How Dawson's Creek begat the Teen TV boom
In the series finale of Dawson’s Creek, the titular hero — having achieved his dream of becoming a beloved Hollywood auteur — receives a comedically coincidental network note on his autobiographical teen TV drama, The Creek. “They did not clear ‘masturbate’ as acceptable dialogue,” an assistant tells Dawson, as they speed-walk down the hall of his production office. “They suggested ‘walking your dog.’ ” Dawson is incredulous. “Walking your dog?” Believe it, buddy.
The exchange is both a clever callback to the pilot — when Katie Holmes’ Joey uttered the network-approved line “How often do you walk your dog?” — as well a knowing wink at how much the TV landscape had changed since Dawson’s premiered five years earlier. Arriving in January of 1998 on a wave of hot and heavy anticipation (EW called it “the frankest depiction of teenage sexuality ever seen on the small screen”), Dawson’s did give the censors plenty of heart palpitations — by episode 4, Joey was taunting Pacey about “flogging the bishop” — but the legacy of Kevin Williamson’s teen drama goes beyond making masturbation talk palatable for primetime. (Though that is, of course, the Lord’s work.)
With Dawson’s Creek, Williamson brought the self-referential style of his blockbuster 1996 horror film Scream to television, and by doing so he turned the typical teen drama into something entirely new. Though networks had offered shows about the unbearable angst of adolescence for decades (1977’s James at 15, for example), with Dawson’s the characters didn’t just suffer through crushes and hormones and parental drama — they talked endlessly, and with hilarious eloquence, about how cliché their crushes and hormones and parental drama was. As EW’s Chris Nashawaty wrote in 1997, on the eve of Dawson’s premiere, “Williamson shows teens a reflection of how they want to be seen: witty, urbane, and always armed with a perfectly barbed, sarcastic comeback.”
So in the idyllic town of Capeside, no teen TV trope could exist for long without someone naming and claiming it with linguistic flair. “All this subtext is making me tired,” Joey tells Dawson in “Discovery” (S1, ep. 4) during their umpteenth waterside chat. In that same episode, Pacey attempts to debunk the “sex always has consequences” device: “It has been known to happen that every once in a while — two people sleep together, they enjoy it, and everything works out fine.” (This being Dawson’s Creek, Pacey delivers this speech to his high school teacher… who’s also his lover.) And in the season 1 finale, Joey — who’s been pining after Dawson for 13 episodes — lets viewers know early on that they won’t be getting a final answer to this will-they-won’t-they query. “Cliffhanger? Come on, Dawson, you of all people should know that a cliffhanger is merely a manipulative TV standard designed to improve ratings.” (The woman knows of what she speaks: Dawson and Joey didn’t have sex until episode 105.)
Without Dawson’s (and its original lead-out, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), we would never have the hyper-verbal, pop culture-obsessed teens of Riverdale — not to mention Felicity and Charmed (1998), Popular, Freaks and Geeks (which was actually pitched as “the anti-Dawson’s Creek”), and Roswell (1999), Gilmore Girls (2000), Everwood (2002), or 2003’s One Tree Hill and The O.C. After all, who is Seth Cohen but a snarkier, more Jewish Dawson Leery? And who knows how long viewers would have waited for a thoughtful, heart-rendingly real coming out storyline had The WB not allowed Jack McPhee to declare “Yes, I am!” in 1999 (followed by Buffy’s Willow in 2000)? The launch of the Williamson Genre reminded Hollywood (yet again) that audiences of all ages relish a chance to experience an adolescence do-over via teen characters who are far more beautiful, poised, and funny than we ever were. It’s a lesson kept alive today by Freeform and Netflix, Disney Channel and The CW, YouTube and basically the entire Interwebs. And it’s the reason we will never — never! — understand why anyone would actually be #TeamDawson. (Even James Van Der Beek knows what’s up.)
As a wise woman named Joey Potter once said, “It’s called social evolution, Dawson. What’s strong enough flourishes, and what doesn’t we look at behind glass cases in science museums.” Sorry to the folks at the Smithsonian, but 20 years later, our love for these kids of Capeside — and their pop culture legacy — is still thriving.
To read our Dawson’s Creek reunion, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Friday. You can buy the full set of five covers here. Or purchase the individual covers featuring James Van Der Beek, Katie Holmes, Joshua Jackson, Michelle Williams & Busy Philipps, or the original foursome online or at Barnes & Noble. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW. Watch the full episode of Entertainment Weekly Cast Reunions: Dawson’s Creek, streaming now on PeopleTV.com or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.