Dawson’s Creek” is “My So-Called Sex Life,” a hyperventilating soap that finds hit-making horror scribe Kevin Williamson (“Scream,” “Scream 2,” “I Know What You Did Last Summer”) pigeonholing the adolescent experience as a Freudian misadventure of boiling libidos and roaring psychobabble. To this self-absorbed, self-aware bunch, the only thing better than having sex is talking endlessly about why sex is really all that matters in this crazy, mixed-up world. In other words, expect this serial to draw young America like nobody’s business. Its leads are all highly appealing, and despite the utter precociousness of their pop-culture ’90s-speak, their show proves an addictive drama with considerable heart.
Watching this hour of small-town angst among the young and gorgeous, one gets the feeling they are enmeshed in the teenage equivalent of a Woody Allen movie — a kind of “Deconstructing Puberty.” In the outlandishly analytical milieu of “Dawson’s Creek,” 15-year-old girls say things like, “Our raging hormones are destined to alter our relationship, and I’m trying to limit the fallout.” It’s akin to entering an alternate universe where sophistication has replaced awkwardness and smug smiles sub for acne.
Indeed, there is nary a zit nor a petulant tantrum in sight, just merchandise-ready babes and hunks who arrive packaged for clear-skinned superstardom. And teenagers may not really talk like this, but we surely wish they did.
Pilot (penned by creator and exec producer Williamson) introduces us to the one guy hip enough to have his name attached to a creek, Dawson Leery (a terrific perf from James Van Der Beek). Dawson, all of 15, wants nothing more than to be the next Steven Spielberg, decorating his home studio in Early Cinematic Wunkerkind and directing a horror featurette while a high school sophomore in his picture-postcard Massachusetts community.
On the surface, Dawson has the perfect little life. He gets to play Spielberg, he looks like a teen dream, his parents still bump like bunnies (Mom refers to Dad as “Mr. Man Meat”), and he’s being quietly chased by his lifelong chum Joey (Katie Holmes), the tomboy who turned adorable while no one was paying attention. Their chaste buddiness is rapidly being swallowed by that sexual tension thing, but Dawson tries not to notice when Joey declares, “I have breasts — and you have genitalia!”
Enter Jen (Michelle Williams), the blond bombshell from the Big City on whom Dawson develops an instant crush. We know this is so because he manages to stop talking about Spielberg for five minutes. He’s plenty smitten by this self-described virgin with pouty red lips, but it turns out the new girl’s got a past after all. And talk about rebellious — she’s an atheist! She tells her disapproving grandmother that she’ll go to church when Grandma says the word “penis.”
Then we have the oddly named Pacey (Joshua Jackson), the sharp-beyond-his-years wisecracker and Dawson’s best male friend, who decides to live out a “Summer of ’42” fantasy by diving headlong into an affair with his English teacher, who has the unfortunate habit of dressing like Edy Williams.
When she initially rejects him, Pacey declares with improbable bluster, “You blew it, lady, because I’m the best sex you’ll never have!” Being 15 clearly ain’t what it used to be.
As the opening stanza fades into the second and third segs, Dawson begins suffering the pampered-prince equivalent of a mid-life crisis. During a heart-to-heart, he tells Joey — whose mom is dead from cancer and who lives with her pregnant sister and sis’s black boyfriend — to use “no more metaphors. It’s too late.”
Such is life in “Dawson’s Creek,” where Williamson has created a realm in which everything is overtly sexualized. Foods taste “orgasmic.” Discussion tends to center on “carnal needs.” Dawson hasn’t had sex yet, so he “walks the dog” or “flogs the bishop” regularly (usually while watching Katie Couric, no less). If hormones were explosives, this would be World War III.
As Dawson, Van Der Beek is an exquisitely talented heartthrob, and Holmes, as Joey, is a confident young performer who delivers her lines with slyness and conviction. Williams (Jen) and Jackson (Pacey), meanwhile, more than hold their own, with Jackson looking to be a budding star in his own right.
Of the opening three-episode arc, the Williamson-scripted kickoff hour is the weakest. But producer-director Steve Miner overcomes the oft-cloying wordiness and evokes a warmth and immediacy that’s bolstered by the lush setting (shot in Wilmington, N.C.).
With “Dawson’s Creek,” Williamson brings to the WB a mega-marketable show that plays like a cinematic pheromone. It’s a drama conceited enough to believe that it created the concept of teenagers who care and jaded enough to throw us lines like, “Repressing our desire can only make it more powerful” and have us think it’s more than a post-pubescent pipe dream.
Yet something in the formula keeps you coming back for more. Perhaps it’s the hope that one day they’ll all stop treating sex as an abstract and do something stupid and immature already.
Tech credits are all top-notch.