An era is about to end as one of TV’s most influential series says goodbye. And no, I’m not talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This Wednesday (May 14), at 8 p.m. on the WB, Dawson’s Creek will have its series finale, after six seasons of tortured love geometry, high-school (and college) angst, smart-ass dialogue, and bad film-school pretensions. In any universe (not just the Buffyverse), Buffy — which ends its run May 20 — is the superior show. But though Buffy may have saved the world (a lot) over the past seven seasons (the first five on the WB, the last two on UPN), it was Dawson who won the battle for the soul of the WB — assuming a network that made its reputation on a cartoon frog and a seemingly endless supply of pretty young actors and actresses has a soul.
The WB was founded in 1995 as a loose nationwide affiliation of TV stations. The "dubba-dubba" (as it called itself early on) targeted 12-to-34-year-old viewers, the advertiser-prized segment of the audience that had made fledgling Fox into a major network. Taking a page from Fox’s successful teen-soap and sci-fi playbook (Beverly Hills 90210, The X-Files, Party of Five), the WB loaded up on dramas with teen appeal, including Buffy, Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, 7th Heaven, and Charmed.
The WB wasn’t available in every TV market, and the ratings were minuscule; if a WB show attracted six million viewers, it was considered a whopping hit, whereas the same numbers would get a show canned on, say, NBC. But the Frog’s influence on teen culture in particular and pop culture in general was vast. With the deep pockets of Time Warner behind it (the conglomerate had yet to meld with AOL), the WB cross-pollinated TV, music, and movies.
Months before Dawson’s Creek’s January 1998 premiere, for example, the trailer for the show, which had been filmed like a music video and set to Paula Cole’s then-hit "I Don’t Want To Wait," was playing endlessly on MTV and in Blockbuster Video stores. What’s more, the WB house ads were things of softcore beauty, slo-mo shots of Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy), Jessica Biel (7th Heaven), Scott Speedman (Felicity), and the rest of the doe-eyed and tousle-haired WB stars striking dreamy poses to evocative trancy ballads by little-known Warner Bros. recording artists. It helped the WB’s cause immensely that few of its stars stayed unknown for long, thanks to the box-office boom in teen-oriented slasher and summer-romance flicks.
For a while, Buffy (which premiered on the WB in March 1997) seemed set to emerge as the Frog’s signature show. And you couldn’t do better than Buffy — smart, richly subtextual, beloved by critics — as a signature show. There was one problem, though. As Buffy became more widely known as a thinking person’s fantasy, it started attracting older viewers. And the teenage girls on whom the WB depended seemed to prefer boy-lust soaps to girl-power action. When the time came to renegotiate with the show’s producer, Twentieth Century Fox, the WB let Buffy walk. The WB did keep the Buffy spinoff Angel but never gave it much support, kicking it from night to night and time slot to time slot. (Although it’s had its most creative, exciting season ever, Angel has yet to be renewed for next season.) In the end, Buffy didn’t leave much of a mark on the network it helped make.
Instead, Dawson’s Creek became the blueprint for the WB teen dramas to come. Created by Kevin Williamson (the man behind the Scream slasher-movie franchise), the Creek was a soap about four precocious, self-aware high-school friends living in the fictional New England town of Capeside. Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek) was a gifted aspiring filmmaker (he also possessed the most enormous head on television). He and his childhood pal Josephine "Joey" Potter (Katie Holmes) couldn’t decide whether they wanted to be friends or lovers. Pacey Witter (George Clooney’s Mini Me, Joshua Jackson) was a perennial screw-up with a troubled home life; he and Joey also had a thing. Jen Lindley (Michelle Williams) was a bad girl from New York City who’d been sent to Capeside to live with her strict grandmother. The glib, ironic Creeksters were burning with ambitions and desires that were just too big for their sleepy seaside hamlet to contain. As the series progressed, the kids graduated from high school and most of them ended up in college in Boston, except for Pacey, who shipped out to sea for a while (hey, just like Clooney in The Perfect Storm!).
Dawson’s Creek was no remarkable piece of work, especially compared with ABC’s short-lived, exquisitely acted and written classic of turbulent adolescence, My So-Called Life, which had the misfortune of predating the WB. But it stayed on the teen radar, thanks to its hormonally overloaded story lines and numerous Very Special Episodes about the dangers of sex or drinking. (Good news for Creek haters: One of the main characters supposedly dies in the finale. No word yet on whether the demise will be from sex or drinking.)
Today, the Dawson’s Creek influence can be felt in the WB’s three most highly touted dramas: Gilmore Girls, Smallville, and Everwood. Gilmore Girls (Tuesdays at 8 p.m.) is the story of a precocious, academically gifted teen, Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel), who lives in a town that’s too small to contain her burning ambitions and desires. Two boys love her; she’s caught in the middle. Her mother, Lorelai (Lauren Graham), provides the requisite cautionary tale about teen sex: she was in high school when she became pregnant with Rory.
The WB’s buzz show of the moment, Smallville (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.), is the story of a precocious, superheroically gifted teen — the young Clark Kent (Tom Welling) — and his mercurial pal (and future nemesis) Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum), who live in a town that’s too small (duh) to contain their burning ambitions and desires. If Dawson and Pacey were comic-book heroes, Smallville would be their show.
As for Everwood (Mondays at 9 p.m.), it’s the story of a precocious, musically gifted teen, Ephram Brown (Gregory Smith), who lives in a Colorado town that’s too small to contain his burning — okay, sullen and slouching — ambitions and desires. He too is caught up in a love triangle; he spent the first half of the season trying to woo the prettiest girl in town away from her comatose boyfriend. Of all the newer WB shows, it’s Everwood that seems the most serious about its cautionary tales of teen sex (the prettiest girl’s sleazy older brother started a VD epidemic at school) and drinking (see "boyfriend in coma," above).
There is, however, one major difference between Dawson’s Creek and its younger siblings. On the Creek, parents were absent, inattentive or dead. But on Gilmore Girls and Everwood, the grown-ups get top billing. Single parents Lorelai Gilmore and Dr. Andy Brown (Treat Williams) amount to big teenagers groping their way through the heartaches, pressures, and hormonal surges of life approaching 40. After all, a full-fledged network can’t live by kiddie audiences alone. The Frog isn’t a tadpole anymore.
I KNOW, I KNOW, I don’t believe it either. But Fox has found a way to top Joe Millionaire for sheer reality-dating-show insanity. On Mr. Personality (Mondays at 9 p.m.), a beautiful yet apparently desperate woman hopes to find her true love from a field of 20 masked men. We get to see what the guys look like, but she doesn’t. Even in the obligatory hot-tub makeout scenes, when the guys get to take off their Phantom-of-the-Opera-meets-Spider-Man head coverings, she has to wear a blindfold. Will Hayley choose a prince who looks like a troll? Or will she get really lucky and choose the contestant known to her as "Number 17," a freaky dude who lists his occupation as "motivational speaker" and who’s already told us that he’s using mind control on the little lady? The mind control was working, too, at least in the first episode. Whatever nonsense Number 17 spewed to her, Hayley responded with a wide-eyed, dazed look and a toothy, trancelike smile.
Mr. Personality is hosted by (as the promos say) "Monica Lewinsky, of course!" Is that Fox’s sly way of admitting that the show sucks? Lewinsky’s major task in the first episode was to stand beside Hayley and write down a list of the gifts the 20 masked men presented her. Monica, America’s bridesmaid.
Mr. Personality is absurdly entertaining in that inimitable Fox fashion — part carnival sideshow, part Mexican tele-novela. But there is one big missed opportunity here. Fox could have combined two of its recent programming obsessions into the mother of all May sweeps specials. Imagine, Hayley finally unmasks her Mr. Personality and discovers that he’s . . . Michael Jackson.