The first season of Kevin Williamson’s teen soap Dawson’s Creek made me the show’s biggest supporter… in modern times. Although the show ended before I entered teendom and despite Katie Holmes’ stock of horrendous hats, I found that at its core the show understood what it meant to be a confused, emotional teenager. The show’s main characters: Dawson (James Van Der Beek), Joey (Katie Holmes), Jen (Michelle Williams) and Pacey (Joshua Jackson) all had distinct goals and personalities that felt more fleshed out than any run of the mill teen soap like Melrose Place, for example, that seemed to have every relationship permutation with little regard to consistency .
By season four, though, long after showrunner Williamson and producer Mike White (of Enlightened fame) had gone on to other creative projects, I lost the fervor I once had. The writers had maintained Williamson’s penchant for insightful beyond their years teens with angst bursting out of every orifice, but inside the characters, and thus the plots, were now hollow. In an effort to recapture a time when Dawson’s Creek had a strong momentum, the season four final episode entitled, “Coda” was indeed a coda of the season one finale in theme and some Easter Egg lines (Grams in both tells Jen to take her sweater because it’s going to be cold, for example). Unfortunately the show echoes the superficial aspects of the former episode, but forgot many of the structural underpinnings that made that season one finale great.
OMG That Show Has So Much Conflict!
Conflict is an essential ingredient to any good television show. You might not say, “Ah I love that show. So much conflict!” but a show without enough is both easily predictable of an earned, happy ending and unbelievable. You can suspend your disbelief for imperialism in outer space, just as long as the emotion foundation is still relatable. The season one finale of Dawson’s Creek, and really all of season one in general, is jampacked with well-constructed drama.
In the season one finale, “Decisions”, Joey is drowning in decisions, hence the name, that as a 15 year old she logically doesn’t handle well. Not only does she have to visit her father, who cheated on her cancer-ridden mother and got arrested for trafficking weed, in jail, but she also has to decide whether to ditch her uncertain relationship with Dawson or flee and study abroad in France. Season one made us work for the resolution.
The show kept us guessing until the very event. Joey point blank asks Dawson twice what he thinks about her studying in France without receiving a meaningful response, not to mention they actually sleep in a motel bed together. Similarly Joey travels hours on a bus to visit her father in prison and then refuses to engage with him. It’s not until Pacey goes with her a second time that Joey actually throws her dad a bone and give him some vulnerability scored by Sarah McLachlan’s mellifluous voice.
She said, “Restraint made it all worth it.”
The conflict we really care about, the “will they or won’t they”, is sustained until the very last moment because that’s how life works. You don’t have unlimited time to think and talk about potential relationships; sometimes you have to deal with family drama and plans for the future too. The final few minutes is where Dawson finally finds Joey hiding in his closet after the Jen mixup, which still results in Joey almost fleeing through the window and jetting off to France before Dawson stops her with a kiss. Restraint made the whole silhouetted “God Bless the Broken Road” sequence so worth the wait.
The season four finale maintained the “will they or won’t they”, but zapped out all the conflict to the point where the ending is evident about five minutes in. In season one, Jen had a crisis of faith upon the death of her comatose grandfather that then prompted her to seek safety in the arms of Mr. Safety himself, Dawson Leery. In season four, however, Jen’s conflict is completely overblown, even by Dawson’s Creek standards where everything is already overblown. The paltry secondary plotlines, Dawson’s dad not wanting Dawson to go away to college and Jen being nostalgic or something, are both solved with minimal confrontation or growth around the halfway point so Dawson and Joey can flap their lips for the remaining 30 minutes.
Along with a lack of conflict, the secondary characters get shafted overall because they don’t overtly contribute to the “will they or won’t they”. Pacey is barely included in the season four finale minus an appearance to inexplicably wish Dawson well at USC, despite the tensions over Joey that were made to see rather important just a few episodes ago. The season one finale at least included an arc about how Pacey’s family contributes to his feelings of inadequacy. The show lost its backbone and simply catered to what the fans wanted to see in the season four finale instead of actually satisfying viewers with a more well-rounded representation.
Too Much Talking Makes the Baby Go Blind
There are several distinct moments from the season one finale from Jen acknowledging the role of Christianity in Grams’ life to Dawson finally crystallizing how he feels about Joey while talking to Joey’s dad. In the fourth season, however, Joey and Dawson’s incessant chatter feels false. I respect and enjoy Joey’s “honesty” monologue in the finale of season one, delineating how being honest about their feelings will irrevocably change the nature of their relationship, but ultimately Dawson answers her questions with the action of a kiss – instead of talking everything into the ground. Conversely in the season four finale, when Joey asks Dawson what his most life changing moment is he says, “the one that’s about to happen right now”. Just let the moment happen, geez! I got a high tolerance for cheese, hell I’ve seen the Notebook four times and cried every single time, but season one Dawson and Joey would’ve derided the sappy leading couple melodrama.
In season four although everyone talked far more, the dialogue filled time but didn’t advance the story for the most part. I’m guessing Dawson wanted to get back with Joey because he had never gotten over her, even though he was so all over the place in season three it is hard to tell whether that was the case or whether he just wanted someone familiar. Joey’s emotions are even harder to understand because she dropped Pacey like he was hot. It took her like a whole season to get over Dawson, but two half hearted episodes for poor Paceward. The decision to reuse the successful former finale seemed like an easy way to clue the audience into what we should be feeling so the writers didn’t have to do the legwork. They learned the wrong lessons about what makes Dawson’s Creek strong. It’s not the ten-dollar words or oversaturated lighting, but rather the emotional turbulence of being a hormone crazed teenager.
The writers only convey me-want-her and me-want-him instead of a multifaceted portrayal of teenagers. Being a WB network show in those days meant fans had to be watching to yield Nielsen ratings that would blow those of popular shows out of the water. In the absence of a showrunner who might’ve been able to take a stand against the network, the writers distilled the general qualities that people liked about the show (hot lead actors, semi-astute pop culture references and relationship drama) and amplified those while diminishing the stuff that really matters. In trying to please the fans by giving them the couple(s) they want, the writers forgot about what actually makes fans happy in the long-term: conflict, restraint, consistent character development and relatable emotions.