Thursday, December 03, 2009

Dawson's Creek: better than The Wire?

"It's more than beautiful... it's awesome!"
– Jen, Dawson's Creek

Warning: contains spoilers!

Friends, colleagues, family and the mass media still incessantly implore me to watch The Wire (get over it!). I still read about it every week in The Guardian as being the best programme in the world. Ever. Now there's some seminar about it. Obama loves it – so it must be good. I'm sure if I ever bothered to watch it, I'd like it. But you know what, I can't be bothered. It's that simple. And I don't really like TV. I don't like being sucked into something that I've got to watch episode after episode, week after week – and getting involved with characters, god it's almost like having to keep up with friends. I'm sure The Wire's great, but like, I'm sure the Maldives are great, or abseiling, or Harry Potter books, but I just don't feel the need to do these things (I don't have the time, the energy, the money). Besides, although I do occasionally watch TV, I don't watch cop shows, or hospital shows, or reality shows. I'm sure the Wire is one of those. I mean it can't be that groundbreaking, it still fits into a mould – even if it cracks it once in there. In the 80s I watched a bit of Hill Street Blues, that felt pretty real and 'groundbreaking' at the time but look at it now.

But the other reason I'm not watching The Wire is I've been watching the whole of Dawson's Creek on DVD. Yes, the teen soap. It's true. And it's better than The Wire. Seriously. Probably. Friends boast of watching five DVDs of The Wire. Dawson's is 34 DVDs. 6 Seasons. 4 episodes a disc. 23 episodes a season. 16 hours a season. 42 minutes an episode. Over six years. This is epic. This is life. Only £35 too. You do the math.

With Dawson's constant reference to popular culture, films, songs and TV shows, and its simultaneous debunking of and conforming to the limitations of a teenage TV show, it's no wonder it was written by the man (Kevin Williamson) who wrote Scream (which one astute Amazon reviewer calls 'Dawsons with knives') – the first (of many) post-modern, in-joke, self-referential horror movies. Dawson's Creek, along with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, paved the way for dull, post-modern eponymous angst-ridden heroes; smart, precocious dictionary-for-breakfast teenagers wondering why their lives had become like bad 1980s John Hughes movies (answer: because the writer watched them in the 80s).

I never watched Dawson's at the time (1997-2003), I was probably travelling or watching Bunuel films or something. I wouldn't have given it the time of day. But now, well, I quite like it. Don't get me wrong – it's still kinda in that time before TV got good and cinematic and exciting (Lost, 24, Heroes, Prison Break, er, The Wire – probably) but it has its moments.

I've never been able to relate to most TV shows: hospital dramas (ER, Holby City, Casualty) and cop shows (CSI, The Bill, Law and Order) in particular, mainly because they're boring. However, a sexually immature film student (Dawson) – now that I can relate to! I love Dawson as the film student – probably because I was one (albeit with more talent than Dawson, natch). While it is true that film-makers should make films that are close to them, just how personal is a moot point. My girlfriend at film school, whilst we were still dating, made her graduation film about our relationship, going as far as to use the dialogue we'd spoken, the books I'd read, the clothes I'd worn and the bed clothes I'd slept in. It was surreal, kinda flattering, and a bit creepy (and I'm still annoyed that the actor playing me ruined my copy of Arthur Rimbaud's Collected Poems). Dawson does a similar thing with his early films (except the one with the monster) – they're all about Joey, with identical dialogue and situations... then he does it all over again when he makes a teenage soap about it and gets rich and gets Spielberg on the phone... but I'm jumping a bit here.

The plus (or minus) of watching what should have taken six years to watch but actually took a month or two* means the characters' exponential growth rate and their accelerated fashion and haircut changes are rather alarming – especially Jen's. And their maturity. One minute they're 14 year olds playing around like kids, then suddenly they're twenty, burnt out, bitter, reflective, having lived all there is to live. Then they're twenty-five and successful millionaires (what the fuck are they going to be like at forty?). Except The One Who Dies (Jen).

Dawson's Creek is essentially a will they won't they sleep together between straight-laced, dull Dawson Leary (James Van Der Beek) and doe-eyed, uptight Joey Potter (Mrs Tom Cruise herself, Katie Holmes) – that lasts six years. They kiss at the end of every season, and have sex eventually – at the start of season six, then it's all over by the following morning. They end up as eternal soul mates. To me, soul mates always seems an easy way out – I've had a few female friends (notice how soul mates are never same sex?) tell me we're soul mates – which goes beyond friendship, or sex, or having to keep in touch at all in fact – and then never heard from them again. And I never got to sleep with them. Well, maybe once.

It starts in 1997 – so long ago! – and they're all sipping lattes strolling across lawns and using the internet (Mac, of course), even though they're like fourteen or something. I didn't even hear of a latte until like 2001 and didn't write my first email until around the same time (probably exactly the same time). These kids were born precocious.

Dawson's and Joey's closest friends, Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson), Jen Lindley (Michelle Williams, yes her who had Heath Ledger's baby then Heath died) and later additions to the group, Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith), his sister, Andie McPhee (Meredith Monroe) and Audrey Liddell (Busy Phillipps, though I always fondly think of her as Busty Phillipps) are way more exciting than the two leads (who tend to over psycho-analyse events before they're even over) – even they admit Dawson and Joey are boring, though can't help falling in and out of love with them. Pacey gets Joey in the end, poor sod, and Dawson gets Spielberg on the end of the phone. Audrey, LA girl – always on the outskirts of group – when being truthful (ie drunk) and outspoken usually says how boring they all are. She's like one of us – the audience – looking in at this incestuous little group of self-absorbed teenagers.

Joey and Dawson (DJers to their fans) are such highly moralistic, dull people for most of the series: they don't even drink, smoke or date. Come to think of it, hardly anyone smokes in Dawson's. Except: an old, haggard gypsy palm reader; a thief, mugger, drug dealer and potential rapist; an arrogant, stressed British film director (Todd – who sums up Dawson succinctly: "you're boring"); Jack (once) when he reached rock bottom; Audrey when she's drunk and suicidal (even then she only has two puffs) and a black waitress (who quits when Pacey sees her smoking).

All figures of authority (ie all adults – except Principal Green, the black school Principal, one of the only black characters in the series – the other being his daughter and the aforementioned waitress) are flawed: parents, teachers, bosses, in fact anyone older than Dawson and his chums. They're either weak, afraid, evil, bullying or deceitful. What Dawson or Joey don't get at the time (but hopefully have by the end of the series) is: that's life. People are weak, afraid and all those other human foibles; Dawson and Joey were too naive and young to understand. They had impossibly high standards of people.

Dawson's Creek is full of really heavy metaphors – the soundtrack, the films they see, TV they watch, other characters – all seem to exist for Dawson and Joey (and sometimes Pacey). The Last Picture Show, Star Wars, even Shakespeare become mere metaphors for the Dawson-Joey-Pacey ménage-à-trois. It's like Much Ado About Nothing was written 400 years ago for the express reason of being a Dawson-Joey-Pacey metaphor in 2001. Songs, especially, inform the narrative like a sledgehammer, with trite lyrics summing up trite scenes. I truly believe it would be much better if it had a better soundtrack. The songs are truly terrible. Someone like Springsteen on the soundtrack at least would have given it some gravitas what with his songs about small-time losers wanting to escape their small towns.

And film references permeate Dawson's Creek. Although Dawson is a cineaste, his taste is somewhat mawkish and limited: Steven Spielberg, Frank Capra, er, that's it. Joey, as the English literature major is similarly limited by her environment and upbringing in her tastes – her favourite book is Little Women by Louisa Alcott. They're certainly more prosaic than Prozac.

But who can fault, in the space of a couple of episodes, references to: Samuel Fuller, the Guggenheim, Bilbao ("a giant artichoke" – Pacey), enveloping artist Christo (Henry's love for Jen), Pauline Kael, Ford's The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, Lynch's Blue Velvet, Jean Luc Godard, Nic Ray, Lazlo Kovacs, Henry James, Evelyn Waugh, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Slanted and Enchanted (by Pavement) and, er, Notting Hill (the film – apparently only gay people like it).

There are some interesting cameos. Bizarrely, four characters from Twin Peaks pop up: Sherilyn Fenn, Ray Wise, Madchen Amick and Dana Ashbrook. Hope from Thirtysomething plays Jen's mum until she's replaced by Mimi Rogers. Well, wouldn't you? Principal Peskin is Harry Shearer, aka Derek Smalls from This is Spinal Tap. Oh, he also makes $400,000 an episode doing voices for The Simpsons.

Season six, the final one, is like watching your kids grow up, leave home and go to college. Except you get to see everything they do. Like kiss all the time, frequent rowdy bars and go to MTV beach parties in L.A. Two brash, British characters appear in season six (Todd Carr, film director, and Emma Jones, in a punk band/works in a bar) displaying typical American view of Brits – it's all bloody hell, chum, bugger, even a wanker, taking the piss – with accents you'll never hear outside of Bridget Jones and Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels.

After a bad start with the Brit director, Dawson becomes his assistant, then gets to make his own film. Dawson wants to make his personal film, which is essentially Dawson's Creek – the films he's been making, er, all through the series (one of his early works is called Creek Days). Though Dawson's Creek isn't as knowing and clever (or cool and funny!) as Seinfeld, it becomes vaguely reminiscent of 'The Pilot' episodes of season four when the characters get to produce Jerry, a TV series about themselves. Anyway, Dawson, idealistic film-maker he is, doesn't want his 'personal' film being turned into a skin flick, so rejects an offer to have it made with compromises. The name of his uncompromising, personal film: Creek Days.

Joey has a Wonder Boys-type almost affair experience with her tutor, Prof. Wilder (Season 5, 2001). Hold on, though, wasn't she actually in Wonder Boys (2000) and played the student who nearly has an affair with her tutor, Prof. Tripp (Michael Douglas)? Those watching it at the time must have got a distinct sense of déjà vu, though at least she was a bit sexier in Wonder Boys. Whilst at college, Joey went relatively wild, having affairs with two, yes two, bad boys before doing the deed with Dawson.

Joey has other kind of action too. Early on, she meets a serial killer, possibly narrowly escaping being murdered. Then she's attacked by the rapist in the library (lucky her one lesson of kick-boxing came in handy). Finally, she gets mugged (yes, by the one who smokes) but he gets run over and dies later in hospital. Even when being mugged she has a witty rapport with her would-be assassin. She just doesn't know when to shut up.

When Joey watches Dawson's new teen soap called Creek Days, suddenly five years in the future (we can tell it's in the future – Joey's wearing glasses and drinking wine) in Paris, with her boyfriend ("The writers must sit around with a thesaurus", he says about the soap), the end credits font and music are the same as Dawson's Creek – Dawson has been making Dawson's Creek all the time (he even has a knowing smile to camera as he's filming his indie film).

But Pacey gets the girl (Joey), Jen dies, Jack gets Pacey's brother, Dawson sells out, is lonely, but rich and has Spielberg on the phone... it seems a small consolation. Pacey gets to screw Joey first and direct an episode of Dawson's Creek before Dawson does – actually quite a funny episode too. I realise I'm getting my fantasy/reality mixed up here. Oh yeah. Joshua Jackson, who plays Pacey, directs an episode of the sixth season. He doesn't appear in it – a la Orson Welles directing Citizen Kane. In real life he did date Joey too.

(Even minor characters do better than poor James Van Der Beek. Henry, who fell for Jen in a big way (until he wisely dumped her), has fared better than any of them in real life. Henry (Michael Pitt) went on to reveal all in Bertolucci's The Dreamers (2003), and worked with other powerhouse directors too: Gus Van Sant in Finding Forrester (2000) and Last Days (2005), Larry Clark in Bully (2001), and Michael Haneke in his own remake of Funny Games (2007). Dawson the film-maker (and James Van Der Beek the actor) would be green with envy.)

And Joey: after years of obsessing over getting A grades (a B- was a near suicide), studying all the hours God gave her, she ends up as some editorial assistant on a magazine in an office. I thought at least she'd be a writer, anthropologist, naturalist. You know, something worthy. Something Joey. *Sigh* Growing up is such a disappointment. And then to get to marry Tom Cruise... Joey Potter would have called her real self a sell-out.

Dawson's Creek: Key Cultural Resources
Key films: Say Anything, E.T., American Graffiti, The Last Picture Show
Key actors: Tom Cruise (mentioned at least four times – Risky Business seems a favourite, and Jerry McGuire, The Color of Money – more than any other actor; obviously Katie Holmes ends up marrying him in real life – well, semi-real life. Funnily enough Audrey mentions to Joey how her film geek, Dawson, looks like Tom Cruise), John Cusack (it's the cool yet geeky effect)
Key novels: Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger; Little Women by Louisa Alcott
Key film directors: Steven Spielberg, Frank Capra, John Hughes
Key poet: Emily Dickinson
Key singer: Bruce Springsteen (though he's only heard once, unless you count Henry doing an acoustic version of Glory Days at a beach party)
Key song: Daydream Believer (not by The Monkees though, but Mary Beth Maziarz)

*How we watch TV now
It used to be, we'd all turn up to our office jobs in the morning and someone would ask, did you see Lost/24/whatever last night? This is now a thing of the past, what with people watching stuff on Freeview, satellite, web, download, DVD and sometimes even on ol' terrestrial TV, it's very rare that anyone at all will be at the same episode in a TV series as anyone else.


Download MY Name is Earl Episodes said...

The wire episodes is fantastic story.i always missed to watch i download the wire episodes.we all friend watch the show.

T-1000 said...

Dawson's Crock Of Shite more like - although I enjoyed JVdB's send-up of his Dawson persona in Don't trust the Bitch in Apartment 23