New notes on Dawson’s Creek.
Because the dream of the nineties is still on life support in Portland (seriously, check our real-estate listings), yesterday I walked over to the independently owned brick-and-mortar music-and-video emporium near my house to buy a used copy of the Dawson’s Creek season 6 box set for $6. They had a second copy going for $8.50, which I assume meant it was in slightly better condition, but I’d decided beforehand that $6 was my price point. In fact, I’d come to this store a few times before and almost bought this particular box set, each time thinking, Am I really going to do this? And each time the answer had been no. It’s not no anymore.
Dawson’s Creek premiered in January 1998, and if you want more establishing detail than that, I suggest you Google it. I was fifteen at the time, halfway through tenth grade, and so not only part of the show’s prime demographic but the same age as its main characters. Granted, I lived in semi-suburban North Miami Beach, and they lived in small-town (would it be unreasonable to say semirural? It always felt that way to me) coastal Massachusetts, though the show was ﬁlmed in North Carolina, which is sometimes more and sometimes less obvious when you’re watching, but I don’t think any of this matters, at least in the context I’m planning to discuss the show today.
I remember that right before Dawson’s Creek premiered there was an article in the Miami Herald proﬁling its creator, Kevin Williamson (we didn’t say “showrunner” yet), and that the article made bold claims to the effect that this show would provide special insight into teenage life as it was really lived today. I remember taking this very seriously and finding the prospect both terrifying and exhilarating. If the intent of the article was to stoke my interest in the show, it worked wonders, though if we’re talking about demographics, it must be said that most teenagers don’t typically read the arts section of the city paper, and so probably it—the article—was pitched toward my parents’ cohort, a fact lost on me at the time, not that things would have gone any differently if I’d known.
The show premiered. I watched it. And I was powerfully outraged at what I perceived to be its failure to live up to the high-realist standard promised in the article. We—that is, us teens—were not only misunderstood but misrepresented! That wasn’t us at all! And what if other people fell for the paper’s false claim and thought it was? What then? I’m not sure if my credulity and subsequent indignation says more about the kind of kid I was or about the era itself, but it is obvious to me now, as I am sure it is to many of you, that the claim of exclusive insight into the avant-garde of adolescent life is never not being made, and that it is never not false. But why wouldn’t that be obvious now? I’m a thirty-four-year-old man who spent a decade in New York City knocking around the media and publishing industries, who has had many friends who were or are publicists, agents, marketing people, SEO ninjas, taste chasers, tastemakers, and so on. I’ve even had, when occasion called for it, publicists of my own. Moreover, aren’t we all in the media industry now? My Twitter feed is open as I write this; is yours as you read it? What’s my point here? Oh, yeah. My point is that I have always associated Dawson’s Creek with a very speciﬁc and personal coming-of-age, not vis-à-vis puberty or high school but vis-à-vis public relations. What I mean is that I only ever thought the claim of its being “realistic” was “wrong” because I’d made the mistake of thinking that such a claim could or would or should be “right.”
I think I watched a season and a half, maybe two, of Dawson’s Creek, in a mode that nowadays is called “hate-watching” but at the time was called “there’s nothing else on, anyway.” Which, by the way, was often true.
What do I remember about what I saw?
I remember ﬁerce and sustained lunchroom debate over who was hotter, Joey or Jen, and that I took a staunchly pro-Joey position.
I remember being annoyed (separately from the outrage described above) every time a plot hinged on a piece of information that one character possessed but would not share with the person who obviously needed and deserved it. Characters talked about their emotions for what felt like hours on end but then trailed off (or stormed off), rather than share some basic fact of where they had/hadn’t been or who they were/weren’t there with or what they did/didn’t do there—some fact that the audience knew was inevitably going to be revealed, so the ostensible “suspense” being sustained (for a few more scenes or even episodes) via the delay ended up adding nothing by way of character or story development and, for that reason, failed to register as suspense. The ﬁlmmaker Andrew Matthews identiﬁes this sort of serial withholding/delaying as an endemic flaw of episodic television—an epiphenomenon of the sheer number of hours it takes to ﬁll a season—and has coined the delightfully piquant term “plotblocking” to describe it. As a teenager, I didn’t know how to explain what made me so crazy about plotblocking, but twenty years, an M.F.A., and three books of ﬁction later, I can now say that I disliked the overreliance on dramatic irony as a driver of plot and that Dawson’s Creek might, therefore, be the ﬁrst piece of narrative art I ever objected to on aesthetic grounds.
What else do I remember?
I remember tuning in special one night because I’d been informed (by who? via what means? Spin magazine? carrier pigeon?) that there’d be a new Phish song debuted in that night’s episode, and I remember feeling that it was important to support the band as they made their quixotic pop-crossover bid.
I have three things to say about this memory:
- If I had to tune in special, I must have no longer been regularly tuning in.
- You can tell quite a bit about the direction I was headed in, given what got my attention and inspired the special tune-in.
- How fucking weird were the nineties, when Phish could be the reasonable choice for a Dawson’s Creek tie-in song of the week? The song, by the way, was “Birds of a Feather” off the album The Story of the Ghost.
Oh, and actually there’s a fourth thing, which I almost kept to myself, but having just taken a strong antiwithholding stance a half page ago, I guess I’d better go ahead and throw down:
- The initial premise of my “memory” of tuning in special, and therefore also the premise of item 1 on my list, was falsiﬁed by less than a minute of Internet research, which I only bothered to conduct in order to fact-check item 3.
It turns out that “Birds of a Feather” appears in the very ﬁrst act of the very ﬁrst episode of season 2 of Dawson’s Creek, which premiered on October 7, 1998. (The Story of the Ghost was released on October 27.) In light of what I already told you about having watched at least a season and a half or two of the show—which I know is true—it is therefore impossible that I had to tune in special to see this episode. Whatever “direction” I was headed in, I must have been, at that point, still a regular viewer.
The scene in which the Phish song appears is so peak nineties it will blow your mind. The episode, and therefore the season, opens with Dawson and Pacey at a hair salon, getting side-by-side haircuts on the morning of the ﬁrst day of the new school year. Pacey urges Dawson to “get past the whole romantic checkmate thing you’ve been in [with Joey] for God knows how many years,” before going on to affirm his own desire to remake himself into someone who can “score with high-quality chicks.” This is one of the show’s innumerable examples of beta-male toxic masculinity (another mainstay of nineties culture), but its ickiness is mitigated if we recall that a major plotline of season 1 of Dawson’s Creek was Pacey’s seduction of/by his high school English teacher, Ms. Jacobs, which is to say his statutory rape by her. Pacey is the product of an emotionally abusive home environment, so his affair with Ms. Jacobs should be understood as his ﬁrst encounter with genuine encouragement from an authority figure, which seems to me as important a “first” as the virginity he loses to her. At a certain level, Pacey wants little more out of life than a scrap of stability and for someone to be nice to him. That he has managed to figure out, with no help from anyone, that these things might be attainable with an age-appropriate sexual partner, and that self-improvement is a necessary precursor to pursuing such a partnership, speaks volumes to Pacey’s natural intelligence and basic decency, two essential character traits he never loses and occasionally—like a shoddy Tim Riggins prototype—deploys to heroic effect when someone he loves is in trouble.
Here’s a thesis: all of Dawson’s Creek makes infinitely more sense, and is significantly more enjoyable, if you stop thinking about it as a show “about” Dawson Leery and start thinking about it as a show about Pacey and Joey, and the grinding misery of growing up working-class in a snow-globe town where all your friends are well-to-do.
But let’s get back to the hair salon: Dawson is characteristically leery of Pacey’s big plans. (You see what I did there? You see what Kevin Williamson did there?) Dawson makes that little incredulous snort— half “huh,” half “eh”—that seems to constitute fully forty percent of James Van Der Beek’s dialogue. (Did he improv this or was it written in the script? Is it like Homer Simpson’s “d’oh!” which is always scripted as the cue “(Annoyed Grunt)” rather than as “d’oh!” even though it’s been deﬁnitively “d’oh!” for twenty-seven years? Who knows!)
Pacey, undeterred by Dawson’s leeriness, pulls his head away from the hairdresser’s scissors.
Pacey: “Molly, I need a new look. Let’s say we … frost my tips, or something.”
Close-up on Dawson, eyebrows rising: “Frost your tips?” Close-up on Pacey, cocking his head: “Yeah.”
Pacey breaks out into a wide grin.
Phish’s “Birds of a Feather” pops onto the soundtrack.
Cut to exterior tracking shot: Pacey, his tips frosted, emerges from behind some trees, moving at a decent clip, wearing baggier khakis than you thought were possible, mirrored aviators, and some kind of collared short-sleeved button-up that I can only describe as a white-guy guayabera forcibly crossbred with a bowling shirt in the horrible laboratories below Stussy headquarters. The shirt has vertical bars, is three different shades of blue. Phish is still playing on the soundtrack. Pacey comes upon a parked police car and—opens the driver’s side door? Sure. His older brother, Doug, we recall, is a local cop. This must be Doug’s patrol vehicle. Pacey steals it, and here is the moment—Phish is still playing—when peak nineties collides quite literally with Peak White Privilege.
Pacey pulls into traffic to try and follow a classmate he sees walking (to offer her a ride, presumably), but because he’s watching her ass and not the road, he cuts off a woman driving a fancy sports car, who is unable to avoid hitting him and is understandably terriﬁed by the fact that she just hit a cop. This is Andie McPhee, who will turn out to be a new student at Capeside High and the ﬁrst serious girlfriend Pacey will ever have. Their romance (and subsequent friendship) will wind up being one of the more touching and sophisticated story lines the show produces. But we don’t know any of that yet. In the scene, Pacey pretends to be the cop she thinks he is (the aviators help, the shirt doesn’t), and then I’m sure the truth gets revealed soon enough in some wacky way I don’t remember and am not going to go back and look up.
[Soundtrack: Phish’s cover of the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”]
Me at a Phish show in South Florida, dancing in a muddy ﬁeld. Me in a cap and gown, graduating from high school. Me living in glorious college squalor with a bunch of people who look like they might be homeless but who deﬁnitely aren’t Phish heads. Me running from a cloud of tear gas at the ﬁrst Bush inauguration. Phish is still playing on the soundtrack. Me standing in the middle of Times Square with my arms out, spinning around in a circle while the camera pulls upward in a big crane shot. Me in a cap and gown again, holding a somehow-already-framed diploma that just says M.F.A. Me standing outside of McNally Jackson Books on Prince Street, the entire window display filled with copies of my first book of stories—and, beyond that, a standing-room-only crowd. (Hey, it’s my montage. Phish is still playing.) Me and a girl sitting together on the rocks by the water at the end of Grand Street in Williamsburg, passing a flask. Billboard in Times Square announcing my second book; I look amazing in my vest, and when the camera pans down from the billboard, there’s me wearing the vest in real life, once again holding my arms out and spinning in a circle. Me and the girl from the rocks carrying boxes that just say “our books” up a flight of stairs. Phish is still playing. Interior shot, close-up on a female hand adorned with an engagement ring, poised before the power button of a stereo.
Female voice, straining to be heard over the music: “Can I shut this off?”
Male voice: “Yeah, sure, I would have shut it off earlier but I forgot it was even on.”
Hand presses button; camera cuts to black.
Dawson’s Creek came back into my life under ambivalent circumstances in early 2015. For a variety of reasons, none worth attempting to justify or even allude to here, I had decided that I should revisit the show as part of the research for a novel I was working on. It helped—though “helped” is surely not the word I want here—that my now-wife and I were obliged by circumstance to spend the ﬁrst four months of that year on opposite sides of the country. With what felt like nothing but time on my hands, “revisit the show” quickly devolved into “start at the beginning and see if you can make it all the way through.”
Like Andie teaching Pacey not to hate himself just because nobody in his family knows what love is, my now-wife had taught me early in our relationship that just because you can physically stand to watch ten straight hours of television doesn’t mean you should. I can count on one hand the times we’ve broken our self-imposed two-episode limit, and each instance was the result of enforced conﬁnement due to natural disaster. We spent one New York heat wave with Game of Thrones, Hurricane Irene with Battlestar Galactica, and Hurricane Sandy with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I can’t think of any other examples, and if I could, I wouldn’t tell you. My point is she’s got sense and discipline, whereas I have limited quantities of the ﬁrst and effectively none of the second. I am never not cognizant of how lucky I am to have met her and managed to keep her. But like I was saying, she was out of town.
I watched at night, in nominally reasonable three-episode blocks, which at fortyish minutes a piece was about the length of a movie. If I couldn’t sleep, that number might tick up to four or ﬁve. And lazy hangover mornings … well, you get the picture. The show was streaming on Netflix. All you had to do was nothing, and it would just go and go and go.
The Epistemological Function of Opening Credits, with Notes Toward an Epistemology of the Creek Itself
Due to a licensing rights issue, the streaming episodes had to replace some of the songs they’d used in the original broadcast (not Phish’s though!), including Paula Cole’s iconic theme song, “I Don’t Want to Wait.” Instead of that song, the opening credits are scored by Jann Arden’s “Run Like Mad,” a song (and an artist) I had never heard before I started streaming Dawson’s Creek on Netflix.
Now brace yourself for heresy.
Not only is “Run Like Mad” a better song than “I Don’t Want to Wait,” it offers a far better entrée to the world of Dawson’s Creek.
A theme song has to do a few different things all at once. First, it should be catchy. You should be able to hear it from the next room and know what’s on TV. (In the old days, this often meant you also now knew what time it was.) More than that—and don’t laugh, this is less obvious than it sounds and needs to be emphasized—a good theme song functions as an overture, introducing the key themes of the show to new viewers and providing regular viewers with a transitional space through which to enter the diegetic frame in which the show occurs.
The theme song—and the credit sequence it accompanies—stimulates emotional enthusiasm and a suspension of disbelief while simultaneously mapping out the virtual reality of the show-world. In the show Full House, for example, the opening line of the jingle-like theme asks, “Whatever happened to predictability?” and is followed by each cast member striking some kind of signature pose. (Most TV shows throughout the history of the medium have adopted some version of the “signature pose” model.) Game of Thrones has an instrumental theme song and a literal map of the ﬁctional world in which the show is set. The camera zooms across said map, pausing on the locations of particular relevance to the given episode or season. As the show progresses—and new regions become sites of conflict—the map itself expands. This is what I mean when I say that opening credits have an epistemological function.
The Dawson’s Creek credits were reshot a few times over the years, but the basic elements always stayed the same:
- Because Dawson is an aspiring ﬁlmmaker, the credits have the feel of home movies, presumably footage he shot himself, a visual decision that pays a double dividend by introducing the show’s pervasive—sometimes smothering—air of nostalgia. It’s as though Dawson’s Creek were a more emo The Wonder Years, deprived of both its narrator and its formal relation of retrospection to its own content, but given to insisting nonetheless on the maintenance of said relation, if not as a fact then as a mood.
- Footage of parental ﬁgures is glancingly brief (and later, I think, elided entirely).
- The mostly outdoorsy settings, shot in broad daylight, prominently feature bodies of water: the dock in Dawson’s backyard that sits on the creek, a beach, a pier, a swimming pool.
- You see a lot more shots of the group of friends together than you see of the individual actors, and the arrangement of bodies in these group portraits can tell you something about the relationship arcs of the given season, but the overall feel of the shots is always platonic and clearly prioritizes the group-as-group over the individual relationships within it. Despite having only Dawson’s name in the title, the show wants to be understood as an ensemble effort, and insists over and over that everyone in its primary cast is entitled to story arcs of roughly equivalent import, and its actors to roughly equal screen time.
I’ll say this for “I Don’t Want to Wait”: it works on a tonal level because it is overwrought to the verge of whininess, and a little stupid despite lyrics designed to convey maturity by dint of an ability to articulate desire. The most naive thing about it is how frank it thinks it is being, and in all these ways, it is an exact match for the show whose icon it became. “I don’t want to wait for our lives to be over” sounds (to a certain kind of teenager) like a battle cry, but it’s basically meaningless. Who would want to wait for their lives to be over? What would that sort of waiting even be? We are rallied to opposition, but against what?
Moreover, Dawson’s Creek is a show about deferral and refusal. It is this in its entirety, at every level, in every plot arc—to the very ﬁber of its being. It is positively Foucauldian in its approach to producing power relations and in the premium it places on self-regulation, never more than when it comes to sex. Pacey loses his virginity straight out of the gate in season 1 to Ms. Jacobs at around the same time that Dawson’s mother is caught cheating on Dawson’s father by Joey—who is in love with Dawson, who is in love with Jen. It’s like Melrose Place! But instead of getting steamier and more convoluted, the show backs off from every single erotic gauntlet it has thrown and spends the whole rest of season 1—indeed, the next several seasons—trying to shove the sex-genie back into the bottle. The show does not always achieve this goal—people do have sex sometimes, and not all of them are punished for it by the god of retributive plotlines—but Dawson’s Creek never loses sight of sexual repression/refusal/denial as some kind of bizarre attitudinal-behavioral ideal.
Maybe this is how New England is different from Miami, after all. Is this a Puritan thing?
Jack ﬁgures out he’s gay and gradually comes to terms with that, but he also refuses for a long time to explore gay culture (what there is of it in Capeside), less because he’s scared to than because he’s a waspy jock who, in all honesty, ﬁnds gay culture to be, well, a little gay.
Jen is introduced as having been a slutty middle schooler trying, at fifteen (!!!), to overcome her shameful past and start over. Like Pacey, the best way to understand Jen is as the product of child abuse, in this case upper-class neglect rather than working-class brutality, but what the two cases have in common is that no perpetrator is ever punished, which makes it much harder for both of them to understand the degree to which they are, in fact, victims of crimes. Again like Pacey, Jen has been shattered so completely at such a young age that she must spend the bulk of the show gathering up the fragments of her selfhood and attempting to glue them back together into a semicoherent shape. If you think about her this way, everything her character does makes a hell of a lot more sense, and the contrast between her arc and Pacey’s makes for a longitudinal study of society’s crushing double standard for adolescent sexual agency, which of course runs precisely along gender lines. To put it simply: for every time the show encourages Pacey toward someone who can please or heal or help him, for every time Jack is given opportunity to explore his sexuality and its attendant culture (which he can almost always choose to accept or not), Jen is forced to recall that she carries with her at all times—in and as her body—the capacity for irrevocable harm to herself and those around her.
Joey and Pacey spend the entire summer between seasons 3 and 4 alone together sailing on a boat named True Love that Pacey built from scratch—but they do not have sex. What are we to understand occurred on that boat? Did they take turns furtively masturbating in the cabin while the other stayed on the deck? Did they just have oral and/or anal sex constantly but hold off on crossing that last boundary due to some religious stricture that the writers had put in the original character descriptions but forgot to ever introduce into the show?
Is it the puritans again?
I think I’m starting to remember what it was about this show that made my teenage self’s head explode. Now I will decline to pursue that line of inquiry any further except to say that, as stupid a conceit as it is, there winds up being a narrative payoff in not letting Joey and Pacey consummate their relationship in the interstitial space between the seasons. First, it allows Joey to lie to Dawson about having slept with Pacey, which she does for no good reason other than to freak Dawson out. Second, the conditions under which actual consummation might occur become the subject of protracted negotiation between them throughout season 4.
(Sidebar: My single favorite thing about the Joey Potter character, consistent throughout the show but never directly addressed as the pattern behavior it is: Joey is a liar. Whenever she feels defensive, confused, outmatched, or upset, her first instinct is to tell a wild lie. It’s the one exception to her otherwise inescapable role as the Goodiest Two-Shoes in the crew.)
Pacey and Joey talk constantly about whether and when and if they’ll do it, and what the consequences of such an action might be. This is what I meant when I said the show’s attitude is Foucauldian: sexuality does not produce sex, it produces discourse, one secondary effect of which may, at some point, be sex, but if so, the purpose of that sex will be to generate more discourse. Considered in this way, we might understand sex on Dawson’s Creek not as an affirmative gesture in itself but rather as the failure or exhaustion of discourse. People fuck when they run out of ways to talk around or about fucking.
Whether the issue in question is sex, drugs, booze, prom, or college—and Dawson’s Creek might have been the last major TV show to pointedly frame its issue-driven episodes as “issue-driven”—all the central characters are deeply cautious, self-aware, prone to both hesitation before the fact and after. As I mentioned earlier, Dawson bears the last name Leery. He is the only character on the show whose name is his fate. Even in those moments when everyone else has managed to take some kind of leap or step or stumble forward, you can count on him to react with a judgmental anger that wounds everyone close to him. He is the supreme nostalgist, never missing a chance to reminisce about the good old days, simpler times, or the way things used to be. Dawson is the teen who stands athwart puberty yelling, Stop!
All of which is to say that these people do want to wait. They absolutely do not want to know right now, will it be?
Now here’s Jann Arden in “Run Like Mad,” the alternate theme song (the one I’ve now heard just over a hundred times):
My heart is in my hands
My head is in the clouds
My feet have left the ground
My life is turning around and round
Every voice inside my head
Is telling me to run like mad
Every heartbeat, every kiss just
Makes me wonder what all this is
Here is the whole world of Dawson’s Creek laid bare. Rampant use of the first person possessive pronoun is put to the service of intense but largely symbolic attention to the body, which leads to recursive movement, that is, spinning in place, specifically, a place where powerful ambiguities are forced onto occurrences—heartbeats, kisses—that are intrinsically devoid of ambiguity, tending instead to mean exactly what they seem to mean (we are alive, we are kissing), which, indeed, is the real problem with them: not a lack but a surfeit of clarity, none of which would be an issue if you were only able to heed the call of those inner voices telling you to run, which you can’t, and—let’s be honest, Jo—wouldn’t even if you could.
I didn’t finish watching Dawson’s Creek before I left New York. I made it close to the end of season 4, or thereabouts, but then it went off Netflix streaming. In Portland, I bought the season 5 box set but couldn’t be bothered to watch it. I got married. I had a new town to explore. We adopted a cat. I came to terms with the fact that what I was doing wasn’t really “novel research,” at least not in the way I had initially figured it was. I re-foreswore binging.
But I have the completist urge, and every once in a while would play hooky from whatever I was supposed to be doing and watch an episode or two. I eventually made it through season 5, the first post–high school season. They exile Dawson to ﬁlm school in LA while everyone else relocates to Boston but are all doing different things.
Jen discovers a talent for deejaying at the college radio station and gets involved with a cute dude from a band who turns out to be two-timing her with another girl, but then instead of being that girl’s enemy, she remembers feminism exists, and she and the other girl become friends and start messing with the dude’s head, which teaches him a valuable lesson about how to treat women, and it turns out he was only being a cad because he’d never been popular in high school and in fact was attempting his own version of becoming a new person—which, it would seem, succeeded beyond his wildest expectations.
Pacey is living on a boat again for some reason and has discovered he has a knack for cooking. He gets into restaurant work, starts learning how to be a high-end chef. Of course, the restaurant itself is a hotbed of melodrama, but I loved the depiction of Pacey—a guy who always hated school—finding a job he cares about and is good at, rather than being shoehorned into college along with the rest of the honor-society dorks. Restaurant work shows him that there are more options in the world than following Joey to the Ivy League or becoming his own asshole father. I heard he becomes a hedge-fund manager in season 6, which seems insane to me, but like I said, I haven’t watched it yet.
Dawson’s ﬁlm school–related angst is pretty boring, but as ever with television drama, you’ve got to weigh what you’re being asked to slog through against what’s being set up. Dawson ﬁnally admits he hates LA and wants to transfer to school in Boston—Jen’s school? Joey’s? Whatever. He comes home to talk to his parents about it and has a huge fight with his father, who accuses him—not unreasonably—of giving up on his own self-professed lifelong dreams because he’d rather do the safe thing than the scary one. The fight is still unresolved when, in the same episode, Dawson’s father is randomly killed in a car accident, and the whole rest of Dawson’s story line that season whiplashes into an exploration of grief and mourning.
And Joey. Where do I start with Joey? Season 5 is Joey’s season. She gets one episode—“Downtown Crossing”—all to herself, and so Katie Holmes becomes the only member of the main cast to appear in all 128 episodes. (I think by this point everyone else was taking breaks to make movies.) She also gets the last shot of the season finale, which, when they ﬁlmed it, they thought might be the series ﬁnale, which maybe it should have been. She’s alone at an airport ticket counter, buying a solo flight to Paris and grinning like a kid on Christmas morning, knowing she’s about to be free—for a while, anyway—from the boys she grew up with and all the claims they’ve made on her and the little town where it all went down. Good for Joey!
But before that, during the season itself, she gets the two best guest stars the show ever had: Busy Philipps (fresh off the cancelation of Freaks and Geeks) as her wacky sexpot dorm roommate, Audrey (later Pacey’s girlfriend, but still); and Ken Marino—then best known for the legendary sketch show The State—in the only noncomic role I have ever seen him in (though he’s still pretty funny) as a creative-writing professor who all the students think is super hot, and who is so taken with Joey’s promise that he lets her into his upper-division writing workshop as a freshman. At one point he makes her write about her relationship with Dawson in a blue book—a blue book!—while he sits there and watches her work, never mind that it’s a ﬁction class, or that they’re not in class at the time, or that that’s not how writing works.
The professor also invites Joey to join this research group he runs where he and a bunch of grad students (if indeed that’s what they are) are trying to solve a mystery relating to some third-rate knockoff of Emily Dickinson’s “Master Letters” in the papers of some writer whose archives the university for some reason possesses. These details don’t matter. It’s not worth the ninety seconds of Googling it would take me to explain it. There’s only one important thing about it, and this essay won’t end until I share it, and I can’t ﬁgure out an organic way to work it in, and so I leave you—non sequitur—with my favorite thing about season 5, and perhaps of all of Dawson’s Creek.
I leave you with an image, a fuzzy screenshot I took with my phone while watching TV at home in the middle of the day while my wife was out earning us a living. It’s such a peak-nineties moment it couldn’t exist until 2001, and I think it explains why we are drawn to keep watching things even when we don’t really like them, and I think it makes a strong argument that such behavior, however ridiculous, also has legitimate—if limited—rewards to offer. Certainly this image explains, better than this whole essay has done, why I bought that last box set yesterday, and why I know I will eventually finish watching this dumb show. Without further ado I give you, Ken Marino mansplaining Kafka to Katie Holmes:
Justin Taylor is the author of three books of fiction, most recently the story collection Flings. His interview with Percival Everett appears in our Summer issue. This essay is excerpted from Little Boxes: Twelve Writers on Television, available from Coffee House Press next month.