The Dawson's Creek Episode Guide: Pilot
In the midst of all the celebration about the return of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I posited that no other piece of pop culture has been more responsible for my personality than that show. The combination of rapid-fire references, literate snark, and clear-eyed optimism has influenced the way I think about all other culture and the rest of the world. I learned about Monty Python and Fireside Theater and Gilbert & Sullivan and the films of John Waters thanks to MST3K, but in addition to introducing me to those cultural pillars, it also created a deep-rooted curiosity in me that has informed the bulk of my professional life. I’ve spent the better part of my adult life asking other people questions about their work and their world views, and I’m convinced that wondrous urge came from the fact that when I didn’t get a reference on MST3K I immediately sought to understand it. In multiple newsrooms, I’ve been told that I shouldn’t write over the heads of the audience, but I relished reading beyond my own comprehension in my youth knowing that new discoveries were folded within the text if I only looked hard and searched diligently enough.
So I am grateful for MST3K for sketching out the blueprint for how my brain works. It’s important! But if I’m being really honest with myself, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is not my favorite television show of all time. It’s a close second behind a teen soap called Dawson’s Creek.
I feel exceptionally self-conscious declaring Dawson’s as my favorite series, as my adoration is wholly illogical. Of the program’s six seasons, there are only a handful of truly exceptional episodes, and when taking the show’s larger narratives into account, there’s only really one good season (season-and-a-half if I’m generous). A lot of it was junk, which is a sentiment that even a lot of people who worked on Creek have outwardly said in the 14 years since it signed off.
Here’s another hang up: I apparently watched Dawson’s Creek wrong. What little legacy the show has is tied to the romance between comely girl next door Joey Potter (Katie Holmes) and reformed bad boy Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson). The early plot lines primarily focused on the When Harry Met Sally situation between Joey and Dawson (James Van Der Beek), but most of the Internet agrees that the Pacey/Joey dynamic was far superior and that the show’s best moments are born out of their relationship. I disagree, probably because I always identified more with Dawson than with Pacey, particularly at the top of the show. I stand by the sentiment that Joey should have ended up with Dawson, even though the show’s creators vehemently disagreed and Dawson regularly shows up on lists like this.
I’m always sort of doing a rewatch of Dawson’s Creek, firing up my favorite episodes or dropping into a story arc I may have forgotten. Since Dawson’s Creek wrapped up before the Internet Recap Industrial Complex mandated that every episode of television demanded thousands of words from a multitude of outlets, there’s no definitive episode guide online at the moment (though the AV Club started one a little while ago, but it stalled out after the second season finale). So I have decided to go back to Creek, this time in as academic and critical a fashion as I am capable. Ideally I’ll tackle one episode a week, though we’ll see how things shake out as I move along.
We begin with the pilot, which aired on the WB on January 20, 1998. Created by Kevin Williamson, whose Scream franchise had catapulted him to the top of the screenwriter power list in Hollywood and helped usher in a new wave of teen-centric horror, Dawson’s Creek arrived with a ton of buzz around it, primarily because of the various controversies surrounding how frank all of the sex talk was. The show had a scandalous reputation before it even arrived, though from what I recall most of the pearl-clutching seemed to be around the too-friendly dynamic between Dawson and Joey, who sleep in the same bed in the show’s first pre-credit sequence (though they are fully clothed and have a very honest conversation about how that long-held tradition was becoming problematic). In fact, the bulk of the blue language in Dawson’s Creek’s pilot comes from Joey, who references Dawson’s “long fingers,” asks new girl in town Jen Lindley (Michelle Williams) if she is a “size queen,” and implores Dawson to disclose how often he “walks his dog” (a euphemism for jerking off; apparently for all the green lights given to Williamson and his script, the network would not allow him to use the word “masturbate”). Between Joey’s single-mindedness, what’s going on with Pacey (more on him in a minute), and his parents’ very public horniness, Dawson actually vents his frustration with everybody’s obsession with sex later on in the episode.
In between Dawson’s pontifications about E.T., he and Joey establish their rapport in a relatively efficient pre-credit sequence: They have long been friends, but puberty and their impending arrival in high school have complicated things, primarily because Joey has developed more romantic feelings for Dawson. When Jen arrives after the credits to move in with her grandmother in the house next to Dawson’s, it creates a classic love triangle: Dawson is so smitten with this exotic blonde from New York that he doesn’t notice that his longtime confidante is pining over him. It’s a common theme, played out in everything from Gone With the Wind to Twilight, and in this case it is completely backwards. Knowing what we know about Dawson—his over-intellectualizing, his commitment to cinematic narrative, his general inability to turn inspiration into action—it’s obvious that the pining should have gone in the opposite direction. There’s no way he wouldn’t be completely infatuated with Joey from the start (though he does eventually shift his obsession to Joey, often in creepy fashion).
So while their romantic drama plays out, Pacey sets his sights on losing his virginity as fast as humanly possible. He’s presented with opportunity during a shift at the local video store when he meets Tamara Jacobs (Leann Hunley), who flirts with him while she rents The Graduate (subtle!) and later is revealed to be Pacey’s new English teacher. While a lot of Dawson’s Creek’s pilot feels quaint in 2017, the Pacey-wants-to-fuck-his-teacher-and-she-is-also-into-it narrative feels insane, and I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t pass muster today. I cannot imagine a teen soap committing itself to a statutory rape storyline, let alone in its pilot (Riverdale did the same thing in pairing Archie with Miss Grundy, though that thread was quickly abandoned and Riverdale also doesn’t take place on Earth). The scenes between Pacey and Tamara are deeply uncomfortable, though credit to Jackson for carrying them with incredible aplomb—he really sells the dialogue well, and the little run he goes on after Tamara rejects him at a screening of Waiting for Guffman is the best piece of acting in the pilot (though it should be noted that all of the performers are roundly good, save for Nicole Nieth, who absolutely cannot handle Williamson’s words in her scene disparaging Pacey in the video store). Still, I can’t wait for the Pacey/Tamara stuff to play out, even though I know it goes on for most of the first season.
Any sort of narrative hang-ups are eclipsed by the filmmaking in the closing 10 minutes or so of the pilot. After Joey sabotages Dawson’s movie date with Jen, Dawson discovers her hiding in his closet below a poster of Steven Spielberg’s Always (he keeps it and 1941 away from view in his Spielberg-fixated bedroom). She apologizes for freaking out on him, and they have a nice heart-to-heart conversation where they both realize that whatever their friendship has been, it will inevitably change and become a series of land mines(Dawson comes right out and says, “It’s all so complicated!”). It’s preceded by a wonderful little bit of three-way staging: Dawson shows Jen his room, and while she’s in there Joey climbs up the ladder to Dawson’s window (her primary means of entering the Leery household). Jen has to look out the window to acknowledge her grandmother, forcing Joey to lean in a little bit to avoid being caught. It’s perfectly staged and really gets across the stakes of the show without any actual dialogue; for a show as word-heavy as Dawson’s Creek, there was always a remarkable commitment to visual storytelling, and that credit in this episode goes to director Steve Miner (who also made two Friday the 13th movies as well as Halloween H20, plus a million TV shows).
There are elements of Dawson’s Creek that feel out of time, not necessarily because it’s from 1998 (you can’t get mad at the show for using Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping” as a music cue to introduce the first day of school), but rather because they feel like they don’t even feel like they fit into the fabric of the era. When the character Nellie is introduced, there’s a long riff about Little House on the Prairie, which was absolutely not a cultural touchstone that these kids would have recognized enough to discuss. I thought at first that Dawson and Pacey working in a video store that only rents VHS would have been mildly anachronistic in ’98, but DVD didn’t overtake VHS in rental outlets until 2003 (coincidentally, the same year Dawson’s Creek ended). I’ve also always gone back and forth about whether or not it makes sense for Dawson to be legitimately obsessed with Steven Spielberg. After all, if he’s making a horror movie, shouldn’t he worship at the altar of John Carpenter or Wes Craven or somebody with a little more indie cred? I know that Dawson’s fixation on Spielberg mirrors Williamson’s, but of all the kids I knew then who were into movies enough to make one of his or her own, all those people seemed to have already become into David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick. Still, it’s possible that Dawson had a formative in-theater experience with Jurassic Park, and it would not be surprising if he had copies of E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Arc on VHS in his house growing up (at least where I grew up, everybody owned E.T.)
ANYWAY, the pilot of Dawson’s Creek ends a little oddly: Dawson refuses to go into detail about his masturbation schedule, so Joey leaves disappointed and heads back down to the dock to head back to her house (which is apparently on the same creek; if her primary means of transportation is a row boat, her upper arms should be way more jacked). In a bit of absurdist comedy, Dawson runs to the window to yell to Joey that he whacks it first thing in the morning, often to Katie Couric. Joey laughs, and the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You” swells on the soundtrack. It’s strange in hindsight, but it’s a good foundation for the type of show we’re dealing with (and also is a testament to how much a banger on the soundtrack can make up for just about anything). We even get a weird cliffhanger, with Joey baring witness to Dawson’s mother’s infidelity, something he suspected of her earlier in the episode. It’s a bit of a sour note that distracts from the dynamics of the kids, but all in all, Dawson’s Creek did a few things that all good pilots do: Introduced us to the characters, set up the stakes, laid down a handful of plot threads, and created a world in which to play. The fact that we got an admission that Dawson spanks it to Today while a power ballad swells is just extra frosting.