I should say that I’d never seen a full episode of Dawson’s Creek until 2013. This surprised my girlfriend Jackie, so she encouraged me to watch the series. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to watch commercial network TV. I didn’t really start watching primetime soaps until early high school. Before that, I was only interested in The Sci-Fi Channel.
Maybe I was expecting something a lot more expansive, and a lot less safe? I was expecting The OC plus grunge plus Boston. What I got was Boston minus grunge.
Dawson himself looms largest in a full Netflix viewing of the series. His very personal, very idealized type of optimism bleeds over and across the typically 3-5 plot lines that run between and within each episode. Constantly craving a pure articulation of his artistic vision that could merge effortlessly with his romantic inner-life, he almost always fails to live in reality. His over-greased wide-angle-lens-POV on his hometown of “Capeside” Massachusetts, and particularly its high school experience, becomes charmingly narcissistic.
It is an old, mellow form of mass-culture narcissism. I sip video cuts to form a smooth, rich blend of teen longing, the residue of good parenting, and the nearly raceless, nearly classes, nearly Internet-less painting of a total herb who came-of-age in a 1990s New England TV land.
Meta-naivete. This is the best feature of the show. The slowness, the tween-camp and the scripts that seem to lay open the inner guts of the 1990s TV studio production mechanics.
The show is about a boy. And the boy seems to know that his life is worth being made into a show. The show supports this theory by continuing to be about him, long after the viewer has become exhausted by whatever small intricacies of character have been pummeled to meaninglessness sludge by endless waves of episodic plot.
And of course, Dawson is a young filmmaker, soaking in sappy meta narrative puddles. This plot ramps up slowly as high school ends and his directing career begins to take off.
His favorite director, stated repeatedly, is Steven Spielberg.
Dawson is not an interesting guy. He thrives under these odd, broad narrative circumstances. We, the 2013 adult audience of a vintage teen mass-media soap, are critically aware that this guy doesn’t deserve to be the center of the show, but, having maybe grown up in the 90s, also vaguely crave the easygoing jr executive male phallocentrism of Dawson’s bumbling tonality. He’s the harmless young hegemony we all looked to in our teen and pre-teen years. The tall handsome thinker. The class frown. His success isn’t surprising or remarkable, in the same way that the mega-success of an ensemble teen drama that slightly pre-dates the coming-of-age years of the millennials/echo boomers is almost destined to be. Huge audience. Mass-televised puberty.
Dawson: perhaps a very MTV form of pre-internet and early internet self-awareness, perhaps just a single character written for a booming tv teen audience, the size of which (proportion of total media mix on Wednesday nights during the school year?) may never be seen again.
Another series, The OC, was dramatically more artful and blissfully less New England. Having only lived on the East Coast for a few years, I’d venture to say Hollywood numbs the aesthetic and cultural disagreements between the eastern and western US, frequently casting brooding jews in California and bleached out surfers in Manhattan. The OC kind of blew up that balancing strategy to give California a naturalist primetime TV treatment. I watch The OC as a glossier, grittier, less-boring teen drama, aided greatly by an escape from the eastern (almost… bleakly European…? with a different orientation of class) middle-American malaise and successfully existing in the alien seascape-soundstage of Southern California dreams, a narrative location that Dawson’s Creek never tries to achieve, even as characters live briefly in Los Angeles.
Imagine dumpy, close interiors shot with old lenses, recorded on to worn magnetic tapes. Underwhelming vistas of what is supposed to look like coastal New England but is clearly someplace–a cheaper location–in the Carolinas. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Dawson’s Creek feels chained to some kind of older television convention, something sort of cheesy and safe, that The OC manages to shake off, for the better. Leave it to Dawson, I love Joey, The Capeside Bunch.
In addition to being trapped in greater-Boston-via-TV culturezone and within Dawson’s bland masculine show-running character, the tension of show rarely moves beyond the Dawson-Joey-Pacey love triangle. This triangle traps everything. Characters outside the triangle are vastly more insightful. The three other prominent roles make up maybe a third of underlying plot cycles, but are present in a much greater percentage of the really enjoyable scenes.
I guess.. even the designed-to-be-overlooked Pacey sometimes becomes interesting, in terms of his class position, especially. Dawson and Joey, the couple who are central in the first season, really paint a picture of zero personal growth. They, like a certain percentage of every generation, become trapped in a view of the world that pre-dates high school. They are barely-dynamic characters who, rather than learning something about themselves, just get older.
Joey, Dawson’s main love interest who evolves from a foil into the queen of her own universe of sappy, solopsistic femininity, is a huge problem for the show in terms of watchability. Her level of discomfort with nearly everything pushes the show slowly forward into the abyss of… longing for an ideal life that she never bothers to fully articulate? She wants everyone to read her mind and know what she wants before she does. Inexplicably (via the magic of TV writing), the entire world falls at her feet, begging for her affection.
She has almost no female friends.
She is an unrelenting downer, which is sometimes entertaining, but frequently just frustrating. She’s constantly running away from the present. But unlike Dawson, she apparently does this for personal rather than vocational reasons? Dawson has a dream and she has a choice to make between two high school suitors. Indecision, anxiety, a delusional work ethic. The big thing she wants in her life is to visit Paris, which she actually fails to do, initially – as if a single vacation could be a life’s goal. That’s basically what she has: a vague, unambitious desire to be a ‘study abroad’ person. The writers could have done a lot better.
I’m glad that I’ve finished the series. Jackie and I agreed that watching the whole thing probably wasn’t worth it. The first three episodes and the last three would suffice.
On a final negative note, on Netflix the entire series except the final two episodes features a replacement opening theme song. It goes something like “Heat is in the sky / head is on the ground / feet are in the air / my life is turning around… voice inside my head / telling me to run like mad…” it’s fucking awful. I assume that the Netflix-rights sale didn’t include or couldn’t afford the rights to a lot of the original music. The series would have been more entertaining with the original pop songs.