This past weekend, DAWSON’S CREEK celebrated its 20th anniversary so I had to rewatch it and see if th characters and story held up. You see, when I was a 16-year-old girl, I didn’t always feel like teen dramas were clearly marketed to someone like me. A normal girl who enjoyed learning but not all the unnecessary chatter of being popular. So when Dawson’s Creek debuted in 1998 I was almost, kind of, floored. Dawson (James Van Der Beek), Joey (Katie Holmes), Pacey (Joshua Jackson) and Jen (Michelle Williams) were normal kids with relatable problems.
They weren’t too rich or popular and each of them struggled with the innate challenges of being human. Their journeys provided story arcs where a character’s flaw could eventually become their guiding light. They were smart, snappy and even the characters that struggled with school were smart at their core, complete and interesting. They didn’t talk like bimbos or idiots, it was stylized but in a way that made the entire show ernst.
In a recent article about the writer’s room at Dawson’s Creek in Vanity Fair called the series, “a cultural phenomenon, drawing scores of die-hard teenage fans and defining the WB as a home for adolescent angst.” And I’d be hard-pressed not to agree. The show was lightning in a bottle, there’s no way it could have existed with such an impact at any other time. And part of that is because of the care both executives and writers took with Joey and Jen.
In a way, I feel like why Dawson’s Creek worked (even though it was about a precocious teen boy who fumbles with his own feelings) is that the writers never once sacrificed the point of view of the females characters. In that same way that Mad Men was just as much about Don Draper’s story arc as it was the female characters in the show, Dawson’s Creek couldn’t ever have just been about Dawson. It worked because there was such authenticity in the female storylines and how Katie Holmes and Michelle Williams portrayed them.
There was a progressive tone to Williamson’s pilot, something that stuck with the show more or less its entire six seasons. It became a platform for respectfully fleshing out these sorts of storylines, including one I still think about today, Jack McFee’s (Kerr Smith) coming out. In an interview with Hollywood Reporter, Kevin Williamson explained what drove the balance of Jack’s coming out experience without taking away from Joey’s experience in being rejected saying:
“That was Susanne (Daniels). She said she’d known too many girls who had that experience and wanted that reflected. It was easy to say yes to because that was the one thing that brought Joey and Dawson back together…He was there for her. Their friendship re-emerged and you realized that their relationship was deeper than anyone thought. And more than they thought. Every little moment in this show was hopefully just to strengthen the friendships.”
Thanks to the care the writers put into really fleshing out these kinds of moments there became a new standard for coming out moments. At the time, Dawson’s Creek was a vehicle for change as it developed progressive teen storylines, and without it, shows like Gossip Girl, Riverdale, or even Pretty Little Liars wouldn’t have been possible. The risks Dawson’s Creek took with teen issues like premarital sex, inappropriate relationships with adults, love triangles, homosexuality, and even interracial dating was super progressive for the 90s.
Unfortunately, all the storylines weren’t home runs. When Williamson left the show in season 3, the new showrunner Alex Ganser didn’t get the characters and it showed when he decided to shift focus on a new character, Eve. Eve’s entire storyline is a pointless distraction from what made Dawson’s Creek special. Tom Kapinos, a staff writer that season singles out Eve’s storyline to be a “colossal mistake,” and it’s impossible to disagree. Eve simply distracted from the only thing people wanted to see: the tension growing between Dawson, Joey and Pacey.
The show lasted six seasons and over 120 episodes before they brought the storyline of Dawson and his friends to an end. The first of two endings written was by Kapinos and Gina Fattore. They decided to end the show by having Dawson and Pacey reconcile, Jen would return to New York with Joey leaving the fictional town of Capeside to finally visit Paris. Fattore told Vanity Fair that the writers never had plans to make Joey pick between her two childhood friends, saying:
“It wasn’t a story that was important to me. She had these relationships with Pacey and Dawson, but what did she really want for herself? I don’t think that coming-of-age stories for women should be love stories.”
The consideration the writers took when it came to the female characters on this show was incredibly progressive. Sending Joey off to Paris alone wasn’t just right for the character, it was right for the time. However, this isn’t the ending that the network went with. Williamson was brought back to finish what he had started, which was at its core, the story of four friends who were there for each other at those pivotal turning points that make you the adult you become. To wrap things up, Williamson set the show’s final episode five years into the future with Dawson working to establish himself in Hollywood, and Pacey and Joey living together, giving everyone the happy ending they wanted and deserved.
Today, rewatching the show, it seems a tad dated, but it kind of has to be in order to become what it finally is–a progressive cultural relic. Dawson’s Creek exists in the daily moments we take for granted like seeing two men romantically kiss on screen without leaving anyone feeling shamed. On its 20-year anniversary, Dawson’s Creek found its place in history, which is another well-deserved ending.
Sabrina Cognata is an award-winning writer, producer and storyteller. During a decade long meltdown, she burned her life to the ground and revamped it as often as Madonna. Sabrina has written or produced for HuffPost Live, CBS Radio, TMZ and XO Jane, and she’s currently producing a syndicated news show for FOX television while tirelessly fighting the patriarchy Every. Damn. Day.