Re: Random Thoughts about TV, Film and Media
I've been rewatching DAWSON'S CREEK (my niece lent me her Amazon Prime account) and it's neat: the later years had Greg Berlanti of the ARROWVERSE running the show. DAWSON'S CREEK mirrors SLIDERS' creative trajectory in many ways: the first two seasons were run by show creator Kevin Williamson who then left the series; the remainder was run by Berlanti and some other producers. Unlike SLIDERS, DAWSON'S CREEK had a subsequent showrunner who respected and loved the show. But just like SLIDERS, DAWSON'S CREEK's later years ran the show into the ground creatively (although viewership held steady). It's very strange: Berlanti and his fellow writers approached DAWSON'S CREEK's third to sixth seasons with the best of intentions but somehow replicated almost all of SLIDERS' errors in Seasons 3, 4 and 5.
Golden Age: Original showrunner Kevin Williamson had crafted Seasons 1 - 2 as intricate blend of dysfunctional teen characters who talked like English professors but expressed the immaturity and insecurity of children. It was semi-autobiographical with Dawson, like Williamson, being a teen filmmaker. Entire episodes were built around Williamson dramatizing his childhood anecdotes. There was also a frank but tender attitude to sexuality: the characters discussed sex in terms both clinical and romantic without being tawdry.
Necessary Contrivances: In the DVD commentaries, Williamson said that the show was hard to write. The creative Dawson, the academic Joey, the troubled Jen and the dysfunctional Pacey were not cops or lawyers, so every episode needed to find some contrived crisis or goal to create drama whether it was Dawson trying to make a football movie when he hates sports, Joey and Pacey trying to avoid failing a class through a remedial extracurricular, Jen in trouble for getting in a fight with a teacher over euthanasia or Pacey having an affair with a teacher. In the second season, Williamson noted, he hurriedly introduced new characters for the year to create new situations and problems because Dawson, Joey, Jen and Pacey alone would never do anything but sit around and talk.
The Exodus: After the second season, Williamson left the show; he was committed to scripting the SCREAM film series and no longer had time to run DAWSON'S CREEK and drifted farther and farther into films. Berlanti, Paul Stupin (SWITCHED AT BIRTH) and many other writers stepped up -- and they promptly stumbled. The first eight episodes of DAWSON'S CREEK become ridiculously oversexualized with Dawson running a strip club out of his house one episode and women now filmed as though they're Kari Wuhrer in Season 3 of SLIDERS. There's also an emphasis on fist fights, arguments, and the hyperchatty Dawson and Pacey are suddenly throwing punches at each other like they're Quinn, Wade, Rembrandt and Maggie in Season 3.
Overzealous: It's strange: the writers were attempting to continue Williamson's highly sexual content and intense interpersonal interactions, but they misjudged the tone: they went from earnest and sweet in the sexuality to lewd and objectifying, and before the halfway mark, they began urgently pulling back from this.
The middle of the season attempts to tone down the antics and refocus on high school drama in a more restrained fashion, but then the writers miscalculate as well. As the writers had Pacey and Joey developing feelings for each other and hiding it from Dawson, they adopted a more severe tone to the writing that, while well-scripted, lacked the quippy humour and self-aware charm of Williamson's writing. Pacey becomes a vigilante defending Joey's artwork; Dawson has a nervous breakdown when his student film is poorly received -- and DAWSON'S CREEK takes a less offensive but joyless spin into grim, depressing stories much like the back nine of SLIDERS in Season 3 where the sliders are perpetually confronting corpses and monstrosity and death and doom.
The writers attempted to reduce the sexual extremes, but they unfortunately made the series too serious and not a lot of fun to watch, very much like Season 4's attempts to rebrand SLIDERS from comedy to seriousness with a home invasion and rape camps.
Season 3 Quinn Syndrome: In addition, when Dawson finds out that Pacey and Joey are an item, the third season Dawson is suddenly scripted as a vengeful, petty brute who seeks to humiliate Pacey at every turn -- a far cry from the self-absorbed but considerate and gentle character of Seasons 1 - 2 and alarmingly similar to Quinn Mallory becoming the volatile lunatic of latter Season 3 episodes of SLIDERS. In trying to allow Pacey to grow from being the dysfunctional friend to someone whom the bookish Joey could see as an equal, DAWSON'S CREEK accidentally turned their title character into a villain.
Overrestrained: In Season 4, these same writers, recognizing the oversexuality, overhostility and overseverity of Season 3, attempt to pull back. Dawson is scripted with calm gentleness and apologizes for his violence and vindictiveness of the previous season and the warring friends make peace. The sexuality is dialed down to interpersonal romance rather than physicality. The arguments are presented with a high level of restraint. The teen drama issues are scaled back. But the result is that in trying not to be overly sexual, overly antagonistic or overly serious, Season 4 of DAWSON'S CREEK ends up not being much of anything.
The Bill Dial School of Screenwriting: Entire episodes plant the characters in a hospital or a house or a restaurant and then have them converse aimlessly about their feelings without moving the story along -- very much like a fifth season episode of SLIDERS where characters restate known information to pad out the running length. In addition, Season 4 episodes are devoid of outside crisis or incident or goals that force the characters into action; instead, school assignments, academic problems and personal objectives are in the background while in the foreground are... Dawson, Joey and Pacey conversing about their feelings at a party, then at one of their houses, then at school.
One episode has Dawson go on a roadtrip and spend the entire episode stranded between destinations due to a flat tire to stretch the story to fill the hour, very much like "The Great Work" and "Map of the Mind," and the show became so unwatchable that I couldn't make it to the fifth and sixth seasons.
Best Intentions: DAWSON'S CREEK did not become offensively bad like SLIDERS. Its third season featured a perpetually confused tone, going too far into sexuality and retreating, then going too far into serious seriousness before retreating again.
You could feel the writers' boldness and then their apologetic withdrawal in Season 3. And you could feel their timidity in Season 4: they went too far last year, they're now trying to be restrained as possible. They're not trying to hurt their show; they have complete respect for their show -- but they tried to change it and it was disastrous; they tried to imitate the previous incarnation and it was awkward; now they're staying within a limited, suffocating formula of inoffensiveness and have become indecisive and hesitant and now their show is slow, tedious, boring and impossible for me to follow because I started going into a mental coma when watching even when there were two seasons left to go.
The Return: I did skip to the end -- where original showrunner Kevin Williamson returned to write the two part finale which is set five years in the future in order to show where all the characters ended up / avoid having to address the Season 6 plots. Suddenly, all his missing skills return to the series: Dawson is struggling to complete a season-ending script for a TV show based on his life; Pacey is struggling to run his new restaurant; Joey is struggling to deal with an unwanted marriage proposal; Jen is struggling with some health issues -- and these situations unfold in the course of the characters having conversations about their feelings which are affected by the arcs.
Each scene has the characters attempting to accomplish something in the course of their conversations instead of standing around one of the sets making idle chatter until the commercial break. The sexuality is presented with amusement, charm and a sense of romance; the Serious Life Issues in the stories are explored with humour and tragedy. At one point, a character bans crying or histrionics and insists on laughter in the face of personal crisis.
DAWSON'S CREEK is bizarre, but it does show how, even with the best of intentions, shows with leaders who suddenly leave can lose their way even when his successors are committed and devoted. DAWSON'S CREEK's scripts at their best came from a writer who was mining his personal life for content, and when that writer wasn't there anymore, the show became incredibly confused, and DAWSON'S CREEK (and SLIDERS) may be a strong argument for TV shows to be staff driven rather than being defined by a single voice who might leave.