Dawson’s Creek is the hottest drama on TV. Hundreds of pages in magazines and newspapers have hammered this into our collective consciousness, at once glorifying the show’s exceptionally attractive, swimming-in-movie-deals cast and debating its precocious plotlines and (sometimes ridiculously) sophisticated dialogue. Yet on this sweltering August day in sleepy Wilmington, N.C., where Dawson‘s is beginning production on season two, Nielsen’s list of last season’s network shows (ranked by total viewers) is giving the Fad Four a look at how hot they really are.
”We’re 121 out of 156?” asks Katie Holmes (Dawson‘s Joey).
”But we talked about sex,” says Michelle Williams (Jen). ”Isn’t that supposed to sell?”
”Dude!” snickers James Van Der Beek (Dawson). ”Tony Danza did better than us.”
Joshua Jackson (Pacey) chokes back a laugh: ”We got beat by…Meego!?!?”
Defeated by a kiddiecom starring Bronson ”Balki” Pinchot — a kiddiecom that was canceled, no less — now there’s a scorching reality check. But after the past eight months, these kids could use one. There are the extracurricular accomplishments: Holmes, 19, and Williams, 18, just scored with big-screen summer flicks (Disturbing Behavior and Halloween: H20, respectively), and more are on the way; Van Der Beek, 21, and Jackson, 20, have four upcoming films between them.
Then there’s the triumph they share with their TV show’s creator Kevin Williamson: After Dawson kicked open the doors to Capeside High School last January, it sucked in enough viewers to make it The WB’s top-ranked series virtually overnight. But Dawson‘s biggest fans may be advertisers, who have developed a huge crush on the show’s demo: girls in record numbers (on some Tuesdays, almost 50 percent of all female teens watching TV at 9 p.m. tuned in to Dawson). Better yet, the show boasted the fourth most affluent viewership among all network shows, which helps explain why a series rated lower than outright losers has become a bona fide sensation.
And as such, in its sophomore season, Dawson’s Creek now faces its most critical test: The upstart WB is moving the jewel in its prom crown from a comfy Tuesday slot — buh-bye, Buffy the Vampire Slayer lead-in — to Wednesdays at 8 p.m., opposite Fox’s Beverly Hills 90210. ”Dawson may have a large teen following, but 90210 is the original teen ritual,” reminds Fox Entertainment president Peter Roth. ”We are dominant…and will continue to be so.” Nevertheless, the eight-year-old 90210 isn’t taking any chances: Old-school favorite Luke Perry will return, while Melrose Place‘s Laura Leighton will guest-star on six episodes (for $100,000 per episode). None of which scares WB Entertainment president Garth Ancier: ”Maybe I’m a fool, but I’m not worried. I really think 90210 has run its course.”
”I didn’t even question the 90210 thing,” says Williamson (no slouch in the overexposure department, thanks to his own extra-credit activities Scream, Scream 2, and Halloween: H20). ”My first thought was ‘8 o’clock?!?! Wait, wait, wait!!!’ ”
In other words, how do you talk frankly about sex during the family hour? If you’re The WB, no sweat. ”We put a couple of penises in the first script, just to see if they’d get through. Which they did,” says Williamson. ”In fact, someone at The WB even commented, ‘Hey, you guys aren’t milking this down because you’re at 8? You can spice it up.’ ”
Don’t worry, Williamson will — especially since Dawson and his high school sophomore pals are emerging from puberty with a vengeance. ”None of us will be virgins after this season,” teases Holmes. So does that mean you-know-which-couple finally gets it on? Hints Van Der Beek: ”Joey and Dawson are media savvy enough to know what happens to a show when the two lead characters have sex.”
If he sounds coy, there’s a reason. To recap: Lifelong best friends Joey and Dawson sealed their flirtation with a kiss in May’s finale (after Dawson was dumped by new girl in town Jen). That will be quickly back-burnered this season by the arrival of upper-crust tortured artiste Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith). While Jack and Joey go off to paint each other in the nude — you read it here first! — Jack’s scrappy sister, Andie (Meredith Monroe), has some fun with Dawson’s other best friend, Pacey. ”It’s a hate-hate relationship,” notes Williamson. ”All they do is bitch at each other until they finally bitch their way into a date.”
Speaking of bitches: Abby (Monica Keena), Capeside’s resident evil seed in last season’s Breakfast Club episode, will terrorize the gang full-time; she’ll abet the newly-empowered-but-still-searching-for-validation Jen in her quest to win back Dawson, while delivering overheated zingers like ”He’s a 15-year-old guy…all he knows is that he goes to bed every night jerkin’ his gherkin and wakes up every morning humping his mattress.” (Okay, who paid off the network censors?)
Of course, no plotline will be juicier than the one unfolding Oct. 7, when the show sets sail opposite a certain zip code. ”People are totally going to want us to fail,” says Jackson. ”And we are primed for a fall. But there’s only one way to silence the critics: Become an established hit instead of what Dawson is now — a flash-in-the-pan sensation.” Williams also relishes a challenge: ”It’s sink-or-swim time. And I like the pressure. Bring it on!”
And if the Dawson‘s crew should find themselves up a certain ratings creek, well, there’s always the secret weapon. ”When in doubt,” confides Jackson, ”cut to Katie.”