Judge Rob Lineberger is up this creek without a paddle.
Our reviews of Dawson's Creek: The Complete First Season (published June 18th, 2003), Dawson's Creek: The Complete Second Season (published January 19th, 2004), Dawson's Creek: The Complete Third Season (published December 1st, 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.
"Just what would we be missing from the land of poorly scripted melodramas, huh? Recycled plotlines, tiresome self-realizations—you throw in the occasional downward spiral of a dear friend and maybe a baby here and a death there, and all you've really got is a recipe for some soul-sucking, mind-numbing ennui."—Pacey
Read The Charge carefully. In context, the character uttering those lines has just returned from a summer sailing sojourn with his new girlfriend. The two are about to face their friends, their mutual enemies, their senior year of high school, and their fourth season of uttering unrealistically eloquent—yet disingenuously self-referential—quips. In this case, The Charge is prescient: If you read it and say to yourself, "Ooh, what wit! What a clever contrivance! That is some fresh dope!" then Dawson's Creek is for you. If the larynx-constricting verbal masturbation causes you to retch and fear for the intellectual development of our nation's youth, then you should skip it.
Unfortunately, you probably belong with the rest of us, stuck somewhere between those two extremes.
Facts of the Case
As in previous seasons, Dawson's Creek is centrally concerned with the love triangle between young auteur Dawson Leary (James Van Der Beek, The Rules of Attraction), Joey Potter (Katie Holmes, Pieces of April), and misfit Pacey Whitter (Joshua Jackson, The Safety of Objects). Their senior year finds Joey and Pacey together while Dawson glowers in the corner. Dawson isn't all sulk; he hangs with pals Jen Lindley (Michelle Williams, Imaginary Heroes), who uses the shores of Capeside as an alternative to rehab, and Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith, Final Destination), who struggles with the balance between "gay" and "too gay."
Some characters move out (Jack's sister Andie and Jen's boy adventure, Henry) while others move in. Representing the Y chromosome is Drue Valentine (Mark Matkevich), a mean-spirited prankster with intimate knowledge of Jen's naughty past. The female contingent is bolstered by Gretchen Witter (Sasha Alexander, All Over the Guy), Pacey's older, hipper, and perennially pained sister. The supporting cast of parents, grandparents, friends, and enemies remains intact to witness the histrionics of high school life.
Season Four brings us these witty titles (with episodes to complement them):
• "Coming Home"
I was raring to write wry episode synopses for Season Four, but the wind has been taken out of my sails. Not because there isn't enough material to support witty encapsulation (far from it) but because I have seen the writing on the wall. Summaries both exhaustive and hilarious have already been written by Television Without Pity (see link in sidebar). Were I to summarize this season after having read their consummately sardonic synopses, I fear I'd commit plagiarism while still falling short of their effort. So I diminish myself as a critic and defer to their summaries. (Beware of absolute spoilers for this season and beyond.)
Season Four of Dawson's Creek gives us the culmination of several trends that have been present in the previous three seasons. As such, Season Four is simultaneously the most exciting and most obnoxious season of them all. It is no stretch to call Season Four the apex of the series.
If you've seen any of the previous seasons of Dawson's Creek, Season Four is just like that, only more so. To be perfectly honest, at this late date in the life of the series I have nothing to say that will shed light on whether the series is for you. Witness the fine reviews of Seasons One and Two (linked in the sidebar) for that form of enlightenment. Instead, I'll commit the sin that signifies hack critics and talk about my history with Dawson's Creek.
How to say this and retain any shred of masculine dignity and professional standing? There is no way, so here you go: I watched every episode of Dawson's Creek from its genesis through Season Three. I didn't tape it and catch it after the fact, or rely on the magic of time shifting. No, I plopped my butt down in the nearest piece of comfy furniture and tuned in like a Borg to the WB. I missed football games, better TV shows, and even minor social events, but I did not miss Dawson's Creek. As disgusted as I was with myself for slavish adherence to this soul-sucking, mind-numbing ennui, I could not turn away. Dawson's supreme arrogance, Joey's compelling lip machinations, Pacey's amiable antics, and Jen's slut-in-a-sundress routine kept me glued.
Season Four started as a reprise of the first three seasons. Despite my better judgment, I tuned in for more masochistic browbeating. Dawson's Creek rewarded this devotion with more skin, more steam, and higher levels of danger, excitement, and betrayal. The series was in full swing. The characters had well-developed histories, yet they retained untapped potential. The actors were hot commodities; the music was rocking in a Rage Against Something Vaguely Distasteful sort of way. Riding the cloud of steam generated by Dawson's Creek, an entire network of fresh faces mired in melodramatic circumstances had coalesced. Early adopters of the show could revel in condescending glee as newcomers piled on. It wasn't a bad time to be a Dawson's Creek fan.
At the same time, the façade had cracked a bit. Well, that's not precisely true, because Dawson's Creek had worn its blemishes proudly on its sleeve from the word go. Whether it was because the artificially hyped dialogue had grown tiresome, or the show had tipped its manipulative hand once too often, I found myself gradually less enchanted with the series as time wore on. I missed an episode or two, went to those minor social events instead of plopping my butt in the cushy furniture.
Then came "Promicide," which—if you check the episode list up there—means I stuck around much longer than I should have. In this fine episode, Pacey makes a complete ass of his carefully cultivated character and destroys all those around him. Why? Because Joey and Pacey can't actually be together; this is the WB. You're new around here, aren't you? Perhaps it is because Dawson's Creek had gotten stale, what with all the death, drugs, sex, and such. Definitely time to spice things up with a manufactured rift in a heretofore enjoyable relationship. Who knows the whys and hows? The bottom line is this episode sucked apricots, and for no apparent reason.
In a way, I'll always be grateful to "Promicide." Dawson's Creek continued for another two seasons, but the heavily laden bandwagon moved on without me. I relished the newfound hours of free time, hours that Dawson's Creek can never take from me (unless I get saddled with reviewing Seasons Five and Six). "Promicide" revealed that Dawson's Creek could go too far, or that I had outgrown it, or that monkeys had indeed flown out of Madonna's butt. Whatever the reason, I was through.
Seeing Season Four now, both the episodes I loved then and the ones I hadn't seen (all three of them), has been a mixed bag. The annoyances that irked me then came flooding back, and time has intensified their suckage. What annoyances are those? The writing is too self-referential, incessantly so. James Van Der Beek is too stoic. Katie Holmes is too unbelievable as an insecure brain (has she looked in a mirror?). Gretchen is too 1970s to suit Dawson. Everything is just too, and it piles up on itself. The acting is not nuanced enough to support such flamboyant dialogue. Kevin Williamson outwrote himself.
The only exceptions to this general rule of soap-operatics are Josh Jackson, Katie Holmes, and occasionally Michelle Williams. Jackson brightens every feature he's in. I'm not tuned in to the heartthrob grapevine, so I can't tell if Jackson wows the ladies, but his charisma and capability as an actor are genuine. The creek is supposed to be Dawson's, but Jackson stole it from Van Der Beek just as Pacey stole Joey from Dawson. On the other hand, I am privy to the general male consensus, and word on the street is that Katie Holmes is red hot. Fortunately she is also a gifted actress, and while she overuses the "lip twist, shoulder shrug" combo we forgive her for her sheer screen presence.
There are also instances of good writing, particularly Williamson's trademark homages to pop culture. "The Unusual Suspects" is a standout episode. This riff on (you guessed it!) The Usual Suspects captures all of that film's brooding tension while staying firmly in Capeside. Even the worst episodes have B stories or C stories that resonate.
If you love Dawson's Creek, Season Four is a must have. It is, after all, their senior year, so it has milestones built in. This is the last season where the Dawson's Creek dynamic feels unforced, before the weirdness of long-distance bickering sets in.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What's with the new theme song? It makes me long for the overwrought, overplayed original theme song. While we're on the subject, it seems that the indie rock songs that were so heavily promoted during the original airings are conspicuously absent. Dawson's Creek's transparent marketing always irked me; nonetheless, the songs were well integrated with the episodes. Now that those very same songs have become popular (and thus expensive), they haven't been licensed for the DVDs. Isn't this a double whammy for the fans of the show? We put up with the hype, helped make the artists popular, and now we can't even relive the nostalgia of our bemused marketing saturation.
As a DVD package, Dawson's Creek: The Complete Fourth Season has some annoyances. The first is the airtight adhesion between the outer sleeve and inner foldout pack. I literally tore the outer sleeve trying to get to the DVDs. I pushed, I pulled, I wedged screwdrivers into crevices, but only after creative use of a hair dryer and letter opener was I able to breach the outer defenses.
The extras are anemic. The Trivia Game is appealing at first but quickly grows annoying (more self-reference, perhaps?) The same sound clip played over and over again—because I got most of the questions wrong. The payoff is a deleted scene, which I never scored high enough to see. I have mixed feelings about the commentaries. Executive Director Paul Stupin is enthusiastic, forthright with praise and criticism, and leans to the blustery side. Many of his comments made me cringe, and I can only hope that he is really good friends with the actors. As a general rule, producer commentary tracks are more self-promotional and colorful, and this one follows suit. Paul assumes that we've heard his other commentaries (though I have not), and he also assumes we've seen the entire show. If you have not (again, I haven't) then be forewarned that he is free with the spoilers. Finally, the international theme song "Run Like Mad" by Jann Arden is something of an anti-extra because it replaces the original theme song. Poorly.
From a technical standpoint, this set isn't impressive. Many shots are overly grainy, with poor contrast and poor saturation. Other shots suffer from blooming highlights and edge enhancement. Still more shots were soft, not gauzy but bleary. Precious few shots were focused, clear, and detailed; when they do occur they reinforce the general malaise of the video quality.
The sound quality is not much better. There were occasional and minor dropouts, but more prevalent was clipping that causes the voices to sound muffly and harsh. The songs that were so perfectly matched to the original episodes have been noticeably replaced. I didn't need to rely on memory to know which songs are new, because their tone doesn't jibe with the overall mix.
Despite its copious slipups, Dawson's Creek: The Complete Fourth Season has enough excitement, sex, and drama to recommend it to fans of the show. The WB owes much to Dawson's Creek, but the network has matured since those early days. I'll wager that modern audiences have as well, which makes Dawson's Creek: The Complete Fourth Season a better buy for completists or those with nostalgia.
Nostalgia? The show only ended last year! True…but Dawson's Creek is a show that ages quickly.
Oh, it's guilty all right. No doubt about it. The real question is, does its sly self-mockery and likable cast warrant a reduced sentence?
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Executive Producer Paul Stupin on "Coming Home"
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