This house has been unwell for ages. Wee Beastie’s been sick 6 weeks, and Cal & I have been coughing too. It’s nothing major but it wears you down. It’s exactly the kind of state where it seems like I good idea to pull out the old Dawson’s Creek DVDs. We just watched the 13 episodes of season one.
I’ve always maintained that season one was good TV, to the bemusement of my nearest and dearest. After this rewatch, I stand by that call. It’s great! But that ain’t the rep the show has. When Dawson is talked about – well, the dialogue is a thing. A lot of people mock Dawson for the way the characters talk. But it’s meant to be like that! Sure they don’t talk anything like real teenagers, but neither do teenagers on any other TV show ever. (You might allow exceptions for Freaks & Geeks and the little-remembered Canadian gem Straight Up.) The thing is, Dawson’s teens used a style that called attention to itself in a way other TV dialogue didn’t: wordy, reflexive, informed by therapy and philosophy and experiences beyond the ken of teenagers. The characters all made teenage choices, but they talked about those choices like obsessive overly-analytical and highly verbose adults. You can dislike the style, sure, but don’t think it ain’t deliberate.
This stylistic choice is, in fact, the key to Dawson’s Creek. (And you didn’t even know it was locked! Just put up with me, shh.) It ‘s all about something I’m gonna call the supertext (no doubt there is an actual name for this but this is my blog post and it is about Dawson of all things so I make the rules). By supertext, what I mean is the stuff that’s going on at the high-end, structural level. Like: “This scene is where Jen tries to make friends with Joey and Joey resists,” that’s supertext.
On a normal show, the scene would be like, Jen: “Hey Joey! You’re wearing great clothes! Lets read some coffee table books about the Mayans!” Joey: “Um” *sideeyes*. That’s text. And the subtext would be: Jen: “I wanna be friends with Joey because I want to prove to myself that I can have normal relationships and maybe that I’m not a horrible person” and Joey: “I am totally intimidated by this hot chick from NYC who knows how to smile with both sides of her mouth”.
Well in Dawson season one, what they do is grab the supertext and drag it down into the text. So the above example ends up with the text being, Jen: “Hey Joey! Nice clothes! You know when someone new comes to town they usually try to make friends with someone else who seems sane!” Joey: “Ummm, but sometimes people just resist the idea of being friends with each other because of personal reasons” *sideeyes* Jen: “Well I intend to keep trying to be friends with you anyway!”
This is the whole structure of the show. The text deliberately draws attention to the supertext, it gets talked about by the characters who squeeze it dry of meaning. The subtext, meanwhile, gets left alone and remains active to inform and create drama. But – and here’s the magic trick – the supertext is just the subtext in universal form. The characters talk about their inner motivations and problems, but they do it at a remove by talking about story structures, expectations, universal narrative rules that just happen to be relevant to their situation. The show gets to have its cake and eat it too, deconstructing itself without breaking its fiction into pieces. It’s a nice trick, albeit far too clever-clever to sustain for more than a short time (and indeed this gets scaled massively down in subsequent seasons).
So this is the technique, and its used to explore a simple story: a love triangle comprising the innocent guy, the new girl with a history, and the oldest best friend who secretly loves him. (Yeah, the virgin/whore thing is there, but the show is partly an interrogation of that idea so it ain’t so bad.) And what it’s really about is uncertainty – how feelings are not easily discerned, attraction is vexatious, and love doesn’t come bundled up as a single coherent thing. That uncertainty angle is good stuff, but to tell the story you have to accept one dramatic conceit: that there can be a love triangle in existence with none other than Dawson Leery at its apex. And that, not the dialogue, is the real challenge for the viewer.
Because, look at that Dawson s1 core cast in order of choiceness: Joshua Jackson: full-on charm offensive, effortless charisma. Michelle Williams: a genuine star now. Back then, her developing chops were only sometimes on show. Her character was sometimes annoying but she was good value. Katie Holmes: limited range, and unable to hold the camera like the show wants her to, but when she’s within her zone she’s fantastic, off-kilter and unashamed and so, so angry. James van der Beek: ok this one is problematic. He’s not terrible exactly, but the supertext-text shenanigans force this character to be a certain kind of hopelessly self-obsessed. Making the role fun to watch would be a challenge for any actor and he just. Can’t. Get. There. He’s obviously in trouble in the final episodes when everyone around him is miserable and all he can do is squeak “It’ll be okay” while he furrows his brow at them.
Oh and the order of choiceness above? Unfortunately for the show, that is the exact reverse order of screen time given to these respective folks. Joshua Jackson gets crap all to do all season. Michelle Williams is part of the big love triangle so she’s around a bunch, but almost everything she does turns around Dawson, sucking the air out of her performance. Katie Holmes gets a bit more to happen for her, and the Beek, poor devil, has to anchor every episode and every big emotional turn. That’s the nature of the problem, isn’t it? It was a show with a lot of assets in precisely the wrong places.
But that doesn’t stop it from being good. Hell no.
Perhaps informative: while writing this I’ve been half-watching the first eps of s2, and man, it plummets downhill. The narrative/structural tricks that made season one work just make season two collapse in on itself. Dawson is no longer a stylized doofus constructed as a way to explore relationship anxiety; he just ends up being a gigantic tool. And the creators are too good not to know this (e.g. the producer, super-talented Mike White, whose very next gig was Freaks & Geeks). Witness: second episode, Dawson is alone for first time in new girlfriend Joey’s room, and he promptly reads her diary. No but wait, that’s not the bad part. The bad part is he proceeds to get very upset because Joey says in her diary that she didn’t like the cheap monster movie he made, and is petty and mean to her until she works out that’s why he’s being petty and mean, and then he aggressively tries to make her feel bad about it. I mean, it’s just inexcusably oafish and horrid behaviour and it’s the very first thing Dawson does this season. They know. But it doesn’t save the show that they know it.
(There’s a reason why Television Without Pity exists, after all. The gigantic home of TV snark – its importance much reduced in the age of YouTube and NetFlix – originated as a place for people to bond over just how awful Dawson Leery is. And he is, he really really is, just that awful. There is a measurable amount of joy to be had from shouting “shut up Dawson!” at the TV.)
So, I liked this show when it aired. Season one was great times. And no, it wasn’t the hot babe factor, I never gave a second thought to any of the women of Dawson’s Creek. (For contrast: Buffy.) But I definitely responded to something going on in that show. The tone and rhythm of it, the overthinking and the staring into the water and the unsettling nature of uncertainty, that felt true to me. It reminded me of my teen years that had recently ended, and it reminded me of my early 20s that were still ongoing. Watching it now, I still get that off it, like a contact high of being young and unresolved. That’s why I will defend Dawson season one against all comers. Sure, it’s nostalgia and my personal memories kicking in, but I feel it ain’t just that. There was something real at the core of it: in its bizarre way, it expressed something irreducibly true about being young and incomplete. And not only that, but by the end of the season it built up to an answer: you can’t get out of uncertainty by thinking (no-one on Dawson ever solves anything by thinking); no, you get out of uncertainty by finding new stuff to do, and doing it.
So, Dawson. Bite me haters, it’s the business.
Oh yeah, here’s another thing everyone’s forgotten about this show, including me: season one is full of sex talk. That’s another thing that disappeared in seasons 2+. In s1, sex infuses everything. There is content in these episodes that genuinely surprised me for how upfront it is.
Dawson Drinking Game: every time Dawson says “I just want to know where I stand”, drink. That’s all you need. FATAL.
OH HEY ALSO DON’T FORGET THAT IN S2 KATIE HOLMES’S CHARACTER JOEY TOTALLY HAS A RELATIONSHIP WITH A GUY WHO HASN’T COME TO TERMS WITH THE FACT HE IS GAY *NUDGE NUDGE WHAT A COINCIDENCE NUDGE NUDGE*