Dawson’s Creek: Love, Life, and Teenage Angst, Fifteen Years Later

I remember it clearly.  As a freshman in high school, every day began with band practice, a honking, squeaking tour de force of adolescent energy. On this particular day, I was putting my alto saxophone together in preparation for our scale warm-up and couldn’t help but overhear a riveting, yet secretive, discussion between two girls behind me.

“Oh my God, but did you see his face? I can’t believe they didn’t kiss. It was the perfect moment.”

“Yeah, but he can’t kiss her. Dawson belongs with Joey.”

“No way. Joey complains too much. Jen is more mysterious.”

“I don’t know…I mean, she seems weird. And slutty.”

“Whatever, I think she’s cool… Oooh, and what about Pacey? I think it’s so romantic…”

“Ick, no! Sleeping with his English teacher? Gross!”

That was it; I couldn’t stay silent.  If someone in school was sleeping with a teacher, I needed to know about it.

“Wait, who’s Pacey?” I said over my shoulder, feigning my interest with a thin layer of cool “not that I care…” attitude.

“You mean you haven’t been watching?”

“Watching what?” I asked.

They replied in perfect, bewildered unison: “Dawson’s Creek!”

My blank stare must have been answer enough.  The next day, one of the girls brought in a VHS tape.  She had been recording it, she said, and, lucky for me, I had only missed the first three episodes.

“There’s still time,” she said, placing her hand on my shoulder with a gravity that was a bit unnerving. “The next episode airs on Tuesday, so just make sure I have it back by then.”

That night, I watched the tape from beginning to end, entranced.  I was hooked.

The truth is, I had never seen anything like Dawson’s Creek. We didn’t have cable, so my television repertoire consisted primarily of family sitcoms.  Full House, Family Matters, and Step by Step were my favorites.  At night, I would watch Star Trek: The Next Generation or The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles with my dad.  I distinctly remember PBS releasing Anne of Avonlea, which, as an Anne of Green Gables fan, I recorded and rewatched, over and over again.

But Dawson’s Creek was different. The kids on the show were my age. They used big words and talked in extended metaphor. Joey, Dawson, Pacey, and Jen. These weren’t stupid kids that could be boxed in or defined by the typical “jock,” “nerd,” or “cheerleader” nomenclature. They felt real to me, in contrast to the way other characters– especially those of the teenage variety– fell flat.

Above all else, Dawson’s Creek was full of passion and romance, and Drama with a capital “D”. Joey loved Dawson, who loved Jen, but Jen had baggage, and Pacey was in love with his teacher, then Andy, then Joey, who fell in love with Pacey, which destroyed Dawson because Dawson actually loved Joey. It was all one giant, tangled web of “will they/won’t they,” and I loved every second of it.

The same year I started watching Dawson’s Creek, my parents split and, like Dawson, my world felt turned upside down. As much as Dawson’s naivety and “Woe Is I” attitude annoyed me, I think I also identified with his pain and confusion. Then there was Joey with her frustrating inability to make up her damn mind–about anything.  Again, I could relate.  Finally, Pacey was there to save everyone. He was flawed–perpetually misunderstood–but his heart was golden and he wasn’t afraid to risk everything in the name of love.  Pacey quickly became my dream guy.

And so this little show, with its fictional characters and overly dramatized plot devices, seeped into my psyche, week by week. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. These are formative years.  As teenagers, we are constantly in fear of the unknown yet drawn to the prospect of what lies beyond the horizon. It is an inherent contradiction, the fear and the curiosity, but such a combination can lead to tremendous self-discovery and growth. It can also be one hell of a bumpy ride.

My own journey often felt especially precarious, and as I got older, I only managed to dive deeper into the rabbit hole of drama and heartbreak. For nearly a decade, I seemed to relish the opportunity to throw myself off of any nearby cliff, so long as it was in pursuit of this thing I called love. Anything else– professional aspirations, personal ambition–none of it really mattered to me. Obsessed with the fall, I blindly lept from one failed relationship to another.  I was addicted to the thrill of it all, but as the landings became rockier, the continual impact also began taking its toll. I remained fearless, but I could no longer avoid the fact that I was also bruised and broken.

Looking back now, with a bit of perspective, I can’t help but see connections. The kids on the Creek, these precocious adolescents onto which I attached myself so ardently, they, too, were invariably single-minded in their focus. Lust, love, obsession: the show was a revolving door of heart-pumping moments. The characters were willing to risk it all for love.  Everything else, well, it was immaterial.  

Case in point: In season two, Joey, who at the beginning of the series is a bit of a loner with no real interests outside of Dawson, feels the need to pursue her “artist” phase, but by the time she goes off to college, she’s morphed into a nerdy writer who goes on long runs– Joey?? Running??– through the city streets of Boston. The show writers obviously felt comfortable glossing over little details in Joey’s character such as goals, hobbies, and motivations because everyone in Capeside is fighting for the same thing: love and personal fulfillment through romantic connections.  

So long as it was dramatic, it made the cut. We, the young, impressionable youth who saw ourselves– our insecurities, our desires, our uncertainty– reflected in the characters on screen, well, we were just suckers from the beginning.

Is it really any wonder? TV is often a lifeline to young girls navigating the precarious quagmire that separates adolescence and adulthood. We look to characters on the screen for guidance and for acceptance. We see our own challenges laid bare in front of us and we can’t help but idolize and mimic their choices, consequences be damned.

Last year, in preparation for the Netflix revival, I decided to watch Gilmore Girls. Somehow, much to the chagrin of my peers, I had missed the entire Gillmore phenomenon during its heyday, and I was skeptical of its merit.  Needless to say, the skepticism didn’t last long before I, too, became a true believer.

In many ways, Gilmore Girls is everything Dawson’s Creek is not. Its heroines have depth. They are complicated and flawed. We see them traverse life’s challenges with grit and resolve, even in moments of weakness. Most importantly, they have ambition, focus, and clear priorities, all of which often exist separate from their relationships with men.

Sometimes I wonder what life might have looked like if my younger self had accepted a VHS of Gilmore Girls instead of Dawson’s Creek. Would Rory, Lorelai, and Emily have infiltrated my subconscious as thoroughly as Dawson, Joey, and Pacey? And if so, how might my worldview have changed as a result?

Maybe I would have made better choices. Maybe I would have defined love differently, focusing less on passion and conflict and more on compatibility and compromise. Maybe I would have learned to keep a cooler head, to resist getting so carried away by my emotions.  Maybe my life would have been easier, less tumultuous and more stable. Maybe. Then again, maybe easier isn’t always better.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve started rewatching some of those old episodes from the Creek, and more than anything I am struck by how young it all feels to me now. The characters are overly self-absorbed and the drama borders on silliness. Still, every now and again, Joey gives Dawson a look or Pacey flashes that crooked grin, and I can’t help but feel butterflies. And suddenly, I’m fourteen again, my whole life ahead of me, and I realize: I wouldn’t change a thing.


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  • Well, this took me back! Somehow I was never fully exposed to Dawson’s Creek or Gilmore Girls but I have always thought of going back and trying to watch some. I think that Friends, The O.C. and Gossip Girl will always be iconic to me of my “angsty” years. How did these shows change the course of my personal development? That is a great question, Candace. One to think on… Great article!

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