The Dawson's Creek Episode Guide: Alternative Lifestyles
Serialized storytelling has become so normalized on TV that audiences expect even the most casual shows to have some sort of larger narrative arc that stretches across a season (or multiple seasons). That was not necessarily the case when Dawson’s Creek’s second season surfaced in the fall of 1998, though looking back the WB was way ahead of its time in that regard. One of its biggest hits, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was already diving deep into teasing out long-term stories, and the just-premiered Felicity (which initially aired after Buffy) took a soapier path to extended narratives. Though it didn’t seem like Dawson’s was following that thread at the time, the show definitely dipped its toe in serialization—particularly in its first season, but certainly in a few mini-arcs in season two as well.
That all being said, “Alternative Lifestyles” feels like a standalone episode—the kind of “Monster of the Week” entries that The X-Files would slip in between entries in its larger mythos. But the big secret about The X-Files is that the stories told outside of the extended mythology were always superior, and though little gets advanced in the lives of our primary protagonists, “Alternative Lifestyles” is an excellent hour of television because, for once, the stakes are lowered.
The episode’s title comes from a project all of our main characters are supposed to do in their economics class. (The idea that this small-town public school would have sophomore-level econ strains reality to me, but let’s go with it.) They are each paired off and given scenarios in which they must craft an annual budget for themselves as an exercise in microeconomics. The lines are drawn in a way that very conveniently play into the narratives of our core cast members: Jen and Dawson up together so Jen can keep working her full court press attempt to get Dawson back; Andie and Pacey are bonded so they can continue their electric flirtation; and poor Joey stands alone in a way that ends up mirroring her poor sister Bessie. The scenario is relatively pedestrian, but its given life by credited screenwriter Mike White, who gives every single one of our primary narratives a jolt while also making Bessie seem like a three-dimensional person for the first time.
Let’s begin with Dawson and Jen, who in the alternative lifestyles reality are a well-to-do couple plotting out their kids’ private schools and paying for fancy vacations. With encouragement from Abby, Jen treats the project as an opportunity for she and Dawson to spend some time alone together. I think Jen is supposed to look sad and desperate (she dresses seductively for study sessions and makes suggestive comments about the possibility of Dawson and Jen actually having children in the future), but Michelle Williams remains too absurdly charming to be anything but winning. It’s an effective strategy, as Dawson is clearly flustered by his own response to Jen’s advances and awkwardly sends her away. What began as a simple flirtation ends with the entrance of DARK JEN once again. “I know you’re with Joey and I accept that, but I don’t respect it…I want you to know that you’ve got options, and I’m one of them,” Jen tells Dawon, trying to maintain her dignity. Dawson responds awkwardly: “Who are you, and what happened to Jen?” to which Jen replies, “She got bored and decided to liven things up a bit.” The old Jen can’t come to the phone right now, because she’s dead! I love DARK JEN and her obsessive spiral will continue in subsequent season two episodes (though her hair will remain flawless throughout).
Meanwhile, the fake life of Pacey and Andie exists at the opposite end of the economic spectrum: They’re poor, so they spend their time arguing about what kind of dopey sports car Pacey wants to buy and visiting actually terrible studio apartments they might pretend to live in. All the while, Pacey constantly berates Andie for her supposed rich girl attitude, accusing her of using this project as a sort of social tourism (and as Jarvis Cocker once said, “Everybody hates a tourist”). The idea that this project has no stakes for Andie seems to really set Pacey off. “Andie, you’re rich,” he tells her angrily. “Rich people don’t end up on the street, they end up in Florida.” It’s not until later when Pacey and Jack chat at the Icehouse that Pacey finds out about the withering McPhee family fortune, and that Andie’s clothes and car are the last vestiges of a once-grand empire. As Jack points out: If they were rich, would he be klutzing his way around the Icehouse, apparently unable to correctly mop? Pacey ultimately apologizes to Andie and ends up swooping in at the last second with the completed project, and their inevitable coupling continues apace (though with an impending monkey wrench coming in the return of Tamara Jacobs, who is spotted lurking around school—super not creepy, Ms. Jacobs—at the end of the episode.
That leaves Joey with the hour’s most satisfying story arc. She’s the odd woman out in the econ class, and she has to do the project by herself as a single mother, just like her sister Bessie. Poor Bessie offers to help her out and provide insight into the life of a woman named who runs her own business and also takes care of a child mostly on her own (Bodie still exists but is rarely seen, after all). But Joey rejects Bessie’s assistance and instead seeks counsel from a local woman named Laura who runs her own interior design business and is played by Bones’ Tamara Taylor. Joey provides some insight into the layout for a Mexican restaurant and Laura makes some suggestions about how the Icehouse should be run, which infuriates Bessie, who rightfully feels rejected by her own sister. Joey is usually a towering figure of empathy on this show, but she’s strangely tone deaf when it comes to dealing with Bessie and her struggles as a mom and a small business owner. They reconcile in the end, and the experience helps Joey realize just how demanding Bessie’s life actually is. Meanwhile, the audience gets to see some emotional nuance from Bessie in this episode. She’s been around since the pilot but is rarely given anything to do (besides give birth in the first season). She doesn’t get a whole lot of time to shine, but Nina Repeta really seems to relish the opportunity to give Bessie a little bit of depth. And the finale is great, as Bessie fires Joey from her job at the Icehouse in order to set her free from the chaos of her own life. It’s a disarmingly beautiful gesture that pushes forward a relationship that I didn’t know I needed more of until I watched. And that’s the beauty of the stand-alone episode: Sure, we got some forward motion in the Pacey/Andie coupling, but this was mostly about exploring character nuances and letting the actors breathe in the setting a bit. We come away knowing just a little bit more about Joey, DARK JEN, and Bessie, and all of those little emotional wrinkles will pay dividends when the big stories come back around again.
- Dawson’s parents attempt their open marriage in this episode, which is set off by Mitch spotting Gail getting a ride home from work from a dude named Frank. Mitch, who had been backing away at the concept of date night at the top of the hour, goes right back into rage mode when he sees his wife in the company of another man. In a lot of ways, Mitch and Gail are the least emotionally mature characters on this show.
- They also both attempt to separate the makeout-crazed Dawson and Joey during the cold open. Mitch asks Dawson if he and Joey are having sex, and Dawson tells him no, but somewhere down the line it will happen. He’s right, though that relationship won’t be consummated until the beginning of the sixth season.
- The pace, energy, and structure of this episode is almost certainly owed to writer Mike White, though it’s possible he’s also responsible for some of the more awkward bits of slang in the show’s history. At one point, Abby refers to masturbating as “jerkin his gherkin,” which I don’t think was ever a thing, and then refers to Dawson’s penis as a “dipstick.”
- Also, there’s an exceptionally chilly exchange between Joey and Jen, just before Jen turns on the charm on Dawson. Jen walks in on Dawson and Joey kissing, and Joey turns to Jen and says, “Nice dress.” Jen replies, “Thanks, I borrowed it.” And Joey’s punchline is, “I’ll bet.” As a reminder, I’ve never been a teenage girl, but I have no idea what the hell that conversation was supposed to mean. What is Joey implying with “I’ll bet”?
- There’s an episode-long runner about the Icehouse needing to be thoroughly cleaned in order to pass a health department inspection, and in those conversations I thought about two things. First: Is this the first indication we have that the Potters actually own the Icehouse and don’t just work there? Because that’s kind of a big deal if it’s true (and everything that happens in this episode points to that being the case). Second: How filthy is the Icehouse? At one point, Bessie notes she was there cleaning “all night,” which leads me to believe it is often in a state of disrepair. I would not eat at a fish-based restaurant that apparently goes into panic mode when the health department comes a-calling.
- Based on the various settings for conversations in this episode, Capeside has no fewer than four coffeehouses. That seems mildly absurd, but in 1998 might have actually been true—my small town in Connecticut had three separate independently-owned Central Perk-esque cappuccino places with mismatched seating and local folk singers. And they all served Nantucket Nectars, which Pacey drinks during one of his arguments with Andie and which was one of the many Snapple wannabes that emerged during the late 90s (and is now ironically owned by Snapple).
- The music in this episode is pretty bad; we’re now into truly terrible replacement-track territory. Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta,” a top five ‘90s one-hit wonder, was originally in the broadcast version of this ep, and there’s a Bruce Hornsby song that also got the axe in favor of some dude trying super hard to sound like Bruce Hornsby.
- Next time: Tamara is back for some reason, and DARK JEN continues her transformation apace.