For those of you who missed the 90s, Dawson’s Creek is your typical teen soap concerned with sexual awakening, divorce, homosexuality, and other issues real teens face. On the surface, it looks to be nothing more than the type of mindless TV any 15-year-old girl in 1996 would spend hours watching in her parent’s basement while wearing distressed denim. But what many casual viewers overlook is that the real drama of the show is not whether Joey and Dawson are meant to be, or whether Pacey and Andie will sleep together this episode, it’s the issue of whether the show itself can become smart, iconoclastic television. Spoiler alert: it can’t.
Dawson’s Creek has a habit of referencing classic films and movie genres in the structure and themes of its episodes. The most obvious example of this is probably Season 1, Episode 7: Detention. The plot of this episode mirrors that of the classic 80’s flick, The Breakfast Club: the gang is stuck in detention on a Saturday, which brings out the hidden tensions between characters. The Breakfast Club is even referenced within the episode, with a character commenting that their situation is just like the Molly Ringwald masterpiece. There are other examples of this technique in Dawson’s Creek, like the Friday the 13th episode, which riffs on the horror genre. It seems that the writers of Dawson’s Creek envisioned using their movie nerd-dom to allow the show, with its rigid, formulaic setup and characterization, to break out of its niche of TVland. At times, Dawson’s Creek can seem almost like a proto-Community, using references to other films in order to place the show within a tradition of movie classics, while allowing the show to transcend its own format.
Recently, while watching Season 2: Episode 13: His Leading Lady, I realized that the plotline in which Dawson writes a script which replicates his romance with Joey (only to change their unhappy ending) is borrowed from Annie Hall. So what keeps Dawson from being Woody Allen, and Joey from being Diane Keaton? What is it that makes Dawson’s Creek unable to transcend its origins as a trite teen sitcom? Watching Dawson and Joey have their explosive fight, it was obvious one serious flaw lies in the show’s characters. Whereas Alvie Singer is both hyper self-conscious and blind to his faults, a combination that creates tension and interest, Dawson is merely willfully naïve. Where Diane Keaton displayed a flaky and loveable charm, Joey has one facial expression.
The creators of Dawson’s Creek, like the characters themselves, are complacent. Though they are on some level self-aware, or, in the case of the show’s creators, aware of the possibilities of film, they seem unsure how to advance beyond their current state. Dawson’s film teacher critiques his film as excessively talky and overly concerned with the minutiae of adolescence. These criticisms easily could be, and surely have been, applied to Dawson’s Creek itself. Dawson’s response is not to embrace a new self-awareness and leave the realm of the navel-gazers, but to mumble that he might try to edit it again, or something. Similarly, the creators seem to have sheepishly acknowledged that they could be doing better, yet they too refuse to leave the safe and rigid geometry of the teen drama, with its love triangles and its 6-sided friend groups. Despite this, I love Dawson’s Creek, and will continue to wait with bated breath for the resolution of the true conflict in the show. I’m not watching to see Dawson grow up and get a clue: I’m waiting to see whether the show will.
–Rebecca Stoner, Contributing Writer