It's been two decades since James Van Der Beek's TV debut on ''Clarissa Explains It All'' and since then, he's been up a ''Creek,'' sung the ''Blues,'' and hung with a ''B---- in Apt. 23;'' as ''Friends With Better Lives'' bows (CBS, March 31, 9 p.m.), the actor, 37, walks us through his essential credits

By Marc Snetiker
Updated March 21, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Role I Wish More People Had Seen
“This Off Broadway play with Edward Albee in 1994 called Finding the Sun. I got a great review in The New York Times, and it’s what allowed me to go forward. I’d been auditioning for a year and a half and could not book a Corn Pops commercial to save my life, but all of a sudden there was this legit theater opportunity.”

The Role My Mom Loves The Most
“My mom’s a Dawson fan, but her favorite scene that she talks about is the one in 1999’s Varsity Blues where I give all the different words for an erection. She just finds it really funny. The fact that I say ‘Pedro’ at the end of it she just thought was hilarious. Quite frankly, I don’t want to discuss or think too much about why.”

The Role That Made It Impossible To Go To The Mall
“In 1998 Dawson’s Creek was the role that really changed my life. It changed my daily reality almost instantly. I went from being recognized for the first time ever to, two weeks later, being shoved into a cop car because fans had gotten out of control.”

The Role That Got Away
“I auditioned for Primal Fear when I was doing theater. I met this guy after one performance who said, ‘I really wanted [your] role, but I was too old.’ That was who got Primal Fear, and it was Edward Norton. For years it was the joke in Hollywood that every young actor claims they were second choice for Primal Fear.”

The Role That Made My Publicist The Most Nervous
“Probably 2002’s The Rules of Attraction. That was such a departure. Doing it felt like an exorcism. I had all this darkness that had no outlet playing the most sensitive teenager in the history of television.”

The Role That Reminded People I Was Still Alive
“Careers ebb and flow, and [2012’s Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23] came along during an ebb time, so it was a real gift. It was a way to get into comedy, which I had not been known for, and it was also a way to annihilate my ego. As you become known for something, there’s a real temptation to start to enjoy what you’re known for, and the more precious you are, the less interesting you become. That show shattered any preciousness I had from my ’90s heyday!”