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Dawson's Creek: Season One

Considered by many the pinnacle of late-'90s teen television, Dawson's Creek was something of a prefab success story. The weekly high school soap debuted on the WB network as a mid-season replacement in January 1998, following a fusillade of ad-saturating hype and banking on the street cred of creator Kevin Williamson, the overnight screenwriting sensation responsible for the media-savvy horror franchises Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Just like his slasher blockbusters, Williamson's TV series features a flashy cast of pretty young talents, but Dawson's Creek trades shrieking and carnage for moping and angst. James Van Der Beek stars as sophomore film freak Dawson Leery, a pure-hearted innocent whose capacity for romantic self-delusion is rivaled only by his unconditional love for the films of Steven Spielberg. Dawson's idyllic Cape Cod-ish life is thrown into tumult by his drastic hormonal response to his new neighbor Jen (Michelle Williams), a 15-year-old New Yorker trying to escape her skanky big city past. Jen toys with Dawson's neuroses to the great dismay of his closest friend, the tomboyish and cynical hard-luck case Joey (Katie Holmes), whose history of personal tragedy has done nothing to prepare her for the pain of Dawson's single-minded obliviousness to her secret love for him.

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While most pilot episodes clumsily fail to predict the qualities a good show will display after a few more episodes of smoothing and settling, the first episode of Dawson's Creek must rank as one of the most insipid debut chapters of any successful prime time television series. The plotlines are cliche and tepidly realized and Williamson's "hip," culture-conscious dialogue utterly fails to capture the banal confusion of adolescence. Instead, his characters talk the way screenwriters like to think they talked when they were back in high school: full of lofty intellectual bon mots and playful deconstructions of their changing lives with lucid perception, and written in a style that chokes the actors with impenetrable and turgid speeches (a style previously employed by filmmaker Kevin Smith and since replicated on the WB's The Gilmore Girls). The worst parts of the pilot episode, however, involve the unstomachably produced tabloid subplot wherein Dawson's incorrigible pal Pacey (Joshua Jackson) strikes up a forbidden romance with his sexy English teacher. (Who picked that flirty saxophone music, and has anyone punished them for it?) As the first season develops, so does the nagging and uncorrectable problem with the enterprise: It centers around a truly idiotic and infuriatingly annoying title character. While Dawson would seem to be the ideal character to appeal to movie reviewers, who are likely to see some of themselves in Dawson's geeky and wondrous fixation on all things movieland, his taste in movies is terrible (he has a friggin' Hook poster on his bedroom wall) and even worse (if possible), he is an unfathomable wuss who cannot stop describing his dumbfounding wussiness at every turn. At least three times an episode even sensitive viewers may feel an urge to mercilessly beat this goony-eyed sop with a nail-studded two-by-four until his implacable simpleton grin spills blood. It doesn't help that Williams is physically miscast as the supposedly foxy Jen (unless foxy now means short, stocky and waddling, with unusually long arms and bunny teeth). The two of them together are nearly nauseating, which is cruelly unfair to Holmes and Jackson, both of whom shine with talent and charisma when able to shed their title sequence counterparts.

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The truly sick part of Dawson's Creek, however, is how, about halfway through this groan-inducing first season, it somehow creeps into the viewer's psyche, like a televisual Stockholm Syndrome, compelling maniacal singalongs with Paula Cole's treacly, parasitic theme song "I Don't Want to Wait" and eliciting reluctant and unwarranted empathy for its characters. It's no coincidence that this subtle transformation occurs as Holmes' complicated Joey becomes a more-crucial narrative presence (and as Pacey's Mary Kay LaTourneau-esque tryst is mercifully concluded) as well as the emergence of the talented Mike White as a sometimes writer and producer and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Party of Five veteran David Semel as director. White (who also wrote acclaimed screenplays for Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl) also played a crucial hand in the sublime-but-short-lived teen series Freaks and Geeks a few years later, and their tempering of Williamson's annoying tics adds some much needed wit and humanity to Dawson's travails. Columbia TriStar packs all 13 episodes of Dawson's Creek: Season One onto three discs. Each episode is presented in its original 1.33:1 ratio and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The pilot includes a commentary by Williamson and producer Paul Stupin. Other features includes the retrospective featurette "Dawson's Creek: From Day One" and a "Season One Time Capsule." Fold-out digipak in paperboard slipcase.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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