When Kevin Williamson set out to make “Dawson’s Creek,” he had no idea what to expect. He definitely didn’t picture it becoming one of the biggest teen dramas of all time. In fact, in 1996, he had just sold “Scream” and didn’t even think of making a story based on his own childhood. But when it came up in a pitch meeting, “Dawson’s Creek” was born.
Following a high school group of friends as they learned about falling in love, creating real friendships and finding their footing in life, “Dawson’s Creek” went on to become one of the faces of The WB, airing for six seasons from Jan. 20, 1998 to May 14, 2003. James Van Der Beek, Joshua Jackson, Katie Holmes and Michelle Williams became household names.
Now, 25 years after the premiere, Williamson looks back. The writer and producer stepped away at the end of the second season but returned for the series finale, which jumped five years in to the future. Still, the show changed his life.
“I think in the beginning, it was a very, very difficult time for me because ‘Scream’ hit big, ‘Dawson’s Creek’ hit big and I was really pulled in a bunch of different directions. I stumbled a little bit, and and it took some time to get my footing and figure out how to do this,” he tells Variety. “‘Dawson’s Creek’ was the show I grew up on, and what was so beautiful about it was that it was my childhood. It’s so autobiographical in so many ways.”
The cast also grew up on the show. During a recent appearance at the TV Critics Association press tour, Jackson reflected on the 25th anniversary, noting that he began working at age 11, which means he’s 33 years into his career. “I’m both boggled that it’s 25 years and also not surprised at all,” he said, before noting that his first time at a press tour was for “Dawson’s,” which was during “the last millennia — not decade, not century. Millennia.”
Of course, he was also part of one of the most controversial storylines, during which his character, Pacey, entered a sexual relationship with a teacher in Season 1. Still, viewers were more up in arms over the fact that two kids (Dawson and Joey) were sitting on top of a bed talking about sex.
“If any child that I know had had this conversation with their potential sexual counterpart, clothed, sitting on top of the bed, just talking in the most elevated manor possible, my mother would have done fucking backflips! She would have been ecstatic,” Jackson said, laughing. “The fact that people were yelling about teenagers having frank conversations about sex, meanwhile, you have a pedophilic relationship — but it’s a boy being a boy! I was 16 or 17 in the show, having a sexual affair with a grown woman. And not one word. It’s mind boggling!”
Below, Williamson looks back at that storyline and many more as he celebrates the 25th anniversary of “Dawson’s Creek.”
When I say it’s been 25 years since “Dawson’s Creek” premiered, how do you feel?
I feel old! I don’t think of myself as someone who could have written that. I’m such in the now. Life goes by so quickly with so many different ups and downs and peaks and valleys. I don’t even remember those days. I was like a different person.
Going back to Season 1, some people were really up in arms about not only the Ms. Jacobs storyline, but also just the fact that teens were sleeping in a bed together. What do you remember about the initial reactions to the show?
100%. A boy and girl sitting on a bed — she’d crawl through the window and they sit in the bed together because they were friends and I don’t think that would be so scandalous today. The other thing people seemed to object to was the way they talked — the dialogue and the elevated psychobabble, I called it at the time. That got a lot of criticism too and then lastly, the “Summer of ’42” storyline.
How do you feel looking back at that storyline now?
I mean, it’s not what I would write today. If I did write it, I certainly wouldn’t romanticize it perhaps the way that I did, but it was different. I was definitely looking through a different lens then. It was more of the boyhood fantasy. “Summer of ’42” is quoted in the show. That was also a coming-of-age story, and they dealt with the pain of it. There were certain moments where I did see it through Pacey’s eyes. There were a couple of moments where we went in and we tried to do it through Ms. Jacobs’ eyes where we show that she was confused. There was something not quite right going on with her, and she ultimately packed up and left because she realized what she was doing. But we did not go deep there. We didn’t pull back the layers of Ms. Jacobs and show her side of things.
If we did it today, I think it’d have to be a little more equal balanced — you’d have to show the reality of it, you’d show the trauma of it. You’d have to really dig. We’re not in that place anymore. We can’t just look at storylines like that and just accept them. It’s not where we are. It’s not where I am. So, I know it would be different today. If someone pitched that in the writers room today, I’d probably go, “Okay, that’s great. Let’s talk about something else!”
Another Season 1 character who always stood out to me was Abby Morgan, played by Monica Keena. What can you tell me about crafting the arc that ended with Abby’s death?
I will tell you what I remember is that she didn’t want to be there. She did not want to be in Wilmington, N.C. She was a young actress, and I think she was in a relationship and she wanted to be killed off. She was, like, begging to be killed off. Unlike the other actors on the show, I think that she wasn’t as excited to be there. I loved her and I think she’s awesome. I thought, “Okay, well if you want off the show, can I kill you? Let me write to your death! You’ll be the first person that dies in ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ and it’ll be awesome.” And she was like, “Okay!” She was game. I ran into her a couple years later and she loved the experience, she just didn’t want to be on the show.
Not everyone likes living in a small town. I feel like the “Dawson’s Creek” cast became a family and really succeeded, in part, because they were so far away from Hollywood.
I think that’s how it was for most of us. We all bonded really quickly. It was sort of everyone’s first show. I think Josh had the most experience with “Mighty Ducks.”
Let’s talk about “Escape From Witch Island,” which paired up Jen and Pacey in a casual relationship. I know this was after you stepped back, but was there ever a discussion to explore a real relationship between them?
I was more overseeing at that point so you’d have to ask the showrunner at the time, but we always discussed the pairings and who’s going to be with who. In “90210,” the lesbian pairing happen in the fourth season. I always thought that was so weird how they would pair everyone up in the soap operas and then by the fourth season, the girl kisses the girl. It’s just weird, we’re just dancing in a circle until we get to that. I think we might have made a joke about it. But yeah, with the pairings, we never really talked about Jen and Pacey’s thing. We talked about them maybe having a long term [something], but then the triangle becomes a square. So we never went down that road because we brought in Andie (Meredith Monroe) for Pacey. Jen, we were pairing with her grandmother in storylines.
When we got to the “Blair Witch” of it all, the pairing that we talked about all the time was Pacey and Joey. That was the one. It was like, “When are we going to do that?” I mean, we saw that right in the very first season when they were paired up for the biology project [in “Double Date”]. They were in the water together, they had to change outside the car and we saw the chemistry there. We saw the dailies, and we were like, there’s something going on there. We were riding toward that.
You mentioned Andie. The storyline with her mental health struggles was a bit ahead of its time. What were those conversations like in the writers room, and was that the arc you planned when you brought in Andie?
No, it was not. She was always gonna be this sort of anxious character who they both [with Jack] were sort of living under the thumb of their father’s shadow — Jack in his way and Andie in her own way, which was to be the perfect daughter. That of course created a lot of anxiety. That was the conversation I remember happening. We weren’t so much talking about much more than that in the world; mental illness hadn’t really exploded in terms of the issue that it is today and the way we’ve become so aware of it.
That was something they went further a bit into the third and fourth season, to the point where I wasn’t a part of that. I don’t know if I would have gone… I might have handled that differently if I had been around.
But Jack’s coming out was done so beautifully — and made history.
Right when I was writing that episode in the second season, that’s when I told my parents I was gay. I was 30 years old. I came out earlier, but I hadn’t gone home and talked to them. When we were doing it, there was a lot of press about it and everyone was talking about it.
I know it’s a loaded question, but how do you view your experience in a writers room and on a set then versus how it is today?
Well, the one-hour drama has changed so much today, in terms of how we look at it. Our storytelling has shifted and it’s elevated. And we’re in the streaming universe. I feel like if you’re network, all network is trying to do is not be network, so it’s all different. Everything has shifted. But I am really enjoying the TV today. I’m excited that we have so much content because I devour it.
You’ve said before that you wish you had more time with certain episodes. Is there any story you really wanted to tell that you didn’t get the chance to?
You know, I don’t regret the past. One of the things people say to me is, “You had such a wonderful cast!” And we did. We had these great actors and they were astonishing. And every one of them I love to this day, but you know what else I had? Great writers. If you look back at our first two seasons, we had the most amazing group of writers and I didn’t even know it. I didn’t even know how wonderful they were and I remember having fun. We were all sort of sort of stumbling around trying to find the show. I had the first six in my head, and I could just write them in my sleep.
By the time we shot the pilot, I pretty much had that, plus some of the 12, but I just didn’t know how to make a TV show. I was not experienced. I didn’t know what I was doing. And I hired a bunch of people and we just sort of stumbled our way through it. That kind of messiness helped with the emotion. It was a very heightened situation!
Have you gone back and watched “Dawson’s Creek” on streaming? It’s a different experience watching it without commercials.
No. I try but every time I watch it, I’m like, “I wish I had more time” or “I wish I would have written this…” I turned on “The Vampire Diaries” to see how we did something on the first episode and I said, “I’m out.” And I love “Vampire Diaries.” It’s everything to me, I just can’t watch it. And “Dawson’s Creek,” it’s so ’90s. I watched “The Faculty,” it looks like a time capsule of the ’90s. We’re not there anymore.
I don’t know how “The Faculty” hasn’t been remade.
I cannot wait. You mentioned “The Vampire Diaries.” You and Julie mastered this universe and spinoffs. “Dawson’s Creek” tried to do that with “Young Americans,” again, after you left. Why do you think that didn’t work but something like “Vampire Diaries” spinoffs worked multiple times?
That was the network. They had a whole new show and then they just decided to bring a character onto “Dawson’s” to introduce that world. “Vampire Diaries” was a universe. We created this little town and it was so much bigger. What I loved about “The Vampire Diaries” is it truly was a unique, original universe. It was not just planted in small town America. Like anything supernatural or that has vampires, werewolves or witches, you can just go and go and go with those storylines. When you have certain characters that have lived 150 years, there’s a lot there to mine and so they can go for 150 years more. The genius of Julie was that we always talked about “The Originals” as sort of a spinoff during the second season. We were writing it, and the timing wasn’t right. And then by the time we were doing the spinoff, we were writing the finale and she was like, “You know we’re gonna do another show. We’re going to do ‘Legacies.'” Then we went back in the writers room for the last season because we’re writing the finale and I was like, “Oh, I’m actually writing the spinoff,” because it was the Salvatore boarding school. Julie is a force of nature. She’s amazing.
Will that world continue eventually?
If you ask her, yes. I will leave it to her to figure out how. There’s been so many conversations of how you continue that universe. Nothing’s happening at the moment.
Going back to “Dawson’s Creek,” in the fifth “Scream,” there’s a moment where Jenna Ortega is watching the “Scare” episode — which of course, featured Scott Foley, who played one of the killers in “Scream 3.” I gasped when I saw it. How did that make it into the movie?
To be honest, they just surprised me with it. They didn’t even tell me it was in there. I screened the film for the first time and I went, “What?!” I didn’t even know it was there. And they just laughed at me! It was really sweet.
Does it ever surprise you how big the show still is in the zeitgeist, how much people still make references to it?
In everyone’s need for content, it’s just there. One of the things that I did during the pandemic and these last few years is I got very nostalgic for another time, because we were living in such a crazy, uncertain time. I revisited some old things. You go through a nostalgic phase. During the pandemic, I went through that phase and I think I revisited some things from years ago. I was watching all of my favorite ’80s films, all of my John Hughes and “Say Anything.” I feel like maybe some people started watching “Dawson’s Creek,” because I do think it got a rebirth. I started hearing about it. I’d get texts from friends back home, like, “I just watched all seven seasons of ‘Dawson’s Creek’ with my daughter.” I didn’t get that before.
Another loaded question: Looking back, what sticks out for you as something you learned working on “Dawson’s Creek” that you carried into your career?
It was a very charmed experience. I think in the beginning, it was a very, very difficult time for me because “Scream” hit big, “Dawson’s Creek” hit big and I was really big pulled in a bunch of different directions. I stumbled a little bit, and and it took some time to get my footing and figure out how to do this. “Dawson’s Creek” was the show I grew up on, and what was so beautiful about it was that it was my childhood. It’s so autobiographical in so many ways. I could go through every episode in the first two seasons and just go, “Well, this is where this came from,” and “This is where this came from.”
Sometimes Greg [Berlanti] told me a story and we’d work it into the script. What I love so much about “Dawson’s Creek” is how much I learned from it. I grew from it. It’s how I met so many beautiful people that are just friends to this day. I look at Josh and what a beautiful man he’s become and I didn’t doubt it for a second. I look at Michelle who is so wonderful, and I look at James with all these beautiful children in Texas and Katie, who is a lifelong friend forever. The writers — I mean, Greg and Julie, we’re all family. It’s been a charmed experience. They’re not all that easy, and I got it again with “Vampire Diaries,” with actors and writers I love to this day. I’m very blessed in that way because they’re not all this way. There’s a lot of shows where none of that happened!
And it’s very rare that you get one of those, let alone two.
And yes, they were successful, they reached an audience but more importantly, they were personally successful for me. They personally brought so much to my life and enriched my life. And so to have that twice is great.