The '90s were a big decade for the teen drama series. Beverly Hills, 90210 premiered in 1990, all but inventing the genre and capturing the attention of Gen X teens. After years of mostly failed attempts to replicate 90210's success, the end of the decade brought the next landmark teen drama, as Dawson's Creek arrived to re-shape the genre as we knew it. By January of 1998, Kevin Williamson had already made his mark at the movies with Scream, which did its own share of genre redefining. Suddenly, the teen slasher film was alive again, this time wittier and aware of its own tropes. Williamson brought that same energy to his pilot script for Dawson's Creek. His characters were acutely aware of their status as teenagers, eager to articulate every facet of the biological and social gauntlet they'd just embarked on, steeped in the language of popular culture.
Dawson's Creek was a hit, and paired with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it put The WB network on the teen programming map for the next decade. Twenty-five years after that premiere episode, the show is celebrating its landmark anniversary at a particularly opportune time. Not only is one of its stars, Michelle Williams, on the brink of earning her fifth Academy Award nomination, but she's poised to do so for her performance in The Fabelmans, directed by the man who loomed like a patron saint over that first episode, Steven Spielberg.
Watching the Dawson's Creek pilot again all these years later, it's amazing how prominently Spielberg is featured. Dawson's identity as a Spielberg-obsessed aspiring filmmaker stayed with him throughout the series, even as his identity as Joey's jilted would-be lover came to dominate the storylines. But the pilot really front-loads this one character trait to the point of saturation. The series opens on Dawson (James Van Der Beek) and Joey (Katie Holmes) watching E.T., with Joey lamenting that this movie lost the Oscar to Gandhi and Dawson pointing out that this was before Spielberg outgrew his Peter Pan complex. Everything you need to know about the show and these two characters is there in microcosm: childhood best friends from across the creek, watching VHS movies on a Saturday night like they always have, volleying their cultural literacy back and forth at each other, and waiting for their burgeoning teenage hormones to change things forever.
The Spielberg connections get even more portentous later on, after Michelle Williams's Jen arrives. Dawson invites her over to his room, where she's stopped in her tracks by the overwhelming presence of Spielberg in the room. Posters of every single one of his movies adorn the walls like a shrine (even the filmmaker's two big flops, 1941 and Always, though they're on the inside of the closet doors). "How revealing," Jen says with a smirk.
That Michelle Williams' brilliant career kicks off in the midst of this ode to Spielberg takes on added significance now that she's in the middle of an Oscar campaign for her role in his latest movie, The Fabelmans. Not only that, but she's playing, for all intents and purposes, Spielberg's own mother in his most personal and autobiographical film yet. Things come full circle while revisiting the Dawson's pilot: There's Williams, future embodiment of Spielberg's own mother, watching in bemusement as Dawson talks about Spielberg as an almost fatherly idol. He certainly looks up to Spielberg more than his actual parents, whose frank, oversexed relationship weirds him out. "Spielberg doesn't have sex scenes in his movies," Dawson protests to his dad (Munich hadn't been released yet), not realizing that in 25 years, his idol would work out some of his psychosexual demons by directing the girl Dawson's sweet on to dance in the headlights of a car in a sheer nightgown.
The Fabelmans connection is a coincidental footnote to the Dawson's Creek 25th anniversary, but it's a persistent one. Dawson even spends one scene in the pilot poring over VHS tapes of his mom — a local news anchor — for clues that she might be having an affair with her co-anchor. (She is, as Joey learns all too well in the episode's final scene.) That a quarter-century later, Dawson's Creek would have added cultural significance seems only fitting, though, given how overtly Williamson's characters interacted with popular culture.
As he did with Scream, Williamson places his teen characters in the thick of their own pop culture obsessions. Everybody on this show is bizarrely well-versed in classic cinema. It's not just Dawson and his Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws posters. Pacey's (Joshua Jackson) ill-conceived hot-for-teacher subplot is dotted with references to The Graduate and The Summer of '42. The only piece of pop culture that places the show in the context of 1997 to 1998 is when the gang goes to see Waiting for Guffman at the movies.
These cultural old souls seemed strange back then, too, but they're positively alien after two and a half decades of Dawson's Creek successors taking part in an arms race to see whose pop culture references can be the most of he moment. Watch an episode of the new Gossip Girl (or, hell, the old Gossip Girl) and you'll see a show tap-dancing as fast as it can to make sure the audience knows its cultural tastes aren't a minute out of date. It can be exhausting to watch. There's something comforting about revisiting the Dawson's Creek pilot, knowing that a Summer of '42 reference from a high-school sophomore was as anachronistic then as it is today.
That video-store education that the Dawson's Creek kids enjoyed was also the only explanation for the show's other notorious attribute: those overarticulate teens. From the moment in that very first scene when Dawson tells Joey they should ignore their "mounting sexual theoretics," Dawson's Creek had laid down its gauntlet. These teens were going to be obnoxiously hyper-verbal and highly aware of the adolescent tropes they were acting out. Only a generation raised on movies and TV that molded the teen experience into an archetype could articulate their own teen crises so well.
Pacey spells out to his teacher/prospective lover Miss Jacobs why she's attracted to his teen virility in a dense monologue that really does make you want to slap him. Jen is blessedly more succinct about her own character type when she tells Grams (Mary Beth Peil), "I'm trying really hard to keep my rebellious nature in check." The storylines as presented in the pilot were so familiar they bordered on cliché. The doomed May-December affair. The childhood best friends who didn't realize they were crazy for each other. The alluring Big City Girl who arrives with a past she doesn't want to talk about. No wonder they had such an overdeveloped vocabulary about their experiences; they'd been watching them on TV and in movies for years.
Nearly three decades later, that broadness seems, in a way, timeless. Memory tends to flatten nuance — we remember Dawson as the Spielberg dork, Joey as the girl next door with an obvious crush, Jen as the rebellious blonde who gets in Joey's way, and Pacey as the sex-obsessed second banana. Dipping back into the pilot, these characters are exactly where our memories left them. There's something innocent, almost Spielbergian, about that all these years later.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.