Thursday, October 13, 2011

Theater Class Extras - The Disappointment That Is Dawson's Creek - The Complete First Season!

The Good: Dialogue, Moments of thematic risks, DVD bonuses
The Bad: Far too self-aware, Plot is too soap-operatic, Characters are dull, Terrible acting, Overuse of music
The Basics: Perhaps enjoyable to the late teen soap opera-loving crowd that doesn't want to watch the adults of daytime television, Dawson's Creek is a strike out for fans of good television.

Every now and then, in order to keep myself sharp and attempt to expand my knowledge and experience base, I will sit down and watch something that I am pretty sure I will not like. Usually, I pick something that is very popular, involves Hollywood good-looking young people and that I've seen allusions to in other works. At least if there are allusions to a work it has some pop culture value that I might use in the future in some way (as a pop culture junkie, this helps). The last time I attempted this, it completely backfired on me. I sat down and watched Veronica Mars - The Complete First Season (reviewed here!) and I was astonished by how good it actually was! So, I was a little more gun-shy about approaching Dawson's Creek - The Complete First Season.

I'm pleased to say this lived down (wow, did it!) to all my lowest expectations of it.

Capeside, Massachusetts is the home of bland, good-looking aspiring filmmaker Dawson, a fifteen year-old whose best friend, Joey, is a girl who is beginning to realize that with the changing bodies and the growing into adulthood, there are certain potential tensions now between her and her best friend. When the generic good-looking blonde from the big city moves into the neighborhood, Dawson develops an immediate interest in Jen. While Dawson and Jen get closer, Joey is forced to confront her long-sublimated feelings for Dawson and she begins to act out to get his attention.

While the bizarre love triangle, plagued mostly by Joey's insistence on using shockingly straightforward dialogue (see below) about sex and anatomy, works through its issues, Dawson's best male friend, Pacey, begins a sexual relationship with his teacher, an older woman whom he correctly divines from the outset is interested in him. When that relationship falls apart, Pacey and Joey begin to grow closer together. As well, Dawson is forced to worry about the fallout between his parents when he realizes his mother is having an affair on his father and he is unsure how to proceed with that information.

Dawson's Creek - The Complete First Season on DVD is a three disc set containing all twelve episodes of the teen-oriented soap opera. To get the good out of the way (this won't take long), on DVD the series looks and sounds good, though the box specifically notes that it is a full screen presentation which seems to imply that it might have originally been in widescreen and that something is missing from the DVD. The bonus features are decent, with an extensive commentary track on the pilot episode, featurettes on the pilot and the entire first season and DVD-ROM links to the website (which may or may not still be in existence, I did not check this particular feature out). But for a melodramatic teen-oriented series, this DVD presentation has decent bonus features giving it value to the fans.

Though, the only reason I can see to be a fan of this escapist teen-fantasy schlock is the dialogue. The dialogue is clearly written by articulate adults who have a self-awareness that could only come through years of therapy. The dialogue is deliberately sophisticated in terms of diction and vocabulary, instantly reminding one of someone desperately trying to be Aaron Sorkin (whose dialogue made The West Wing, reviewed here, such a hit) or more accurately the Gilmore Girls (series reviewed here!). The problem here is that while the high speed and allusions in Gilmore Girls establishes and adds character to the quirky residents of Stars Hollow, in Dawson's Creek, the effect is young people talking like adults for the sake of talking like adults. The speed of Lorelei and Rory's dialogue in Gilmore Girls is easily explained as a function of caffeine addiction and their level of diction is explained through the bookish nature of Rory and Lorelei's upbringing.

Dawson's Creek lacks anything so coherent and intelligent as far as reasoning for the sound and feel of the series. Instead, it "reads" as kids masquerading as adults and it borders on the ridiculous. I like the way Joey is verbally combative, throwing out references to breasts, masturbation and genitals at virtually every opportunity to shock Jen and Dawson, but I like it for the academic reasons. The dialogue is written smart and self-aware, but it works far better on the page than it does on the screen. In other words, it reads well, but it seeing it in a "real-world" context it is utterly unbelievable or even remotely interesting. I cannot say the same about either The West Wing or Gilmore Girls; there the well-written dialogue is smart on the script and creates a powerful sense of reality on film.

As a result in the first boxed set, there was one single line that surprised me and was truly fresh. Delivered by Pacey's teacher-lover Tamara Jacobs, she lists her prior sexual conquests and when she sees Pacey's reaction, she turns it on a dime with a closing line that is well-written and well executed (this is in the fourth episode, "Discovery").

But that's it. It doesn't matter how smart the dialogue is when it seems utterly implausible in its delivery in the fact that it overrides characters rather than establishes them. Pacey psychoanalyzes Tamara in virtually their first meeting and while some might see his dialogue as fresh and deep, the delivery is a melodramatic recitation of plot-progressing exposition. It is the most articulate Pacey is in the entire first season and it neither sounds good, nor establishes his character with any genuine realism. Instead, it helps to define Dawson's Creek as a soap opera where sweeping emotions overcome characters to justify plot and character twists that are improbable, over-dramatic and utterly contrived.

That being the case, it helps to know who the principle characters are in the first season. This boxed set presents Dawson's Creek as the world of:

Dawson - A fifteen year-old working to be the next Steven Speilberg, he is best friends with Joey, but finds their relationship strained after she observes the difficulties of maintaining an intergender friendship in the mid-teens and she withholds the knowledge that Dawson's mother is cheating on his father. Bland and idealistic, Dawson soon develops a powerful crush on his new neighbor, Jen, which adds more tension between him and Joey. He works with Pacey at a local video store,

Joey - Josephine, though no one calls her that, she is best friends with Dawson and has been for a decade. She has been waiting for the clueless boy to notice her romantically and she feels threatened by Jen the moment Dawson illustrates interest in her. She lives with her older sister as her mother is dead and father is in jail,

Pacey - A fifteen year-old friend of Dawson and Joey who is living the dream of being seduced by an older woman, in this case his teacher Tamara Jacobs. He tries desperately to make the affair work as he has a long history of striking out. He works with Dawson at the video store and portrays the monster in Dawson's first big movie project,

Jen - Bland blonde girl from the city, she's been sent to Capeside because she was too wild and active in the city. An atheist who is forced to live with her fundamentalist grandmother, she immediately comes between Dawson and Joey's friendship as the object of Dawson's desire. Some of his idealism begins to rub off on her and some of her traits begin to rub off on him,

Tamara Jacobs - Teacher at the school, in her mid-thirties, she's sleeping with Pacey,

Gail Leery - Dawson's mother, who is having an affair on Mitch, pretty much making a mockery out of their twenty years of marriage. She is a television news anchor and as such has access to equipment Dawson tends to want to use for his moviemaking,

and Mitch Leery - Dawson's father. Oversexed and devoted, he is the idealist from whom Dawson receives most of his personality.

The relationship between Dawson and Pacey is roughly the same as the relationship between Dante and Randal in Clerks, though with a great deal more melodramatic confession and less pop-culture musings. Jen is established as one of the most painfully nice good girls with some of the most hackneyed dialogue about keeping clean and living well that it is no surprise how quickly the walking "Just Say No" ad is undermined with attempts at actual personality. And none of the characters pop. They are all generic angsty teens, angst-filled because they're at that age, not because of any genuine conflict or sensibility.

You know, usually I do a thorough analysis of all the acting, but this time around, I can't muster it up. Honestly, it's all just bad. It's a collection of teens talking like they are adults, walking around like they are superstars and there is not a decent performance in this whole boxed set I sat through. Yes, it became an utter agony for me to watch Joshua Jackson's stiff portrayal of Pacey, Michelle Williams's lackluster strides to camera, Katie Holmes trying to work her mouth around the obvious and strangely predictable shock dialogue while maintaining the "cute as a button" thing. Seriously, after her first delivery of Joey noting that she and Dawson now have genitalia, nothing she says is remotely as shocking as it is supposed to be, from her confronting Dawson about his masturbation to trying to surprise Jen with mentioning sexual experiences in public places. This is an acting issue because Holmes telegraphs her performance, almost always getting a look on her face like she is trying desperately to remember the precise invocations of uncouth phrases moments before she delivers them.

But the show lives, no the first season dies, on the talents of James Van Der Beek. He has the pretty typical bland hollywood good looks of a young male performer, but he does not back it up with any genuine talent. His acting is in his subtle smirk and it's not enough to carry the show.

This is teenage melodrama and there are far, far better series' that are coming-of-age for young people, most notably Freaks And Geeks (reviewed here!). It's a renewed shame that that series lasted only one season while this boxed set is only the first of several. I guess, like Joey expresses in every look at Dawson's back, life isn't fair.

For other works featuring Michelle Williams, please visit my reviews of:
Shutter Island
Brokeback Mountain
But I'm A Cheerleader


For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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