My So-Called Show

Cocking her head, Jen looks across the kitchen table at her uptight, religious grandmother and decides to shake things up a little. "Tell you what, Grams," says Dawson's Creek's perky blonde, "I'll go to church when you say the word 'penis.'" It's an uncharacteristically adolescent moment, but not in the way the show intends. We're meant to see 15-year-old Jen as witty and sophisticated, but she comes across as another high-school kid distracted by high school's meaningless struggles: What if her grandmother were capable of saying the word "penis?" Would that make Jen any happier? Would Jen come to know herself--and the viewer come to know her, too?

Apparently, executive producer Kevin Williamson thinks so. Dawson's Creek finds its creator on the cusp of A-list prominence: Having found fame by penning Scream and Scream 2, the 32-year-old just signed a $20 million deal with Miramax that includes more TV projects, a third Scream, and a big-screen directorial debut. In Dawson's Creek (WB, Tuesdays at 8 p.m.), Williamson is showing more ambition than in his reference-filled slasher flicks, using sexual frankness and showy self-consciousness to attempt a new level of realism in the teen drama.

It should go without saying that realism is a relative term when filtered through the candy-glass lens of television. Set in the bucolic (and fictional) town of Capeside, Massachusetts, Williamson's chronicle of the lives of four 15-year-olds fills the screen with hazy shots of trees in perpetual autumn. Some of the most telling scenes of high school--awkward parties fueled by rum and Cokes, Saturday afternoons spent in cavernous, white-noisy food courts--never make the final cut. And the show's stars, gifted with impeccable hair and miraculously clear skin, seem genetically engineered to appear on the cover of Teen Beat.

But if market price of genuine teen awkwardness is too dear, Williamson compensates by offering sexual content as a loss leader. Hence a show where high-school kids use phrases like "size queen" and "flog the bishop" and the Gramses of the world must generate some flaccid outrage and controversy. (In fact, all that's resulted so far is a minor flare-up about the show's original "family hour" time slot, leaving the WB network--the newest and most hopeless entry in the profit-hemorrhaging world of broadcast TV--to curse the fact that even the fundamentalists act jaded these days.)

Dawson's Creek is, in fact, singularly sex-obsessed: So far every plot line has been defined by sex, or the lack thereof. (Even Melrose Place throws in the occasional family trauma or office spat.) Unfortunately, the show seems to have no idea how teens actually relate to the subject--no idea when sex makes good slumber-party chit-chat and when it becomes genuinely threatening. Sure, 15-year-olds know terms like "walk the dog," and if they don't, they'll be happy to learn them from Dawson's Creek.

But few are so adept at discussing sex with their possible subjects of desire, such as when Joey tells her lifelong friend Dawson that they should stop sleeping in the same bed. "I just think our emerging hormones are destined to alter our relationship," she says. She's probably right, but then when did she learn to talk like a veteran from years of therapy? How did she learn to confront conflicts, instead of shunting them off into free-floating frustration like her peers do?

All of Capeside talks this way, it turns out: Must be something in the water. High-school sophomores flirt with a cool reserve that most 21-year-olds can only dream of, and Dawson's friend Pacey even establishes himself as an equal partner in a sexual relationship with his English teacher. Dawson's Creek teens don't avoid their conflicts. They confront them, discuss them, and analyze them like the bastard and humor-impaired children of Woody Allen.

In part, this talkiness is Williamson's defense mechanism; he employs it regularly to nudge the viewer into understanding that he recognizes his stock characters and plot devices. The people of Dawson's Creek don't quite break the fourth wall, but they caress it, stroke it, and compliment it every chance they get. Hence lines like these, in which various characters are purportedly discussing their own lives:

"C'mon! This is a big father-son moment here."

"You're just looking for conflict."

"What have we been learning from tonight's 90210 evening?" (More recent teen dramas never get a nod; apparently they don't get Party of Five or My So-Called Life on Capeside Cable. Sure, television is a postmodern marketplace of ideas, unfettered by antiquated notions of authorship. Just don't mention the competition, OK?)

In a sense, Williamson is simply returning to form: Constant self-reference is part of what made Scream, his Hollywood calling card, so unassailably entertaining. But that film could get away with this smarmy wit and the paper-thin characters the film often leaves in its wake. With Scream's brand of terror, "motives are incidental," as Randy, the geekiest of the film's slasher-video buffs, points out. Dawson's Creek, on the other hand, has more ambitious goals--creating believable, sympathetic characters who are facing questions of purpose, identity, and desire--and that requires more than Williamson's bag of clichés, and his knowing smirk.

There's a danger to this new approach: Williamson's keen awareness of recycled plots seems to make him anxious to play them all out as soon as possible. As of the fourth episode, Dawson and Jen have already started dating, and Pacey has already lost his virginity to Ms. Jacobs. Dawson's Creek, let's not forget, has only four main characters, and at this rate all of the subplots will burn out within a few months. Somebody needs to tell Mr. Williamson to stop acting like a 15-year-old TV virgin, shooting his wad in an untimely spurt. Slow down, take it easy, savor the subtleties and make them last.

Unfortunately, Williamson probably has no idea what those subtleties would be. Even discounting the incessant adult-contemp-alterna-Top-40 score, he may have internalized many of television's narrative tics without realizing it. When Joey meets a cute prep-school boy, she lies to hide her working-class roots and does so with an ease that comes only to pathological liars, con artists, and Jack from Three's Company. When Jen tells Dawson she moved out of New York City because she was becoming an "out-of-control" city kid, we're given no specifics--such as what she did, why she did it, and how it finally became too much. (Williamson, one suspects, got this edgy idea from late nights with Jerry Springer.)

In the worst case, Dawson finds out about his mom's affair and we're subjected to shots of him staring into the distance with a brooding look in his J. Crew-model eyes as angry guitar music plays in the background. Funny--that's exactly what Luke Perry would've done.

Dawson's Creek isn't the first superficial depiction of the teen years, and it won't be the last: No doubt the future will bring 20 Dawson's Creeks, 90210s, and Saved by the Bells for every single My So-Called Life. Although everybody goes through adolescence, few seem to remember the experience well enough to reproduce it.

Count Kevin Williamson among these adolescence Alzheimer's cases. Dawson's Creek--like 90210 before it, and Eight is Enough before that--comes across less like an ambassador to the pre-college set and more like a "with it" school principal or a pony-tailed A&R rep. Like most of the adult world, Williamson has forgotten the vast, burdensome nothingness of a life defined by study halls and skipped prom nights. All he can offer in recompense is four self-aware 15-year-old TV critics, a metatextual children's crusade recruited to defend his own incomprehension.

Their eyes resist the urge to glance out at us and to wink knowingly, but they know we are out there. Williamson understands, they tell us. He can bring himself to say "penis"--and all the vague confusion of adolescence is no match for the swollen organ of an aging auteur.

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