Our reviews of Dawson's Creek: The Complete First Season (published June 18th, 2003), Dawson's Creek: The Complete Third Season (published December 1st, 2004), Dawson's Creek: The Complete Fourth Season (published November 24th, 2004), Dawson's Creek: The Complete Fifth Season (published August 10th, 2005), and Dawson's Creek: The Series Finale (published April 27th, 2004) are also available.
"What kind of high school memories are you guys going to have if all you did in high school was bitch and moan about everything?"
Dawson's Creek inspired slavish adoration and spittle-flecked disdain in equal measure in its six-year run. A teen soap opera with a postmodern twist, Dawson's Creek took a well-worn genre and juiced it up with self-referential humor and preternaturally articulate teenaged protagonists, all presented with the hip self-awareness that was the trademark of Scream scribe Kevin Williamson. While critics howled at the show's unabashed sentimentality and unrealistic dialogue, adolescents of all ages flocked to Dawson's Creek, making it the first major success for the then-fledgling WB network (and establishing the WB's soon-to-be-ubiquitous "beautiful teens plus trendy music" formula).
The series arguably hit its stride in its second season, which leavened the ironic deconstruction with a more straightforward focus on character development and less of an emphasis on arch John Hughes homages and sensationalistic storylines like Pacey's first-season affair with his English teacher. (Part of this shift may have been due to the increasing influence of writer Mike White, who would go on to pen the late, great Freaks & Geeks and 2003's The School of Rock.) Its characters and tone firmly established, Dawson's Creek was primed to join Beverly Hills, 90210 and Saved By the Bell in the pantheon of Teen TV deities.
Facts of the Case
Dawson's Creek: The Complete Second Season picks up where the first season left off, with Dawson (James Van Der Beek) and gal pal Joey (Katie Holmes) finally getting down to some serious spit-swapping after a year of "will they or won't they?" histrionics. This being the first episode of the season, however, the happy couple get about thirty seconds of bliss before complications set in. Dawson, being the kind of guy who can't shake hands without having a heart-to-heart discussion about it, can't resist wondering What It All Means; Joey, for her part, proves the strength of her love by not immediately jumping on a plane to France. It's only the beginning of what will be a rocky year for the introspective sweethearts.
Best friend Pacey (Joshua Jackson), meanwhile, is still struggling with his loser self-image and living in the shadow of his Great Santini-like father, while Dawson's ex-girlfriend Jen (Michelle Williams), who spent half of last season pushing Dawson away and the other half trying to get him back, has reverted to her New York ways, carousing with the evil, evil Abby Morgan (Monica Keena). New to Capeside this year is brother-sister duo Jack (Kerr Smith) and Andie (Meredith Monroe), who are destined to make Dawson's life hell while giving Pacey his first taste of redemption.
For the kids of Dawson's Creek, it's a season that will bring heartbreak, joy, betrayal, reunion, and tragedy. And pop culture references. Many, many pop culture references.
I am not a fan of soap operas, especially soap operas promoted with glowingly lit images of meticulously coiffed "teenagers" gazing at each other with trembling, doe-like eyes. So I kept a comfortable distance from Dawson's Creek for the entirety of its six-year run, and could easily have remained Dawson-free for the rest of my life. Having received this DVD set to review, however, as a responsible critic I dutifully rented Season One so as to be fully up on my Dawson mythology, and sat down to watch with teeth gritted. Imagine my horror, then, at reaching the midpoint of the first season and realizing that, contrary to all expectations, I'd been irrevocably hooked. "I can't believe I'm getting into Dawson's Creek" was my mantra, repeated dully over each episode's end credits.
Granted, Dawson's Creek is no Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it's not Beverly Hills, 90210, either. While just about every charge you could lodge against the teen soap opera genre applies here—the mawkish sentimentality, the absurdly high relationship turnover rate (it's almost a given that the moment two characters kiss on a show like this, they'll be broken up within two episodes—and back together within three), the dubious verisimilitude of a high school populated solely by fashion models with nary a blemish among them—two things elevate Dawson from the pack and make it a watchable, even—dare I say?—good series: strong performances and truthful writing.
James Van Der Beek's famously large forehead and off-putting resemblance to Glenn Close is admittedly an impediment to full enjoyment of his portrayal of Capeside's budding auteur. But with his open, innocent face and halting, emphatic delivery, he's the very portrait of the kind of intense, geeky teen who's constantly tripping over his own tongue. It's an honest depiction; this isn't Ferris Bueller, but an at least semi-realistic teenager, and as such he's at least as annoying as he is engaging.
The two stars of the show, however, in terms of sheer acting, are Katie Holmes and Joshua Jackson. While Holmes (more so in the previous season than this one) is a little overly reliant on certain behavioral tics—in the Dawson drinking game, take a sip if you see Joey grin crookedly and shrug—she more than makes up for it with a screen presence that holds together any scene she's in, and a lived-in realism to her acting that speaks volumes with a look. Jackson in particular is a standout actor, taking the rather thankless role of Dawson's wisecracking sidekick and turning it into something greater than the sum of its parts. It's easy to miss the many tired clichés this character could have gotten mired in—the first season especially seems determined to shove Pacey into each of those potholes—but Jackson navigates his terrain with ease, delivering a nuanced and entirely appealing performance.
I'd be remiss if I didn't make note of Abby Morgan, Capeside's resident Joan Collins. Abby brought an exhilarating breath of fetid air to Dawson's Creek the previous season as she tormented Dawson and friends in the "Breakfast Club" episode, and she's put to even more extensive use this year, systematically deflating and exposing every member of the gang with her pathological compulsion to screw around with people's lives. As played by disturbingly cute Monica Keena (Crime and Punishment in Suburbia), Abby defies easy categorization; initially presented as a black-hearted combination of Iago and Lady Macbeth, she takes on interesting new layers this season, becoming something more than just a villain, and her ultimate fate turns out to be surprisingly poignant.
Most of the flak aimed at Dawson's Creek revolves around the, let's say "heightened reality" of its writing. "Teenagers don't talk like this," is the single most-repeated criticism of the show. But in fact, I don't think people who make this criticism spent much time hanging out with Honors English geeks in high school. It's true that the dialogue on the show is far more glib and cerebral than the way the average teenager speaks, but Dawson and Joey aren't average teenagers—they're class-brain geeks, and class-brain geeks kinda do talk like this. (I say this as a former class-brain geek myself, and I can affirm that my fellow intellectual dorkwads and I did in fact communicate in a somewhat limited form of Dawson-speak.)
But the larger issue is, of course, that Dawson's Creek doesn't represent a true portrait of adolescent life. While this may be literally true—much of the show feels like a nostalgic thirtysomething writer's wish-fulfillment fantasy of his high school years—I don't think creator Kevin Williamson is going for literal realism here. Rather, the truth of Dawson's Creek is more of an emotional truth; this isn't about adolescence as it happens, but adolescence through the crystal-clear hindsight of a grown-up lens. While shows like My So-Called Life and Freaks & Geeks offered a naturalistic teens-eye perspective, Dawson's Creek is told from a far more removed point of view. In some ways, it's more appropriate for adults than teens, just as The Wonder Years was aimed at an audience much older than its characters.
Dawson's Creek: The Complete Second Season is presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio, in a transfer that is fairly consistent with the quality of the DVD presentation to date. That is to say, image quality is highly variable and generally disappointing, characterized by excessive grain (most prevalent in nighttime and low-light scenes) and a general softness to the images. While I can't compare this transfer to the original broadcasts, I imagine it's comparable or perhaps a little worse, but no doubt far superior to fans' VHS copies. With Columbia TriStar packing 22 episodes onto four discs, some kind of compromise is probably inevitable.
Audio fares better, with a perfectly acceptable Dolby 2.0 Surround track that doesn't make much use of the surround field but presents the musical soundtrack, which in some ways is one of the uncredited stars of Dawson's Creek, in all its lush, MTV-friendly glory. Speaking of which, if you're a diehard Dawson's Creek fan, don't toss out your VHS collection just yet. Due to high music clearance costs, this DVD presentation of Dawson features new songs, selected by producer Paul Stupin, in place of many of the originally broadcast songs. (You can find a list of the original and replacement songs linked at right.) Fans probably won't be happy with the changes, despite the tradeoff of a cheaper DVD set (and the ability to see Dawson on DVD at all, as many series, such as Ally McBeal and The Wonder Years, remain unreleased due to licensing issues).
As expected, extras on this second collection are fairly sparse, following the precedent of the first season set. We get two audio commentaries, for the season opener and closer, by series executive producer Paul Stupin, flying solo this time (Kevin Williamson, who joined Stupin for the previous round, sits this one out). Stupin delivers a pair of chatty, entertaining commentaries that, as one might expect from an executive producer, cover all areas of the show, from the characters and stories to the behind-the-scenes aspects of the production. Note: the commentaries contain spoilers aplenty for this season, so be warned if you haven't seen all of the second season episodes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as I've reluctantly come to appreciate and enjoy Dawson's Creek, the path to Dawson fandom is strewn with pitfalls and sharp stones. There's no getting around the fact that this is a teen soap opera, with all of the baggage that comes with it. Unlike a show like Buffy, in which the soapy elements are more or less balanced by regular helpings of vampire-slaying, universe-saving hijinks, Dawson serves the relationship turmoil straight up, no chaser. As a result, all the who's-kissing-who, who-wants-to-kiss-who, who's-disturbed-about-having-been-kissed-by-who drama can get a little repetitive, especially when taken in its concentrated DVD form. While the quality of the writing and the occasional interesting non-romantic storyline (like Joey's troubled relationship with her father, or anything involving Jen's grandma) keeps things from getting too monotonous, the prospect of sitting through four more seasons of Dawson and gang's romantic travails is a daunting one indeed.
Better than its reputation would suggest, Dawson's Creek, in all its trashy, cheesy, self-analytical glory, is as good as its genre gets. If, like me, you've been avoiding the show for all these years, it's worth giving a try; if you're a longtime fan, you'll no doubt relish this trip back to the halcyon early days of Capeside's star-crossed lovers.
Dawson's Creek: The Complete Second Season is cleared on all charges. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go look for an abandoned missile silo in Nevada to move into in case I'm asked to review a Felicity DVD set.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Executive Producer Paul Stupin for "The Kiss" and "Parental Guidance Suggested"
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