Rewatching the Dawson's Creek pilot 20 years later
Sex, boats, and Spielberg
To read more on the 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.
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What you have to remember about the late ’90s is that TV characters were suddenly horny. Very horny. And the horniness felt important: Evidence of a new stylistic liberation, or proof that civilization really was in a downfall.
So when you rewatch the pilot of Dawson’s Creek, which aired in January 1998, ignore the whole phenomenon that would follow, and pay close attention to all the sexily sexual sexy sex. One kid’s hot for teacher. One mom’s hot for co-anchor. Food isn’t just good, it’s “orgasmic.” By way of small-talk introduction, Joey (Katie Holmes) asks Jen (Michelle Williams) if she’s a virgin. By way of small-talk introduction, the new woman in town asks Pacey (Joshua Jackson) for a copy of The Graduate, “where the older woman, Anne Bancroft, seduced the younger man, Dustin Hoffman.”
Throughout the pilot, when Joey talks about Dawson (James Van Der Beek), she talks about his big fingers, the way presidential candidates never did back then. Everything’s a synonym for sex, in that fourth-grade way where the phrase “do it” is always funny until even just saying “it” is hilarious. “I’m having a climax issue,” Dawson tells Jen. He’s talking about his script, teehee. The emotional climax, teehee, of the pilot is Dawson yelling out his window — triumphantly, soundtracked by the Pretenders — about a solo action I can’t explain on this family-friendly website. But he performs that action in the morning, usually, with Katie Couric.
Nostalgia for Dawson’s Creek takes many forms. Whether you’re a diehard fan or a casual viewer from the days when everyone could casually watch most of TV, I recommend indulging yourself in the lovely cast reunion on the cover of the new issue of Entertainment Weekly. But if you want to really dig deep into the psychography of Dawson’s Creek, go back to a fascinating scene in the pilot. It barely matters for how we remember Dawson’s Creek but reveals everything about the era that produced the show.
Dawson and Pacey are walking into Dawson’s living room. And Dawson’s parents are, well, err, hmm, how to explain this: They are dry-humping on a wicker ottoman.
This Freudian primal scene seems like an eerily regular event in the Leery household. Dawson has a very sitcom-kid look on his face, gee whiz, Mom, quit embarrassing me. “I thought you had work today,” chastises Dawson’s dad, in a Ward Cleaver tone of voice. His shirt is still unbuttoned. He’s still sitting on the wicker ottoman, a piece of living-room furniture. Imagine Dawson finding that wicker ottoman, decades later, in a basement or a storage bin. Imagine the memories that would come rushing back to him.
A stealth-brilliant idea creator, what Kevin Williamson came up with was that Dawson, kid protagonist of show bearing his name, was the most old-fashioned person in town, almost Alex P. Keaton-ish next to sex-positive Mom and Dad, blissfully unaware of the puberty that Joey sees bearing down on them like a runaway train. “What is up with the sex?” Dawson asks his dad later in the episode. “It’s all anyone thinks about anymore! Sex, sex, sex! What is the big deal?”
He almost sounds like one of his critics. Dawson’s Creek was controversial in 1998, but 20 years on, you notice how the sexy-soapy sensibility dissonates against a gorgeous gloss of Americana. The kids are sweet, tame, the fairy children of summertime in a postcard reality. The town of Capeside, Massachusetts, was mostly played by Wilmington, North Carolina, so everyone feels like a blue-blooded WASP but also coastal-utopian Southerners from a Nicholas Sparks novel. Everyone’s got a boat. Every backyard has a private dock. At one point, Dawson sees Jen sitting on her dock. The sky is red as the memory of lipstick; the creek is serenity blue.
The fantasy of Capeside is nonspecific, though. It’s a small town, but the adults we meet have jobs suggesting creativity, entrepreneurship. Dawson chastises his dad for “this whole aquatics-themed restaurant idea.” Dawson and Pacey work at a video store, signaling residual Tarantinophilia four years post-Pulp Fiction.
One of my favorite scenes is at Joey’s house. Her sister’s boyfriend, Bodie (George Gaffney in the pilot) is reading Bon Appetit. Her sister, Bessie (Nina Repeta) is painting a birdhouse blue. Joey runs through the backyard to her boat, past an art-directed wheelbarrow, lawn chairs all akimbo, flowers that look like paintings of flowers. It is the urbanite’s daydream of the simpler life: Witness Etsy before Etsy.
There is some darkness along the margins of the teens’ life. Jen has a mysterious past, has that New York Teen thing where she comes off like a bruised thirtysomething, so mature that she already quit smoking, so profound in her lack of a belief system that she’s an avowed atheist. And Joey’s parents are gone, mom dead and dad imprisoned.
But look how they’re staged at Dawson’s house. Jen’s poking her head out his bedroom window; Joey’s climbing towards the other window. With Dawson offscreen inside, it’s a literal romantic triangle, filmed by director Steve Miner like a Saturday Evening Post cover. It’s an old-fashioned vision: Ah, summer! The jean shorts, the house white as Tom Sawyer’s proverbial fence, the blonde outgoing while the brunette’s incoming!
Adulthood and modernity beckons, in unexpected ways. The whole show begins with the arrival of puberty, the point at which two childhood friends suddenly become Man and Woman. Joey tells Dawson she can’t sleep over anymore, the implication being that any sleepover past age 15 will mean something. Dawson himself is suspicious, thinks there’s an affair happening under his roof. “Do you think my Mom’s sleeping with her co-anchor?” he asks Joey. His mom’s a local newscaster, see, and Dawson obsessively rewinds over her interactions with Bob (Ted King).
The obvious insane thing here is that Dawson records his mom on television, obsessively focusing on her face with stalker-ish precision. Note that this episode ends with Dawson declaring a lustful fascination with Katie Couric, who is a newscaster on the television, just like mom. Remember, also, that the Dawson’s Creek pilot features a snippet of a famous scene from Psycho: Vera Miles discovering Mrs. Bates, another mother dearly beloved by her son.
The retro sweetness of the pilot makes moments like this feel even more perverse. I assume Williamson must have been cackling over all this stuff. Or maybe it slipped in intuitively. His protagonist’s movie tastes, famously, are less Psycho than E.T. “All the mysteries of the universe, all the answers to life’s questions, can be found in a Spielberg movie,” he says, saying half the dialogue from Ready Player One two decades early.
This Spielberg fixation seemed eccentric in 1998. It’s now the most obviously millennial thing about any of the main characters. You feel strongly, watching the Dawson’s Creek pilot, that Dawson will grow up to direct a Jurassic Park reboot, or a Godzilla reboot that steals all the best bits from Jurassic Park. (Or he’ll grow up to complain about how the Godzilla reboot stole all the best bits from Jurassic Park.)
Williamson was a cultural polymath out of the Tarantino-Miramax school, so his references always meant something. What I love about the Dawson’s Creek series premiere is how it cleverly situates all this stuff — the teen dream, the sex-crazy adults, the Psycho allusion, the Spielberg motif — within a very specific framework: The idea that these are children at the moment when they start outgrowing childish things.
Late in the episode, Dawson asks a rhetorical question: “How come Spielberg has never had a sex scene in one of his movies?”
That line is funny when you imagine Dawson watching Munich. What Dawson’s saying, basically, is: Spielberg movies don’t have sex scenes, because sex isn’t important. But Dawson’s Creek‘s point, here in episode one, is that Dawson has no clue what he’s talking about. Joey tells Dawson: “Stop living in movies.” This is one of my favorite ideas a TV show can have: That movies, as an art form separate from television, are somehow great big lies, glossily insidious fairy tales which will be punctured here on the small screen.
This was a key idea of Sex and the City, a more obvious and essential exemplar of the decade when frank sexuality arrived on TV. The HBO comedy debuted a few months after the Dawson‘s pilot, with an opening prologue out of a romantic comedy: A woman arrives in New York, meets the man of her dreams, lives happily ever after. Except on Sex and the City the guy just stops calling one day, and so the whole series becomes an adventure through an adult existence where love’s not like the movies. A year later came The Sopranos, full of Godfather-obsessed mobsters whose whole points-shaving/McMansion-living/office-in-a-strip-clubbing existence is a banality-of-capitalism rebuke to Corleone grandeur.
“Even Spielberg outgrew his Peter Pan syndrome!” Joey tells Dawson, right before they have a hilariously coded conversation (“How often do you walk your dog?”) about something I’ve never seen in a Spielberg movie. The six seasons that followed would be smarter and funnier than this pilot, would develop new personalities and push a couple characters beyond the brink. But I love the playful perversions of the Dawson’s Creek pilot, the sumptuous fantasies of young boatyard-adjacent beauties rattling off blockbuster box-office numbers like they’re inventing IMDb, while all along R-rated adulthood is encroaching around them.
It’s innocent and controversy-baiting, all at once. The gang goes to the Rialto to watch a movie — a moment out of Cinema Paradiso, except all of Capeside came out to watch Waiting for Guffman, so it’s a double fantasy, like how Gilmore Girls was a cute town carved out of Williamsburg. Dawson and Jen stare up at the screen, looking like characters in the last scene of a Spielberg movie. But the fantasy can’t last. So the pilot is a prophecy of what lies ahead: Sex, lies — and videotape.