"I Don't Wanna Wait": An Ode to the Classic Teen Soap
Last week, Entertainment Weekly released their special edition issue of Dawson’s Creek 20th anniversary, complete with a sweet, happy tears photo shoot of the the main cast, and it got me thinking about the show. I watched the whole series in order for the first time spring of 2017 – but the show had long since influenced me, teen culture, and TV culture. This isn’t the typical TBT I usually do since we all really should know the premise of “the Creek” by now, but I will dive into the characters a bit. If you somehow know nothing of this show and don’t want “character” spoilers or “ship” spoilers maybe don’t read past this line!
The show premiered the fall of 1998 to hype, fanfare, and criticism. It was groundbreaking in terms of the “content” it tackled; some critics thought it was “bold” while others, like John Kiesewetter, television columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote, "As much as I want to love the show — the cool kids, charming New England setting, and stunning cinematography — I can't get past the consuming preoccupation with sex, sex, sex."
And this was the main reason I only saw a few episodes as they aired, as I was very young, didn’t have cable and had very strict Christian parents. Don’t get me wrong, I’m actually glad my parents shielded me for so long — I am not of the mind that any 10 or 12-year-old kid should watch ANY teen shows (aside from those on Disney Channel), including Dawson’s Creek, but at the same time I wish I would’ve seen more as a teenager because, honestly, I think it would’ve helped me understand people more?
This is the greatest thing about TV and film: to me, it teaches you how to empathize with others, to understand what motivates someone to say something hurtful or loving etc. It’s a window into the human condition in which you can explore without causing real life harm (unless you act out a horrible decision in real life), so let teens see teens making bad and good choices on TV, and maybe that will help them process what is going on with themselves on the inside. I’ve said all this to say that if Dawson’s Creek didn’t exist we may never have had the “teens are people, too” reawakening that gave us shows like The OC, One Tree Hill, Smallville, Friday Night Lights, Glee, the list goes on.
Now let’s talk about the characters and their arcs:
Dawson Leery (played by the multitalented James Van Der Beek): the slightly socially awkward guy who wants to be a director and idolizes Steven Spielberg. He’s a bit pretentious and honestly not my favorite character, but he did give us a glimpse of how the “dorky” guy isn’t always the “good” guy—he was at times selfish, arrogant, condescending. But he also had a big heart and was sensitive to criticism, loved his friends deeply, and was serious about making his dreams come true. He has loving parents but they make some really bad decisions as well. He has to watch his best friends fall in love and at first his reaction is betrayal and hurt, but he does move past it in the end and he’s a better man for it. And in the end, Dawson does get the love of his life: filmmaking. It was always his true love only second to Joey. His story is one of loss and love making your dreams a reality.
Joey Potter (played by the ever youthful Katie Holmes): The actual “girl next door”: sweet, charming, kind, whip-smart, a loyal friend. She’s also insecure, sometimes immature, naive, struggles with making decisions, inconsistent, and perpetually worried. Joey starts out as the girl in love with her best friend; she’s childish about it and gets jealous, but she grows and realizes what and who she wants. She struggles with growing up because she doesn’t have her parents to fall back on. She has a loving sister that tries, but mostly Joey has to float her entire adolescence untethered to any parental guidance. Watching Joey realize she’s in love with Pacey and then realize that she has to crush her best friend by telling him she isn’t in love with him after he finally wants her back comes across very realistic and doesn’t have the “cheesy love triangle vibe” a lot of shows do post-DC. It hurts to watch, but you know Pacey is the one who really knows her heart and she matures and learns and loves all through the series. The end result is a very strong loving woman who FINALLY allows her heart to be vulnerable again and it’s a great arc to watch.
Pacey Witter (played with sassy and vulnerable perfection by Joshua Jackson): Sassy, smooth, stubborn, volatile, loving, tender, spiteful,caring—he’s the best character in the show (in my opinion). He starts out a bit of a troublemaking brat: he skips school, is failing most of his classes and, in my LEAST FAVORITE storyline of the series, is having an affair with his teacher (this is in the first season, which makes him 15 years old). Pacey lacks both love and affirmation in his home life, his father is verbally and occasionally physically abusive to him. His older brother is a good looking successful cop, while Pacey is called the family “screw up” on a regular basis. He has no self esteem and is emasculated by his father. Despite all of this, Pacey ,though occasionally hot headed and impulsive, is the most mature of the teens and later young adults. His falling in love with Joey is both beautiful and sad because he knows Dawson loves her and thinks she loves Dawson. Pacey is very insecure in himself and always worries Joey will choose Dawson even when she chooses him, and that insecurity is actually what undermines their otherwise very healthy relationship. But he learns and matures, he finds confidence in who he is and ultimately the love and companionship he’s craved his entire life. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.
Jen Lindley (played by the lovely and Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams): Jen is a tough character to play, as she is at times all over the place (I have some questions for her writers) but Michelle makes Jen a likable rebel. Jen is sent to Capeside to live with her Grandmother at the beginning of Season 1. She’s 15 and already into drinking, hard drugs and sex; she is hurting and feeling rejected by her parents. She’s rebellious and embittered beyond her years. She takes her broken heart and betrayed feelings towards her parents out on all adults around her, especially her very old fashioned, religious Gran. They butt heads often early on in the series; sometimes Jen is right, sometimes Gran is right. But they learn to love each other in their differences. Also, Jen’s series-long deep, loving friendship with Jack McPhee. I adore that relationship to this day. She may be the strongest character in the show. She has her moments of venom, and hatefulness, but she grows into a kindhearted, loving friend and mom. I still don’t like the way they finished her arc on the show, but it did give some DEEP emotional moments with all of the beloved characters.
Jack McPhee (played by the wonderfully warm-smiled Kerr Smith): kind, warm, empathetic, sometimes immature, sarcastic and deceitful. I love Jack’s development throughout the series from how tender and slightly shy he started when he was dating Joey, how he loved and protected his mentally unstable sister, to his more passionate and sometimes impulsive ways in the later seasons. Jack is a great friend and listener. His deep loving bond with Jen is one of my favorite things. Also his “coming out” in the series was bold and maybe a TV first for a teen show (I should check those stats); but he wasn’t just comedic relief or a three episode “sob story”, he was a real three dimensional character with conflict and heart. Watching him come to terms with himself and become a confident masculine man that loves sports and beer and who happens to be gay was a wonderful arc to watch and a bold TV choice for a teen targeted network in the late 90s and early 00’s.
This show was definitely heavy handed on the teen angst, adult angst, all the angst and we got some wild plots: two 17 year olds sailing alone for an entire summer? Death by distracted ice cream driving? Drunk teen falls to her death on a pier? Highschool sophmore sleeping with his 30ish teacher? Walking in on your mom having an affair? It’s all in here in it’s over the top teen soapy-ness. But what would a teen drama be without some drama?
My roommate pointed out as I was talking to her about this article, this is one of the only “CW teen shows” thus far that most of the entire cast went on to do great work in Hollywood and be successful after the show ended, which doesn’t always happen, unfortunately.
Joshua Jackson went on to play in one of my favorite and, in my opinion, most underrated sci-fi TV shows of all time: Fringe. He’s currently co-starring in Showtime's sleeper hit The Affair.
Katie Holmes of course went on to success in things like Batman Begins and a fabulous turn as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the Emmy nominated The Kennedy’s.
James Van Der Beek has done lots of varied work from comedy shows, to playing an almost satirical version of Dawson himself in the very influential pop culture phenomenon One Tree Hill (a show that wouldn’t exist without the success of DC), but my favorite performance of his is from that stunning two part Criminal Minds episode titled “The Big Game” and “Revelations” that aired after the 2007 Super Bowl. I watched them live and was blown away by his performance as the unhinged serial killer Tobias Hankel.
And of course the beautiful and talented Michelle Williams proved to be maybe the most successful of them all. Michelle gives stunning performances in Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine and My Week with Marilyn.
All in all this cast was full of talent, and if you have a solid cast you can ALMOST make any ridiculous or cheesy plot work. And this show did have a strong cast.
It gave teens something a lot of teen shows and movies didn’t at the time: BRAINS. All these kids made dumb choices, but they were all smart, cared about their friends, parents and relationships. They defended their friends, stood up against bullies, and abuse, and helped each other and their families through loss and trauma. Alcoholism, eating disorders, mental disorders, depression, self harm, death, lost love, lost innocence, lost hopes. This show gave teenagers a narrative that matched the gnawing voices in their heads saying “I have no worth”, “why do my parents reject me”, “why doesn’t anyone care”, “will anyone ever love me?”
It’s a tale as old as time: people just want to be understood and respected, and teenagers are often looked at with disdain or scoffing because they aren’t “mature enough” or “educated enough” (this is still going on today, look at the teens currently in the news spotlight) to have true opinions or feelings. And watching this show as a fully grown adult, I can tell you moments of this show still resonated with me, made me remember the emotional years of my teens trying to find where I fit, and realizing at 30 not much has really changed. We are always looking for our calling, our people, our hopes. So if you are one of the people that turns your nose up at “teen dramas” like I used to, it’s never too late to give them a shot. Who knows, you may thoroughly enjoy your visit to Capeside.
Tidbits and final thoughts:
“I Don’t Wanna Wait” may still be the best title opening song
You just finished the chorus in your head, didn’t you?
Unfortunately the rights to “I Don’t Wanna Wait” expired so if you stream it you will hear the song that played on the international title sequence
Mary Beth Peil, who plays “Gran”, is playing the duchess in Anastasia on Broadway
Pacey Witter is still one of the most romantic and deep guys I’ve ever seen on TV to this day.
Pacey and Joey are the only right answer to “who do you ship? Dawson and Joey or Pacey and Joey”
I watched the two part series finale on TV when I was a teen so the ending was totally spoiled for me
There is a book titled "Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson's Creek & Other Adventures in TV writing" by Jeffery Stepakoff (I read it and that's why I decided to watch it all the way through) it's about how the wild idea a writer had to have Joey kiss Pacey instead of Dawson, ended up saving the series and giving it it's best ratings.
And that wraps my TBT love letter/ list of grievances with Dawson’s Creek! You can stream the entire series on Hulu Plus in the US.