Dawson’s Creek, television breakthrough

Jane Hoffman

What is the fate of Joey Potter’s human condition?  A teenage girl whose mother died when she was 13 years old, a father in prison and a sister who bore a child from an interracial relationship which interferes with her reputation of being a top honor student?  In 1998, it was a poignant question that possibly translated into the fate of Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise.   How  Dawson’s Creek became more than a formula of composite high school teenage actors that somehow reached their complete vision of success by the time they graduated from high school was separated by its own defined message of conflict that cut much deeper than a layered version of common American ideals and dreams.  It was probably best represented by the contrasted, dark character of Jen Lindley who comes to Capeside, Massachusetts from New York City as a product of self-indulged parents who shipped her to her grandmother’s as a way to blame her for reckless behavior.  Jen has a certain air of maturity and is the only non-virgin teenager of the small town among her close circle of new friends.  She is also in verbal warfare with Grams who is a stalwart Christian.  When Jen’s grandfather dies of a long term illness, Grams and Jen come to an unspoken agreement to tolerate each other’s religious views.  Later on in Season 1, Jen’s equally outrageous friend, Abby Morgan, dies by falling off the pier drunk and Jen challenges the entire congregation at the funeral to the theory of a just God.   Dawson Leery is the anchor of the show in the sense that he is idealistic and unique, unwavering in his devotion to movie making and true to the path of conscious expression of the film noir.  The beacon of his conceptual idol worship is Steven Spielberg who personifies the magic of technique and the possibility of the unknown.  As Series 1 unfolds, all the cast are only sophomores in high school, embarking from the shape shift transition of puberty to maturity.  Dawson’s parents and his powerful vision for his life is the heart of the series.  It’s the motherless Joey Potter played by Katie Holmes who crawls up the ladder to Dawson’s room every night to watch movies ranging from Jimmy Stewart to Cameron Crowe Films to Jurassic Park.  Eventually, she finds herself portrayed as a projected figure in one of Dawson’s larger than life homemade film versions.   The first season, they are all exploring their “firsts.”  Jen reveals to Dawson she is not a virgin, she has tried drugs but clings to the idea of a high school romance minus the Joey best friend triangle.  Pacey Whitter, Dawson’s best friend, is reckless in the same anti status quo way.  He is the son of a local sheriff who drinks too much and has given his child the permanent scar of low self-esteem with his perpetual digs into what he thinks will never happen in Pacey’s life.  That, coupled with Pacey’s brother who also went into law enforcement and is the type of brother who constantly shows up where he is not wanted making wrong assumptions about his behavior.  Dawson is the only one with decent role models for parents.  Jen Lindley’s grandma does become a rock to the teens around her and later takes in one of Jen’s friends who is estranged from his father.  
One overt, common complaint which can easily be seen by a private observation is the fact that the teenagers’ scripted language is a bit cerebral and unrealistic in the normal scope of people of that age.   Their intensity and proclivity for self-analysis and reflection is similar to a Freudian mop up of Cinderella mirror like imagery.  Joey and Dawson are constantly self-examining their dual relationship of friend vs. lovers and where it has taken them.  In one scene, Joey tells Dawson, her lifelong best friend, “We are here every night. We watch a movie, preferably a Spielberg film, find an appropriate life correlation and then pat ourselves on the back for our cleverness.  Our perception is dead on but our honesty is severely lacking.”  She is referring to the fact that they are frozen in their equal admiration for each other without wanting to risk the next step in the relationship.  Eventually, they do hook up and take that plunging kiss which follows about a two week whirlwind romance only to fall apart because Joey must find herself, realizing Dawson is her whole life and only security blanket.  So she takes up painting and impulsively falls for the restaurant hand at her sister’s business.  It turns out he is gay but doesn’t fully know it.  Hence, the first ever introduced gay person into a prime time teenager television series which was in Season Two around 1999.   Jack McPhee, the gay teen football star becomes the measuring stick and sampler for how America will respond to a gay, male high school athlete.  In Season Two, Jack struggles in several episodes with his business minded father who entirely rejects the idea that Jack is even remotely on the right track to finding his identity.  Jack’s father must also cope with his wife’s mental illness following the sudden death of their eldest son.    His sister has a reactive detachment disorder to the death of her brother and imagines her dead brother’s presence with her conscience.  She eventually goes on medication and in-house treatment.  She recovers and is accepted to Harvard later on.  
The element of separation is the dialogue that delivers every time to the complex social and personal situations each character must face.  Dawson says to Pacey one night: “I can’t wrap my head around this film noir stuff and turn out a paper on it.”  Pacey replies, “What we are watching tonight is the cinema of cynicism.  No self-respecting son of Spielberg would feel comfortable in a morally ambiguous world populated with hard boiled anti-heroes and duplicitous femme fatales.”  Pacey continues to say in self-observation, “I am the walking, talking embodiment of the fallible protagonist.”  Another clear observation of the intellectually transcendent high school kid who two seasons later cannot even graduate because of his lack of focus.  In the end, nobody can really figure out themselves and they decide to band together after finishing high school.  Jen and Jack attend Boston University.  Grams sells the Capeside house and establishes an apartment of Jack and Jen.  Joey attends Worthington College, partially with a large sum of money Dawson inherited from A.I. Brooks, a famous Hollywood director who gave up his career due to heartbreak from a woman and moved back to his hometown of Capeside.  Dawson gets accepted into USC Film School only to find himself disillusioned with Hollywood and it’s phoniness.  While visiting Joey one weekend in October in Boston, he doesn’t even find the strength to return to L.A.  He has a major blowout with his father who ends up dying in the next episode.  Each turn the top four actors take between three year of high school and the beginning of college is thought out and well planned.  They learn not to take each other for granted and learn to carve away the cynicism and replace it with mutual love, reassurance and bonding to each other.  Joey’s sister and her brother in law build a bed and breakfast after their restaurant is burned down.  Jen reclaims her innocence of childhood she lost in New York with friendships that last and no one expecting anything worth losing from her.  Dawson still lumbers in between the Hollywood dream and the reality of his mother with a new baby later in life and no husband because he died in a car crash.  It is a teenage drama worth preserving in the television archives by a set of actors who could grow into their perception of themselves and take the bite of chance and risk and embody an audience that make them profound and unforgettable.  They pulled it off with such cool-ness, words like duplicitous just rolled off their tongue.