16 great shows: dawson’s creek (1998)

(Bitter Script Reader challenged their followers to make a list of 16 Great Shows that have influenced them as writers and viewers. This is my list.)

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It’s difficult to place when and where I first saw Dawson’s Creek. I know it was sometime in the third season, sometime around the time Joey and Pacey first get together. Cinderella Story, perhaps. I don’t know why I started watching or whether it was a re-run or during its original airing. I do know I eventually did watch it live, so it couldn’t have been too far into the original run.

Anyway, the point is it feels as if Dawson’s Creek has always been a part of my life, even as someone who was a bit of a latecomer to the series.

Despite their voracious vocabulary, the teens on Dawson’s Creek seemed perfectly normal. They dressed like me, they spent their time worrying about the same things as me. They weren’t overly made up or overly sexed (despite what Mr. Stratford thought in 10 Things I Hate About You).

I spent so much time with Joey, Pacey, Jen, and Dawson growing up that I feel as though they’re old friends. And any time I put an episode on, I feel at home.

Dawson’s Creek certainly wasn’t a perfect show. It was great, even a revolution, for its time. But it’s slower paced and it doesn’t have a twist. It’s a pure teen show meant to mirror the lives of actual teenagers. It was a rarity for that to survive back then and I honestly can’t think of a successful show on a major network that could compare since.

Gossip Girl was about “Manhattan’s elite”. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had monsters. Even 13 Reasons Why had a specific framing that set it apart from the rest.

Dawson’s Creek was just a show about teens. And that’s all it needed to be.

Dawson, the presumed “good guy” that was so used to being thought of as good he found it difficult to notice when he wasn’t living up to his reputation.

Joey, the small town girl that never presumed to have big dreams, but found herself with them anyway.

Pacey, the consummate screw up who mostly filled the vacuum left by his siblings and Dawson. But when given the chance he could really impress you.

Jen, the mysterious new girl, the “Manhattan elite” who wanted a fresh start and constantly found herself going back to old habits.

I grew up with these characters. I learned a lot of five dollar words from them. Mostly I learned what not to do.

Most importantly, I learned empathy.

A couple of years ago my sister and I were having lunch together and she asked me a question that was surprisingly revealing.

You see, we grew up in a conservative Christian household. My sister was always the rebel (smoking, drinking, breaking curfew, that sort of thing.)

I was quieter about it. I didn’t break the rules because I didn’t really want to. I didn’t see any allure to smoking or drinking underage. And I certainly didn’t see the allure of rebelling just for the sake of rebelling.

But now as adults, my sister is an open-minded person who just doesn’t really care what other people do as long as it doesn’t affect her. I went slightly further than that.

So my sister’s question to me? How did I go from a conservative Christian household to being someone who cares about social justice for not just myself, but others? (I’m paraphrasing here–it was two years ago.)

I thought about it for a moment. It was something I’d never really thought about. She clarified. She doesn’t care if gay people want to get married, she’s just not going to do anything to help them get the right to do so. But I will. I’ll vote, I’ll tweet, I’ll march, I’ll try to persuade people. I’m not gay, but I still want gay people to have that right. My sister didn’t understand being outside of myself and my own interests to that extent.

So my answer eventually boiled down to Jack McPhee.

Yep. Jack McPhee. A fictional character. One I never really thought too much about during the initial run of Dawson’s Creek. But he was the first continuous, grounded, sympathetic gay character I had been exposed to on television. Sure, Ricky fell into that category to some extent, but his story wasn’t really featured.

Jack McPhee had the first on-screen same sex kiss on network television. Jack McPhee came out to his father. Jack McPhee cried on his kitchen floor when his father couldn’t accept him.

Jack McPhee wasn’t especially flamboyant, which I think was also a revelation for that time. This is when we first started seeing nuanced gay characters on screen. I’m not going to presume that Jack was the first (I don’t have that kind of time to do the research), but he was certainly a forerunner.

As much as I love Dawson’s Creek and its stories and characters, that’s not why the show made it on this list.

Dawson’s Creek is on this list because Jack McPhee is why I want to watch television. I want to be able to reach that kid living in a small town bubble and show them that there’s more to the world than the few square miles that surrounds them.

I want to teach people empathy and the best path to empathy is to be exposed to the emotional lives of people different from you and the people around you.

That’s what’s so important about this show and that’s why it’s on this list.

That, and #TeamPacey all the way.

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