Tuning In: Up Dawson's Creek
Dawson's Creek began airing on the WB in January 1998, which, like the principal cast of northeastern high school outsiders played by telegenic white actors, was during my first year of high school. It ended in 2003, flashing forward from the ensemble's sophomore year of college to their burgeoning adult lives. Though its ratings began to slip in the early 2000s following creator Kevin Williamson's exit, the super-articulate teen drama was responsible for the WB's success, which the network acknowledged when it broadcast the pilot before signing off in 2006.
As Ben Aslinger notes in his essay "Rocking Prime Time: Gender, the WB, and Teen Culture," Dawson's Creek was also an originator of a new model of musical branding for network television that incorporated soundtracks comprised primarily of unknown (and therefore hip and affordable) talent, bumpers at the end of each episode to emphasize featured music, interactive Web sites, and the use of soundalikes to expedite DVD production. In short, Dawson's Creek defined the WB, influenced the careers of Josh Schwartz and Alexandra Patsavas, and set the pace for the CW, which the WB would merge with UPN to become.
The show was also a professional accomplishment for veteran actors James Van Der Beek, Joshua Jackson, Michelle Williams and, during the show's college years, Busy Philips. Jackson has found success with Fox's Fringe. Philips is often the bright spot on shows like Cougar Town. Williams, who played my favorite character, is considered by some to be one of her generation's great young actresses, with star turns in Brokeback Mountain, Wendy and Lucy, and the behyped Blue Valentine.
Most notably, it starred newcomer Katie Holmes, an actress who was briefly considered to be a rising star but whose limited talent and controversial marriage to Tom Cruise derailed her trajectory.
It also had me as a reluctant fan. Now, I fully acknowledge that the show is terrible. As a matter of fact, my sample essay for entrance into my master's program was a college term paper comparing the gender and sexual politics of the show against My So-Called Life, with the latter framed as the more progressive example. Also, as Dawson's Creek set the tone for network television's corporate exploitation of bland indie rock, so too was it responsible for the WB's white flight following its success with and subsequent drop of several programs with predominantly black ensembles.
Yet something about the show's soft lighting, quippy characters, and high melodrama entranced me against better judgment. I would later find out about Freaks and Geeks and the WB's Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls, which featured girls who were fans of the Grateful Dead, Cibo Matto, and Sonic Youth, and would then kick myself.
Apart from the inclusion of Jack McPhee, a well-developed gay male character who was friends with most of the female characters, Dawson's Creek was pretty misogynistic. It also rigidly aligned with the can-do/at-risk binary girls' studies scholar Anita Harris set up in her book Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-First Century, with Holmes's Joey Potter and Williams's Jen Lindley occupying each pole. A girl character may seem good, as McPhee's brainy sister Andie did upon her arrival in season two. However, once McPhee slept with Jackson's dashing underdog Pacey Witter, she began hearing the voice of her dead older brother, checked into a mental facility, cheated on Witter, mixed her antidepressants with ecstacy at a rave, and was written out of the show before graduating high school.
Duress did not befall sexually active male characters, who were drawn as complex, sensitive, and romantic even though their chivalry suggested the term's sexist implications. Most notably, Witter grabbed attention early in the series' run for sleeping with his teacher. But the consequences were pretty dire for the female characters. Potter, a smart, working-class tomboy, only had sex with guys framed as her "soulmates" and blossomed into an Ivy League-educated publishing editor with a steadfast Witter by her side. Lindley, a jaded debutante who cavalierly discarded her virginity, became an impoverished single mother and died of a heart condition in the series' finale. To make matters worse, I found Potter to be a sanctimonious, insecure, and judgemental slut-shamer and considered Lindley to be a progressive supporter of gay rights and female autonomy.
As I mentioned earlier, music was always foregrounded in the show. The gang would occasionally see bands like No Doubt in concert. They also talked about acts they liked, with Lindley winning me over with her professed love of Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville over the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street.
Since college is often represented in media culture as a time of liberation (re: keg parties with buxom co-eds), it's interesting that music was so important to the female characters on the show. Potter, who sang Les Misérables "On My Own" at a high school beauty pageant, briefly fronted a band. Potter's outspoken roommate Audrey Liddell (Philips) took her rocker inclinations from dressing up as Nancy Spungeon for Halloween to fronting the band, Hell's Belles, which later led her in the unfortunate professional direction of singing back-up for toxic bachelor John Mayer. And Lindley, once the punk head cheerleader on her high school's squad, found her calling as a college deejay.
It's a minor form of self-actualization, to be sure. However, just as Dawson's Creek is noted for its pioneering use of music on teen television, it should be recognized for its female characters' strong identification with it.
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