When “Dawson’s Creek” first aired, I was in 7th grade and was caught in a blissful lust-cloud of my first “relationship.” Gregory Ware* was the self-appointed Dawson of Pine Cobble School, not because he was so arty or into film, but mainly because he had blond hair kind of like Dawson’s, dressed like him (oh, how I don’t miss the days of baggy khakis and unbuttoned plaid shirts), and was the most attractive guy in our class. (However, it’s not like he had a ton of competition, considering the average class size at our teeny private school in Western Massachusetts numbered 20 or so.) If Greg was Dawson, then I took after Jen, because, well, I was a blonde. But I’d also become the school’s new girl, an import from New York City. At the time I transferred to Pine Cobble, Greg was “going out” with Haley, the Joey figure; the two had been friends for a while and lived close by. Although Haley and I became part of the same group of friends, we maintained a competitive relationship for years.
Just as quickly as partners swapped on the show, so too did hand-holding change at Pine Cobble. Before I knew it, Greg and Haley were no longer, and while waiting to file off the school bus one day, Greg, a few rows ahead, looked at me, smiled, and mouthed the words, “Will you go out with me?”
We didn’t last long (not like anything in 7th grade did), but we did develop a ritual of watching “Dawson’s Creek” once a week, phoning each other at every commercial break to gush about the drama. “Can you believe what happened to Joey? Isn’t that, like, so weird because remember what Haley said last week … ” We were convinced our lives served as the blueprint for each script. (Little did I know, Greg was usually calling a few other girls throughout the show. Go figure.)
“Dawson’s Creek” may stand alone as the last teen soap to capture an audience without delving too far into farce, or relying too heavily on the cliched hot buttons of sex and drugs. I’d call the series a true pre-cursor to today’s “Gossip Girl,” which took the Capeside gang’s heavy-worded, too-witty-for-their-own-good dialogue and inserted it into a fantasy world of money and casual sex.
This is not to say that sex wasn’t a huge plot driver, but rather its function wasn’t as a default circumstance as it is in shows like “Gossip Girl,” where the issues stem from teens treating sexuality from an already-adult perspective and behavior. At Capeside High, sex was about coming of age, not already being older. “Dawson’s Creek” concentrated on characters and relationships first, and if anything, was about agony. The agony of making the decision to have sex. The agony of making the decision not to have sex—that’s the difference. Whether an episode was dealing with something really serious—drinking, death, mental illness, what happens to high school girls after sex—the writers also managed to make episodes concentrated on something oppositely innocent (obtaining a mere kiss for example) just as suspenseful, heart-wrenching, and dramatic.
The show’s remarkable relatability came from the overriding conflict of being attached to Capeside, a definitive anchor which forced relationships to evolve and provided that plaguing drive to get out, lending a cliched if not universal metaphor for the situation most teens find themselves in. (To be fair, I’m talking mainly about the first few seasons. Like most high school television soaps that continue into the college years, I’d argue that the quality of the show dropped significantly.)
I’ve been re-watching the entire series, and all of this is now coming back to me, reminding me of how lucky I was to have grown up just a bit innocent. How hearing Jen Lindley, the girl who “was moving really fast in New York City,” is now naive and laughable. Really? That sweet-faced girl who swoops down on the creek with a smile, a floral dress, platform sandals, and with what we would now call a “curvy” figure—is a “fast” girl? I cringe in horror at the thought of putting Fast Jen in a Constance Billard classroom next to Little J. The poor girl would be the school reject and downing a bottle of Prozac faster than you could say, “Xoxo, Gossip Girl.”
*Names have been changed