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Without Kevin Williamson, ''Dawson's Creek'' is in trouble

Kristen Baldwin explains how the once-compelling high school drama has gone awry this season

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Without Kevin Williamson, ”Dawson’s Creek” is in trouble

I knew things were going to be iffy this season on ”Dawson’s Creek” when, during the premiere, Joey climbed into Dawson’s window, stripped off her top, and then uttered one of the most excruciating lines of dialogue in recent TV history: ”I can be sexual, Dawson.” Oh, the pain!

That jarring opener only confirmed my fears: Without creator Kevin Williamson aboard — he turned over the reins completely this season to work on his underwhelming ABC drama, ”Wasteland” — the WB’s signature drama was doomed to become a rudderless, inconsistent mess, in a laughless parody-of-itself kind of way.

What made ”Dawson’s” a show worth watching was its ability to convey time-honored examples of teenage torment (unrequited love, parental disharmony, the whole coming-of-age cornucopia) in a way that evoked authentic angst while offering humor via an adult’s this-too-shall-pass perspective (hence the gang’s ridiculously articulate speeches). Sure, sometimes that hyperverbalization got annoying (”All this rapid-fire deconstruction is making me weary, Leery,” Pacey recently quipped), but it was what made the show stand out from chirpy, hairstyle-and-belly-shirt-driven teen dramas.

This season, though, the gravity has gone out of Capeside — even the new principal told the students in the season premiere that they should just lighten up and have some fun. But anything ”light” is not Dawson’s color, and it has resulted in some pretty unwatchable TV so far. Here’s just a few of the egregious errors, in order of annoyance.

* Jen — in her best Courtney Love pre-makeover impression — clomping around first as a punk-rock cheerleader and now as the ultimate antihero Homecoming Queen. Since when do clique-conscious high schoolers celebrate their iconoclastic peers? Is this an attempt to portray some kind of post-Columbine utopia?

* The Capeside High football team, faced by homophobic opponents, all don garish makeup in support of their gay quarterback, Jack McPhee. While it’s a thoughtful and smart idea to portray Capeside’s resident homosexual as a well-liked, well-respected athlete and leader, the rouge-and-mascara defense was contrived and silly — qualities that are not conducive to good entertainment.

* While we’re traveling down ”that would never happen” lane, let’s not forget Eve. Raise your hand if a slutty strip-club reject ever stormed into your life and offered oral sex on your daddy’s speedboat. Anyone? This whole story line is particularly distressing in light of producers’ promises last year that ”Dawson’s” would steer clear of the soapy, ”Melrose”-style shenanigans that were already beginning to creep into their scripts. But this season the show is more soaked in sex than Ally McBeal at the car wash — witness Jen strolling down the hall in a tight dress sucking on a majorly phallic AstroPop. Ewwwww.

What’s frustrating is there are glimpses of potential in some of this season’s plotlines: Goofy Henry (Michael Pitt) — a dead ringer for Leo DiCaprio circa ”Growing Pains” — and his hopeless crush on man-eater Jen is sweet in an uncomplicated way. Jen and Jack’s friendship is equally true-to-life and dramatically promising, while Joey’s love-hate struggle with her piggish boss, Rob, could end up being compelling — but Rob had better display some redeeming qualities fast or else he’ll wind up as just a useless caricature. Here’s hoping that ABC axes ”Wasteland” soon so Williamson can come home to Capeside and put the ”Dawson’s” house in order.

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