’t always respect authority and who looks surprisingly good even in ridiculous flower prints.
This theorem attempts to explain why good girls eventually all fall for bad boys – and it’s not because they like leather jackets and smirk a lot. It is because all bad boys really need is a relatively good girl to ail their bad boy ways and to love them. They’re really only bad because they’re misunderstood. And because they are hot. Very hot.
When applied to the show that spawned this theorem it goes a little something like this:
Dawson Leery is the most pretentious and annoying central character of any television show to date. The show, whose premise was to show that teens could act and speak like adults, was anchored by James Van der Beek’s forehead and a pre-Tom Cruise Katie Holmes as his best friend Josephine “Joey” Potter. Introduced as the sidekick to Dawson was Charlie Conway – Joshua Jackson as the infamous Pacey Witter, the screw up best friend who entered the show by sleeping with his teacher. Pacey, it seemed, was meant to be the opposite of Dawson (the good guy). Pacey was the slacker with no possible real dreams outside of Capeside, who acted like an asshole, but who was necessary to complete the trio.
The trio was set to begin their sophomore year of high school in the first season, but to throw the group for a loop, the character of Jen Lindley (Michelle Williams) was introduced as a romantic lead for Dawson. Enter the first love triangle of the show. Jen was the opposite of good girl Joey Potter (see how well matched Joey and Dawson were? They were both good kids!). Jen was blond while Joey was a brunette, Jen was from New York City while Joey was from the small town of Capeside, and Jen had lived a fast life in her short 16 years while Joey rowed her way down a creek for fun.
Fast forward through the boring, vomit inducing first season in which Joey wished Dawson would see her as more than just his best friend, through the point where they tried to be in a relationship and through the whole Jack McPhee trial (before we found out he was gay) and to the moment when Pacey Witter was fleshed out into an actual character, with a family, some feelings, and his own relationships in the following two seasons. As the opposite of the pretentious Forehead, Pacey Witter represented the stereotypical “bad boy” of teen angst. He’d slept with his high school teacher, did not perform well in school, and he disrespected authority, especially if that authority was an older brother named Doug. And Joey Potter hated him.
This setup has been used in every teenage soap post-’Dawson’. Now, it isn’t to say the Good Guy/Girl/Bad Guy love triangle hadn’t existed prior to Dawson’s Creek, it’s existed as long as stories have been told, but the show laid the ground work for all other teen soaps. Pacey was contracted by Dawson to watch over Joey after he crushed her poor little heart, and was surprised to find himself falling for Joey, who was apparently unaware of her girl next door charms and good looks. Joey originally rebuffed Pacey’s advances until, SHOCKER!, she realized what a downer Dawson was and how suave Pacey’s Hawaiian-print bowling shirts were. But this wouldn’t be a real love triangle without Forehead finding out about Joey and Pacey and throwing a massive hissy fit, declaring his best friend the enemy and giving Joey an ultimatum.
Most women would have seen Dawson as the creepy, annoying and pretentious man-boy he was and realize Pacey’s charming good looks and great sense of humor were the obvious winner, but Joey, in all her love triangle glory, fell into the Pacey Witter Theorem and was constantly going back and forth between soul mate, Dawson and the love of her life, Pacey. Now, bad boy Pacey isn’t innocent as he broke up with Joey at the prom because he claimed he wasn’t good enough for her and being around her just reminded of how shitty he was (oh Pacey, that’s not true!), but the show didn’t end there. No, no, no. The show carried on in to college and continued to employ the Pacey Witter Theorem by introducing bad boys/girls for several other characters – Jen had scummy Charlie, who cheated on her with another girl, Audrey is introduced as Joey’s flirtatious, sexy, roommate who eventually begins a relationship with the one and only Pacey, and Joey is once again brainwashed by Dawson into thinking Forehead is worth anything more than a shoulder to cry on. Pacey and Joey rekindle their friendship (again employing the theorem) as other characters are introduced, but the show finally gets it right when the two end up together in the series finale.
The Pacey Witter Theorem proved that Pacey, the original bad boy, was at first misunderstood, a little misguided, but ultimately a good guy. He became a great character, fondly remembered by any female between the ages of 18-35. He was the poster boy for bad-boy-turned-good. His problem was, he simply needed to find his place in life to realize he wasn’t the screw up everyone else made him think he was. Women still think of Pacey as someone to compare real life relationships to. Women still love Pacey so much that Joshua Jackson still deals with fans. He paired with FunnyOrDie to create a viral video for PaceyCon, a spoof of ComicCon.
As previously mentioned, other shows have employed the Pacey Witter Theorem to greater and lesser successful extents. Gilmore Girls was quite successful. Rory Gilmore first fell for the new guy, Dean Forrester. He was clean cut, had a happy home life and worked at the town grocery store. He respected her, he respected her mother and he was perfect in every sense of the word. Introduce Jess Mariano, the romantic bad boy foil, who liked punk music, was from NYC, had a bad attitude and disrespected all forms of authority. What became clear however, was that Jess was misunderstood. He had a really crummy childhood without a father who loved him and simply wanted his own life. But the hook that caught Rory was his love for books – a love she shared. His personality was magnetic and Rory was bored with her perfect life with Dean, who didn’t understand her book loving ways. It was only a matter of time before Rory and Dean ended and Rory and Jess began. Jess eventually screwed up and things ended with Rory, but as the Pacey Witter Theorem requires, he cleaned up his act, found himself, and attempted to re-woo Rory by telling her he loved her and then running away like a little girl. His attempts failed, but not because he wasn’t worth it. Rory was in a really bad place when Jess showed up the first time. The second time he reappeared in her life he told her all the things she needed to hear, because again, as the Pacey Witter Theorem requires, Jess knows Rory like no one else knows Rory. He’d also cleaned up so nicely that he had written a book (OMG!) and was working at a small publishing house. The show tried to employ this same theorem with the unlikable Logan, but the theorem only works once per show. Unfortunately, Jess never returned to Stars Hollow or Rory’s life, but most viewers choose to assume the two eventually rekindled their romance – as the Pacey Witter Theorem dictates it to.
Other shows employing the Pacey Witter Theorem:
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Angel/Buffy/Spike (success)
- Veronica Mars – Duncan/Veronica/Logan (success)
- Greek – Evan/Casey/Cappie (success)
- True Blood – Bill/Sookie/Eric (in progress)
- Friday Night Lights – Jason/Lyla/Tim (successful until Lyla chooses life outside Dillon)
- The OC – Anyone/Marissa/Ryan
- Gossip Girl – Nate/Blair/Chuck (success)
- The Vampire Diaries – Stefan/Elena/Damon (in progress)
As one can see, the Pacey Witter Theorem is still in use, and will continue to be used by all teen dramas, because every girl needs a bad boy. Or so the world of television wants us to think.
You can read more from Kaitlin Thomas on her blog.
Feature image via.