In the 90s, reflexive post-modernism moved out of academia and found an unexpected home in popular entertainment, through the overlapping outlets of irony and self-awareness. Nirvana wanted to title their post-breakthrough album “Verse Chorus Verse”, Sprite advertised itself with the slogan “Image is nothing, thirst is everything”, Scream brought horror films back to the multiplex with victims who knew the rules of horror movies. And so on.
The affection for meta was never as dominant as trend pieces would have you believe – trends never are – but it was definitely a part of the zeitgeist, and fledgling network The WB had what the era demanded: wisecracking, weird-talking teens who parsed reality as if it was fictional. Two shows’ worth, in fact, and during 1998 the WB’s critical darling Buffy the Vampire Slayer was used as a platform for its similarly-meta counterpart, break-out teen smash Dawson’s Creek. It’s almost forgotten now, but for that year these two shows were all tangled up with each other.
The WB launched Dawson’s Creek on Tuesday, January 20, 1998, the same night as the heavily promoted Buffy episode in which Angel turned evil, Innocence. The two shows screened as a block, with Buffy as the sillier, goofier lead-in for the more adult Dawson, which courted huge controversy by having its young characters discuss masturbation in the pilot episode.
Dawson immediately became an enormous hit among the coveted teen audience, scorching past Buffy‘s numbers. But by the time Dawson’s short first season and Buffy’s second reached their final episodes (on the same night of course), there was no question that Buffy had become the more grown-up show. Dawson was delivering intense teenage feelings all right, but Buffy was working on another level entirely.
The reputation of Dawson’s Creek has not aged nearly as well as Buffy‘s. It is remembered with great fondness, but with minimal respect. There’s good reason for this: for most of its run, the show was a charming, head-smacking guilty pleasure. But don’t be too quick to write it off. As I’ve argued before, season one was great.
Despite the absence of giant monsters in Dawson and giant foreheads in Buffy, the two shows had much in common. They both featured attractive teenagers uttering highly-stylised dialogue, and used that to sucker-punch the viewer with startling emotional realism. They also both featured a deeply meta approach to their content.
It’s illuminating to compare the ways they played with this aesthetic, particularly how they delivered theme and meaning. Stories have to have meaning, of course, if they’re going to matter to anyone, and the meaning has to sit somewhere. It’s traditional to hide the meaning in subtext, making it implicit in what happens: you get a sense of it by seeing what the characters do, and how they are rewarded or punished, and how they feel about the whole thing.
However, subtext is the exact opposite of self-awareness, and this is the high watermark of an era of self-awareness. Hiding meaning in the subtext doesn’t work cleanly when your characters are constantly exposing and tearing up the subtext. So with all that going on, what happens to the meaning of your story? Where the hell do you put it?
The two shows solve the problem in different ways. Kevin Williamson uses in Dawson the same basic approach he used in Scream. There, the subtext of slasher horror as a contemporary morality play was explicitly called out by the characters; in fact, subverting it became part of the motivation for murder. In Dawson season one, Williamson and his writers have the characters explicitly reference the fact that they are living through a coming-of-age tale, justifying this trick with the device of Dawson’s obsession with films. In both cases, the characters talk about the general meaning of stories like the one they think they’re in, and so end up talking about their story’s actual meaning. In Dawson‘s case, the trick couldn’t sustain itself – the application of a film narrative to an ongoing TV series hints at why – and this structural game was dropped after season one. In fact, the only reason it could last that long was because the characters were never able to solve any of their problems by talking about them. Like figures in a classical tragedy, they were doomed to know their fates but unable to use that knowledge to escape them.
Contrast this with Buffy. The characters talk a lot – endlessly! – and they also seem to know some of the “rules” that govern their reality. But where Dawson and friends seemed to be aware of their position in a dramatic narrative, Buffy and co. have a narrower understanding, where they guess they are inside a story about monster-fighting and use that knowledge against the monsters. They get to be just as self-aware and reflexive as Dawson & company, but because their show is about much more than just fighting monsters, the meaning of the stories can still sit just out of their reach. The Buffy equivalent of Dawson‘s anxious speeches about “what is really going on” are the scenes when metaphor monsters try to tear the Scooby gang to pieces.
During season two, however, Buffy‘s boundaries were starting to fail. The last run of episodes pushed the characters towards a wider awareness, and gave Buffy in particular a clear sense that she wasn’t in a monster-fighting procedural, but in a different kind of narrative that has a larger, more punitive agenda.
Buffy’s insight is the inevitable fate of any show that breaches the boundaries of story and allows itself to be reflexively post-modern: the game is exposed, and the player is revealed. What happens to the show then becomes a reflection of its true nature and the values at its core. Dawson was a show that wanted to push its characters into drama, but never to truly harm them. It depended, ultimately, on keeping them always fundamentally safe so they could love each other. It had a commitment to real emotions, but there was no counterbalance at its core. Such a show can’t do anything but give in to its characters once they become aware of their own narrative position. Dawson’s Creek corrupted into a merry decadence swiftly, losing the rawness and honesty and sexual frankness and awkward edges that so defined its first season.
Buffy had no interest in protecting its characters. Its founding principles were to match real emotions with real threat. These principles created a story engine that wanted the opposite: to break the characters into pieces, slowly, carefully. Committing to real emotions and real threat made Buffy incorruptible despite handing self-awareness to its characters. Those who discovered the truth, like Buffy at the moment she killed Angel, could find no comfort in their status as focal characters in a story. The show’s cruel touch waited above them like a hammer ready to fall. They could only fear the heavens.
This, then, was the challenge facing Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it entered its third season. If the fundamental structure of your show drives the main character to run away from your story – how can you possibly keep the enterprise going and find some joy and laughter along the way? It’s the problem of Jesse again of course, but complicated by the third factor of Buffy‘s and Buffy’s self-awareness. Does it need it’s own name? Maybe. Let’s call it “the problem of Anne”, then. Because that’s where we’re headed next.
* There are, of course, other links between the two shows. Katie Holmes was considered for the role of Buffy Summers. Some sources say she was shortlisted, but I find that hard to credit – Holmes was a developing presence and she radiated awkwardness, like she was always just about to fall over. Even her weird-cute lopsided smile was the opposite of balance. It’s hard to see how her energy could work for the supremely grounded and balanced Buffy.