Watching the Dawson's Pilot Again - Complications Ensue
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Sunday, May 10, 2009

We just re-watched the first four episodes of DAWSON'S CREEK for research for the pilot we're writing for The N. What strikes me about the show -- the "secret," if you will -- is a series of disconnects.

The fifteen-year-olds are, as usual, played by actors who are obviously not fifteen: James van der Beek is 21, Katie Holmes is 20, Joshua Jackson is 20 and only Michelle Williams, at 18, is a teenager. That's normal. It's pretty rare for a show about minors to be played by minors; that's why DEGRASSI was such a revelation. It's more expensive to shoot with minors, they don't have the same level of acting chops, they have bad complexions, they can't sign their own contracts, it's a pain.

But you can cast 18-year-olds who look 16, and Kevin Williamson didn't do that. James van der Beek has enough forehead wrinkles to pass as 30, and Joshua Jackson towers over his teachers.

And they talk like 30 year olds. Not just ordinary 30-year-olds. They talk like 30-year-olds who have had five years of therapy. Kevin Williamson raises on-the-nose dialog to an art form. With the exception of Katie Holmes's Joey, the characters say exactly what's on their mind to a degree that only people in really good marriages do in real life. They say what they feel, what they're scared of, what they think the other person thinks... I think it's safe to say that 15-year-olds don't make a habit of confessing themselves to their loved ones. I think it's safe to say that most 15-year-olds only have a fairly vague idea of what they're scared of.

Aside from raising the subtext to text, the conversation is highly literary -- very much dialog that sounds written rather than spoken. Complex sentences, literary locations -- the actors almost carry it off convincingly but it still winds up sounding wordy.

This is not how I write dialog, myself. I try very hard to have my characters sound like they're struggling to get their thoughts out, while revealing more than they mean to, and failing to get across all of what they really mean. But obviously it was an experiment that turned out rather well. Can't argue with 128 episodes.

Meanwhile, the characters have the innocence of pre-teenagers. At least, Dawson, Joey and Jen do. In the first four episode, Dawson aspires to kissing Jen, and then gets bent out of shape when he discovers that she is (gasp!) not a virgin. And she, an alleged New Yorker, feels guilty over not being a virgin. Meanwhile, Pacey comes onto his English teacher, but when she calls his bluff and offers to do him in a classroom at night, he chickens out. In my experience, straight 15-year-old guys don't aspire to kiss the girl except as a prerequisite to getting to the other bases. And had any hot female teacher offered to have sex with me anywhere when I was 15, I believe I would have a story to tell. I can't speak for the 90's, but when I was in high school, fifteen was hardly an unusually early time to lose your virginity. Granted, I went to Dalton, a pretty fast school. But these days, whether rainbow parties actually exist or not, 15-year-olds are definitely sexting and hooking up.

So there's a disconnect there too.

And the guys, talking amongst themselves, talk like women. Pacey spends much of a scene working himself up to telling Dawson that he had sex with Ms. Jacobs, apologizing all over himself, worried that Dawson will think less of him somehow. As opposed to what you'd expect between 15 year old guys:
  • Pacey enters, shuts door.
  • Pacey
  • Dude, you'll never guess who I had sex with last night!

  • Dawson
  • Your hand?

  • Pacey
  • Eat me. No. I totally had sex with Ms. Jacobs!

What does all this mixing up give the show?

First of all, the actors are a lot hotter than actual 15-year-olds would be. And we feel safe digging their hotness. I'm sure I'm not the only guy who felt relieved when Emma Watson had her 18th birthday. Do you really want to see a 15-year-old girl having sex on screen? That's going to be a bit pervy, innit?

Second, the mixing up spreads out the demographics of the show. Adults can watch it because the characters are in some ways emotionally 30. You can let your 12 year old watch it because the only transgressive sex is clearly and repeatedly labelled as transgressive and problematic. Teens can watch it because it is theoretically about their lives, if they happened to live in a resort town.

The female-friendly male dialog isn't accidental either. A show about relationships is bound to skew female. So it's no wonder that Dawson is written in some ways like a girl or a gay guy. (I wonder how autobiographical the show is, given that Kevin Williamson, the creator, is a handsome gay guy.) Any time you're writing about guys in relationships, you have to either fake it and have them talk like women, or you have to bust out all your writer's tricks to illuminate their emotions: have their girlfriends enunciate their emotions for them, or have the conversation where he's talking about some other person but he's really talking about himself, etc.

And then, of course, you have a title character who is written like a massive dweeb: he's insensitive and selfish, and relates to women only through a filter of being a film buff. He's the kind of guy who avoids going to the dance and sits at home watching John Travolta movies, and who films his first kiss with the girl he's hot for, because it's not real for him unless it's on film. If you were being realistic, you'd cast the young Woody Allen.

But then we'd lose interest. So you cast an extremely handsome and charming actor, and just go on writing the show as if he's a dweeb who doesn't know how to kiss a girl. (A problem, I suspect, that James van der Beek never had growing up.) It's an old TV trick. 30 ROCK stars Tina Fey, who is at a minimum a very handsome woman, and writes her as if she's nerdy and overweight. For NAKED JOSH, we wrote Josh as if he didn't have a clue about women, and cast David Julian Hirsh, who has leading man looks. In WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, Sally's kind of a bitch, really; except that Meg Ryan plays her, and she's just as cute as a bug in a rug.

It's funny to see just how much of a fantasy a supposedly realistic drama like DAWSON'S CREEK really is. It's not just the resort atmosphere and the good-looking cast. It's not just the twenty-something actors playing teens. It's a whole texture of fantasies that allows Williamson to tell the stories and allows the characters to be so much more transparent and the stories more illuminating than they might be in a more "realistic" show -- while drawing and holding the widest possible audience.

Not than anyone needs me to say it but ... nicely, nicely done, Mr. Williamson.

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10 Comments:

This is all very astute, but I want to take issue with your boast that "at 15, you would have had a story to tell." One of the things I like about that emotional beat is that it lays bare a pretty commons disconnect between performing and enacting for boys, even for men. Boys learn that they want sex all the time, no matter what, and in an itchy but abstract way they do, yet when they're faced with a girl who wants them as hungrily as they've been performing their own desire, they often freeze up, confused by a change in the script. So kudos to Williamson for staging that.

By Blogger Wrongshore, at 5:50 PM  

Brilliant post! Nice to see you get 'nuts-and-bolts' at length. I've always been a logic-based writer (reality-based, if you will), so your concept of deliberate 'mixing it up' is brand new to me. And quite amazing. Don't know if I'll do it deliberately, but it sure sounds like a great excuse if someday I'm confronted with logic problems (disconnects) in a story I've written that nevertheless works.

By OpenID waiternotes, at 1:01 AM  

Wrongshore is right, I'm 25 and, if i remember my 15's, i can more easily relate to the show's characters than to your experience, Alex.

I got to agree on the wordy dialogue but, if i remember right, there were many teenagers who thought and discussed their relationships in that faction, i was one of them, my best friend another. Not all teens are like that, fô shô, but some are, and i think those were the type of characters the writers were aiming for.

Oh, and i would crap my pants if my Portuguese teacher in 10th grade would hit on me. She was, like, wow, like, hot.

By Blogger kadgi, at 7:27 AM  

Funny, these are all reasons I never liked Dawson's Creek. I liked Buffy. Buffy was fun. Dawson's Creek was always so IMPORTANT. I'd rather get my important metaphors through vampire attacks than a conversation between pretty actors who say everything they feel.

But you're right, you can't argue with ratings. Lots of people liked it.

By Blogger Emily Blake, at 10:51 AM  

Funny that you should say that about the ages of the actors.

I just checked the cast for the Vampire Diaries (developped by Williamson) and it's the same problem.
They're supposed to be about 16/17 and i believe none of the actors are going to be below 25.

Considering the books he's basing the show on, he's got a lot of leeway as there's no real world building or character building. They can pretty much do anything with it. I sure hope they will not follow the books cause as much as i find the twilight books poor, the VD books are worse.

By Blogger Skyfleur, at 10:03 AM  

I'd like to buy your book Crafty TV writing. But shipping it to my country is much more expensive than the book itself (and I can't be sure it will arrive)

Is there an electronic version of the book I can buy?

By Blogger Ezequiel, at 5:16 AM  

There isn't yet an electronic version, but you can ask Amazon for a Kindle edition and they will pester my publisher.

I'll also pester my publisher.

What country are you in?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 9:24 AM  

I'm from Argentina. I researched a little more and it turns out the shipping costs about the same than the book. And Amazon doesn't give an ETA for the book for my country.

The Kindle is an interesting option, but I'd have to buy one first :)

Thank you

By Blogger Ezequiel, at 3:31 PM  

BTW see if the shipping is different from different Amazons. Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.fr might be cheaper, who knows?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 5:19 PM  

I watched the pilot episode when it first aired, but couldn't get past the fact that Dawson, an alleged film geek and Spielberg-phile (aka, me, at that age), had a freaking HOOK poster on his wall.

By Blogger Matt, at 2:04 PM  

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