Looking back at ‘Dawson’s Creek’ and its titular Spielberg worshipping wannabe filmmaker.

Twenty years ago tomorrow, on January 20, 1998, Dawson’s Creek made its debut on The WB. Though the network was about three years old already and had already launched another signature hit the year before (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), it was Dawson’s that would largely define the style the network would be known for. The cast was loaded with magazine-ready fresh faces. If you weren’t around then, you probably can’t appreciate how fast James Van Der Beek, Katie Holmes, Joshua Jackson and Michelle Williams became It Girls and It Guys.

As I recall, most of the pre-premiere hype tended to focus on the fact this teen coming-of-age story was from creator Kevin Williamson, who was on his way to being known as a master of horror after the first two Scream movies and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Most reviews noted their surprise at this genre shift (imagine that! Writers able to work in different genres!) and also the overly-articulate self-aware dialogue. Williamson seemed poised to do for the teen drama what he’d done for horror with Scream – freshen it by focusing on characters who were all too aware of the tropes governing the situations they found themselves in.

When you’re an 18-year-old Spielberg worshipper who wants to be a film director, you’d better believe that everyone who heard about Dawson’s Creek was telling you about it. I’m not sure why I didn’t watch from the start, probably a mixture of spite and the certainty I was “too mature” for some teen soap. When I did finally get into the series, I found myself in a perpetual love-hate relationship with Dawson. I could relate to the guy in a number of ways, such as our interests and his pining for Katie Holmes. (If you were a straight male teenager in 1998 and you didn’t have a crush on Katie Holmes, odds are you didn’t own a TV and somehow had never seen a magazine photo shoot with her. She was THE Alpha It Girl of the WB, and that’s borne out by the fact that several subsequent shows like Roswell and Smallville definitely seemed to try for their own Katie, Joey or both.)

In thinking back on the pilot twenty years later, I’m left with one major question: What kind of films would Dawson Leery be making today? Perhaps the answer is found in looking at what we know of his filmography:

The Sea Creature From The Deep (season one) – It’s a low budget schlock horror film that kind of reminds one of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Dawson attempts to be sly in using this to get close to the newly-arrived Jen by casting her as the female lead. Joey was the female lead until Dawson decided to borrow from Hitchcock by killing her off early on and replacing her with Jen’s character. From what we see of it, it doesn’t appear to be very good, but it somehow wins the Junior Division of the Boston Film Festival.

Takeaways: Like many filmmakers, Dawson can’t resist homaging and borrowing from the greats, though he’s a little too impressed with his own genius at stealing the “kill the lead” twist from Psycho and, uh, Scream. In using the film as a pretense to spend time with Jen, he demonstrates the instincts of a budding James Tobek.

Creek Daze (season two) – Dawson deals with his break-up with Joey the only way he knows how, by making it the story of his next film. In a practical sense, this means we get to see new actors (including She’s All That’s Rachel Leigh Cook) perform scenes we all remember from season one. Joey gets pissed off at her depiction and the film later gets savaged by Dawson’s film teacher, a visiting studio exec.

Takeaways: Dawson seems to have one story in him and it’s not only not that good, but it’s narcissistically rooted entirely in his point of view, painting Joey as the villain. This could have been the failure he learns from and which makes him grow as an artist. Alas…

Escape from Witch Island (season three)  – It probably helps to mention this was made in the fall of 1999, just months after The Blair Witch Project took pop culture by storm. Dawson sets out to make a documentary about Witch Island, a local area said to be haunted by witches. As an episode, it’s saved by everyone – and I mean EVERYONE – busting on Dawson for making a Blair Witch ripoff, as was everyone with their own cameras at the time.

Takeaway: This could have been an opportunity for Dawson to demonstrate some self-awareness about jumping on a bandwagon, perhaps making the Dawson’s Creek of Blair Witch spoofs. This outing could suggest Dawson is good at adapting to trends but a total loss at displaying any unique identity as a filmmaker. Does his future lie more as a journeyman filmmaker than an innovator like Spielberg?

A.I. Brooks (season four) – Dawson makes another documentary, this time about his dying mentor Mr. Brooks, who conveniently was a filmmaker himself in his younger days. The show uses Brooks’s own history as something of a ham-fisted parallel between his life and the Dawson/Joey/Pacey triangle Dawson’s found himself in for the better part of two seasons.

Takeaway: It later wins a film festival, so we’re supposed to think it’s pretty good, but it’s another example of Dawson being out of his own ideas and compensating by borrowing someone else’s story.  Is he capable of telling a story he doesn’t see himself in?

The Creek (season six) – After a stint directing a friend’s script (which I’m not counting because we barely learn what it’s about), Dawson first directs the reshoots on a studio film that his boss was fired from and then tries to get back in touch with his muse. Since this is the show’s final season, the creator’s decided to have Dawson tell adapt the story of his life. Seeing the pilot reenacted (again) does give a nice full-circle feeling as the series comes to an end and as heartfelt as it seems, maybe this one came out pretty good.

Takeaway: Dawson’s resorted to remaking himself, and he’ll remake this story once more as a TV show when The WB buys the rights and hires him to adapt it. When we catch up with him in the Five Years Later finale, he’s finishing his first season as a showrunner. His journey from Kevin Williamson to… Kevin Williamson is complete. At least this time, Dawson has learned to let go and write his story without being tethered to what really happened, or even his version of “what really happened.”

So where would Dawson be today? He probably rode The Creek until it finally ran out of gas. I bet he tried to launch a spinoff or two because Dawson’s frame of reference was always Dawson. With that story finally out of him, I’m gonna guess he became a journeyman director. Surely he took many directing credits on his show, more than enough to ensure he’d be employed as a TV director for the rest of his life.

I’m guessing that after that, he made a little indie movie, probably about everything in his life since he got his TV show. It was purchased for way too much at SXSW and got a meager theatrical release before finding a second life on Netflix. He went on to direct TV pilots, mostly the ones that Fred Savage passed on and one of those went and became a long-running 1-hour genre drama. It was never at the top of the ratings, but enough of a critical and cult hit that it lasted five years.

A pod deal at a studio followed, where he developed ideas that never got past the script stage. His feature and his connections with Kathleen Kennedy landed him the coveted assignment of directing one of the Star Wars standalones, but he was fired with a month to go and replaced with the Duffer Brothers. After that, he limped back to TV, where he again pitched a new gender-swapped version of… The Creek.

13 episodes debut on Amazon Video. By the end of the month, it’s canceled.

Happy anniversary Dawson. Wherever you are, I hope you’re finally over Joey and Pacey going behind your back.