This month marks 20 years since viewers saw little Joey Potter row across the creek, climb up the ladder and crawl into her best friend’s bedroom. It was 1998. Gas was $1.19 per gallon, Bill Clinton was in charge and Dawson’s Creek began its six season streak on The WB.
The show was a simple story of Joey (Katie Holmes), a tomboy from the wrong side of the creek, her “all American boy” dreamer best friend Dawson (James Van Der Beek), his goofball slacker best friend Pacey (Joshua Jackson), and Jen (Michelle Williams), the outsider from NYC who shook up their small town.
My older sister told me stories of how her peers had a copies of Joey and Pacey’s “first time” on VHS, and how that episode was the talk of the town. By town, I mean high school hallways. I was three years old when the show premiered and it took another fifteen years before I actually watched the series, yet it impacted me the same way it had impacted the Doc Martin-wearing teens years before.
What makes Dawson’s Creek stand out from the other teen dramas of its time and the copycats that followed is its relatability. The small town of Capeside, Massachusetts was no Upper East Side, its zip code was not 90210 and none of the teens were vampires or had super powers, unless you count Pacey’s charm. The show conquered issues that teens faced in the late nineties and still face today. Dawson’s sweaters, Joey’s hats, the abundance of Sarah McLachlan music and Pacey’s bleached tips may not be timeless, but the storylines are. So cue up Paula Cole’s I Don’t Wanna Wait and let’s go down memory lane…er, creek.
Dawson’s Creek did not feature any fathers who abandoned their children (I’m looking at you, Dan Scott) or took in runaways (Sandy Cohen *cough*.) However, none of the parents in Capeside were comparable to June and Ward Cleaver either. Joey’s mom died of cancer and she was raised by her older sister after their father was shipped off to prison for dealing drugs. Dawson had the perfect family…until his mom had an affair with a coworker, which led to divorce, then getting back together with Dawson’s father until he died in a car accident. Pacey was the black sheep of his family, never able to steal the attention from his siblings, unless it was the disapproval of his father. Jen’s rebelliousness caused her parents to send her to live with her religious and strict grandmother. These storylines may be a bit dramatic, but not far fetched. Every teenager has dealt with divorce, death or not living up to the expectations of their parents.
Jack’s struggles may be less common than divorce but are equally, if not more, important. His older brother died and his mother and sister struggled with mental illness. Dawson’s Creek was not the first drama that targeted teens, but it was the first show that tackled the topic of being a gay adolescent and featured the first gay male kiss on primetime television. (The first gay female kiss on tv happened on LA Law in 1991.) The show did not try to sugarcoat Jack coming to terms with who he really was. His father was outraged and it took a season and half before Jack’s father finally accepted him. But when he did, it was memorable.
Dawson’s Creek spent six seasons depicting everyone falling in and out of love with, well, everyone. I’ve watched the series in its entirety three times and cannot tell you all the reasons that Joey and Dawson broke up (besides the fact that Dawson is one giant crybaby.) But the writers tapped into the average teenager’s mind when they developed Joey and Pacey’s relationship. Sure, the normal high schooler probably never had a chance to sail up and down the coast with their significant other when they were sixteen, have a blank brick wall given to them as a gift, or get trapped overnight in a Kmart with their exes in college (although those are all still dreams of mine.) But your older sister finding your hidden birth control stash in your sock drawer, having an uncomfortable argument after losing your virginity, and coming to the realization that sex in high school isn’t all it’s cracked up to be are all pretty accurate depictions of teenage life.
Joey and Pacey’s breakup was equally as relatable as every other part of their relationship. It was a result of growing up, leaving for college – or not college, in Pacey’s case – and the common feeling of just not being good enough.
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The show may not have depicted teenage life 100% accurately. I’ve tried to forever forget about Joey wearing a wire in cooperation with the police to send her father back to jail, Pacey being seduced by her teacher (shame on you, Miss Jacobs), and Jen suddenly dying because of a heart condition that had no cure.
But as we look back on a show that first aired two decades ago, it’s the simple snapshots that I remember the most. Joey and Pacey curled up in sleeping bags in the middle of Kmart. Mitch jamming out to Drift Away while eating an ice cream cone in his final moments. The “Closed – Death in the family” sign on the door of the Leery’s restaurant. When Dawson confides in Joey, telling her that he “walks the dog” after Katie Couric in the mornings. The two lines: “Permission to come aboard?” “Permission granted.” And lastly, Grams telling Jen, “I’ll see you soon, Child.”
When show creator, Kevin Williamson, was asked what inspired Dawson’s Creek, he mentioned Little House on the Prairie as inspiration, saying the characters “would have all their emotional moments at the end of an episode and it would always be some revelation of the human condition even in its most simple form.”
That is Dawson’s Creek’s charm: the simplicity. As cheesy as it was, the show taught viewers lessons every Tuesday night, even if it was through vocabulary that no teenager would ever use. We learned that tomorrow is never promised, to avoid girls named Eve at all costs, to not use ecstasy in a bounce-house, and that literally everyone feels like they’re not good enough. And those lessons are timeless.