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Up a Creek

[whitespace] Dawson's Creek
Youth Will Be Served: Dawson (James Van Der Beek) and pal Joey (Katie Holmes) are 'Dawson's Creek' creator Kevin Williamson's idea of what sensitive and glib teenagers should be.

Kevin Williamson turns teen sex into teen shtick in muddy 'Dawson's Creek'

By Zack Stentz

IT'S NOT EASY being a teenager in late-1990s America. When they're not being lectured to about abstinence or tested for drug use by their ex-promiscuous pothead boomer parents, teens are being labeled shiftless, violent "superpredators" by an alarmed media. And if that's not bad enough, when they turn on the television, they see their day-to-day experiences portrayed by the dreadful new WB drama Dawson's Creek (Tuesdays at 9pm).

The WB is so confident in Dawson's Creek that it has been hyping the show for months and has paired it with the network's highest-rated offering, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, to form an all-teen Tuesday night. On the basis of its premise, I should love Dawson's Creek. Self-aware film-geek teenager grows up in small town where he experiences much torment and sexual frustration--do I know you, Kevin Williamson?

Actually, no, and Williamson, the series' creator and megahot screenwriter behind both Screams and I Know What You Did Last Summer, has made it clear in innumerable interviews that he's based the coming-of-age drama on his own early years growing up in small-town North Carolina during the 1980s.

"My most personal work to date," he calls it, which should come as a relief to anyone who thought Scream might be in any way autobiographical. (In case somebody misses the stamp of the auteur, huge posters for I Know What You Did Last Summer are placed prominently within the frame in two separate locations in the series.)

True to form, young Dawson (James Van Der Beek, with an elongated, Easter Island-statue of a face), the 15-year-old center of the show's ensemble, is an aspiring filmmaker whose dialogue consists almost entirely of references to pop-culture detritus and the movies he loves. Actually, all the characters speak this way, which makes these teenagers sound like the same person: a 30-year-old man with a huge video collection and a subscription to Entertainment Weekly.

"It's my childhood come to life," Williamson says on the Dawson's Creek Web site, "but now I get to go back to these places and create these situations where I can change the ending and have it turn out like I wish it would have."

And therein lies the problem. Part of what makes the teenage years so unbearable (and thereby fun to watch from the safety of the sofa) is the gap between what one does and what one wishes to do. The Wonder Years explores this distance between expectation and outcome by having the Kevin character look back as an adult (in voice-over) on his mishaps, while in My So-Called Life, Angela narrates the action in present tense and lets the audience see the conflict between her thoughts and her actions as they happen.

The Dawson's Creek characters, meanwhile, are their own voice-over narrators, and they don't so much talk to each other as deliver running analyses of their own actions and motivations with lines like "I'm trying really hard to hold my rebellious nature in check."

WHEN WE first see Dawson, he's making an average-looking monster movie with his friends, in emulation of the director he aspires to become. David Lynch? Stanley Kubrick? Nope, the kid wants to be the next Steven Spielberg, and Dawson and his childhood friend Joey (Katie Holmes) rapturously discuss the deeper significance of E.T.

Dawson's aspirations to Spielberg's technically skilled mediocrity could substitute for Williamson's own. He's gone on the record as saying that his cinematic hero and creative role model is John Hughes. And indeed, the stink of the John Hughes teen-pic formula permeates Dawson's Creek. To wit: the teenagers are all sensitive, glib and wise beyond their years; the adults, and in particular the parents, are ineffectual and/or buffoonish.

Dawson's mom, a TV anchorwoman, is having an affair with her co-anchor, while new-in-town sexpot Jenny (Michelle Williams, the requisite sleepy-eyed blonde from the same machine that extruded Jewel, Renee Zellweger and Joey Lauren Adams) mercilessly taunts her grandmother for refusing to say the word "penis." Despite its often cloying tone, The Wonder Years at least gives Kevin's parents a fair shake, and My So-Called Life's hidden strength is the way it makes the adults as richly nuanced and conflicted as their children.

Some critics have given Dawson's Creek high praise for its alleged sexual frankness, which comes in the form of Dawson's friend Pacey (Joshua Jackson) carrying on an affair with his 40ish English teacher, and Joey and Jenny incessantly discussing breasts and penises. "Do you think Dawson has a pistol or a rifle?" Jenny asks Joey at one point.

Like the Hughes films of yore, Dawson's Creek panders to teens by telling them how wonderful and with-it they are compared to their elders, and the result is a show that shortchanges the complexities of adolescent life.

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The WB's Dawson's Creek web site.

Columbia TriStar's TV show site.

Unofficial fan page.

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ALTHOUGH THE SERIES promises to be about "the end of something simple and the beginning of everything else," it plays like a hall of mirrors written by someone who substituted watching Molly Ringwald for talking to actual teenagers.

The show's intended audience seems to be a little savvier than the WB expected: the pilot posted respectable ratings, but the numbers dropped precipitously after the first commercial break, and reaction in the newly created alt.tv.dawsons-creek Internet newsgroup has so far been largely negative.

The irony is that Dawson Creek's Tuesday stablemate, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, is billed as an action fantasy to complement the nuanced realism of Dawson's Creek, while it actually does a better job of realistically portraying high school life.

Strangely enough, the two shows have of late been covering similar territory: childhood friend with longtime crush on boy reacts to his falling for a sexy rival with whom he ostensibly has little in common. On Buffy, when shy sidekick Willow discovers her friend Xander in a clinch with hated popular girl Cordelia, the scene is surprising, funny and hurtful all at once. "Remember the We Hate Cordelia Club?" Willow reminds him. "You were the treasurer!"

When the equivalent scene occurs in Dawson's Creek, though, all we get is Williamson's usual pop-culture riffing. The best Joey can come up with when she discovers her longtime love object Dawson's affections for newly arrived Jenny is "Steven Spielberg outgrew his Peter Pan complex" and "This isn't your movie: the monster died in the end."

Likewise, Dawson's Creek portrays a sexual relationship between a teenager and a much older adult. Onscreen references to both The Graduate and Summer of '42 are made, and the whole affair is played for smirking titillation.

Buffy covers the same ground through the artful use of metaphor, a technique that has fallen out of favor since the heyday of Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry. The thought is that with the envelope pushed so far on network television, thorny subjects like racism, paranoia or illicit sex can be tackled directly. But Buffy shows that metaphor still has its uses, at least when dealing with the still-taboo subject of sex between adults and minors. You want consequences? When Buffy finally sleeps with her 200-year-old vampire boyfriend, Angel, their tender sexual encounter turns him into a homicidal sadist and leaves her wracked with guilt and remorse.

What Buffy and the best shows about teenagers have--and Dawson's Creek conspicuously lacks--is the sense that their characters live in some sort of a moral universe where their choices actually matter. Party of Five, for example, explores the problems of young people trying to make difficult choices in their lives. The shows that teenagers tune into and cherish completely belie the popular stereotype of them as a Clockwork Orange generation of sociopaths.

But Williamson and the other makers of Dawson's Creek seem to think that teenagers despise and reject moralizing or weightiness of any kind. They even taunt competitors who mix their sex and shopping with didacticism. "What did we learn from this 90210 moment?" sneers Dawson at one point, meaning that unlike those Beverly Hills brats, the kids of Dawson's Creek only moralize inside a set of ironic quotation marks.

But here's the rub: the success of Party of Five, Buffy and, yes, even Beverly Hills, 90210 shows that teenagers like to think of themselves as trying, and sometimes failing, to be ethical and moral human beings--while still wearing fabulous outfits and dating gorgeous members of the opposite sex.

In contrast, Dawson's Creek--even though it seems to flatter its young audience--ends up confirming adult America's worst stereotypes about them. The end result is a show every bit as shallow as Beverly Hills, 90210, only without the campy kick of that soap's finger wagging, not to mention the fun of witnessing Jason Priestly's hairline retreating faster than Napoleon from Moscow.

Tellingly, the advance version of the pilot for Dawson's Creek had the Alanis Morissette song "One Hand in My Pocket" as its opening theme, which must have struck the producers as too 1996. The series now sports a wimpy Paula Cole tune instead. It would have been far more fitting had they used the Nirvana song with the line that could well serve as Kevin Williamson's motto: "Teenage angst has paid off well; now I'm bored and old."

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From the February 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro.

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