You’ve seen the clip: James Van Der Beek dissolving into exquisitely artificial tears, his lustrous blond hair blowing in the creekside breeze as his face crumples like a discarded gum wrapper. It’s the reaction gif of absurd sorrow, of tragedy so overwrought as to be funny. It’s dawsoncrying.gif.
Crying Dawson ruled the internet comment sections of the late ’00s and early ’10s. It’s “on the Mount Rushmore of GIFs,” says TV critic Sarah D. Bunting. It was, for a while, the sight that greeted you if you navigated to a broken URL on the Huffington Post. Van Der Beek himself recreated the GIF in 2011 for Funny or Die and gave it a second life. Anyone who’s been even remotely online in the past decade or so knows it.
But Crying Dawson has a secret history — one that most people who saw the GIF would never know.
Dawson wept in the season three finale of the angsty teen soap Dawson’s Creek, one of the most ubiquitous shows of its era. The episode, “True Love,” aired on May 24, 2000, and his fateful tears were the culmination of a long and tortured story arc.
Dawson’s had been a pop cultural flashpoint from the time it debuted in 1998. It was all 15-year-olds speaking like thesauruses and the looming threat that someone might, at any moment, have sex. 10 Things I Hate About You would immortalize it as being the show where “those Dawson’s River kids” are always “climbing in and out of each other’s beds,” while its beautiful teen cast frolicked through the pages of the J. Crew catalog and its theme song raced across the Billboard charts. It was achingly of its moment.
By the time its third season began airing in the fall of 1999, to the extent that Dawson’s Creek had a mythology, it was the story of Dawson’s love affair with his best friend Joey, played by Katie Holmes. But Joey would soon fall for Dawson’s other best friend, Pacey (Joshua Jackson).
And Dawson would, ultimately, tell Joey to go to Pacey. And then he would cry and cry and cry, and pop culture history would be made.
But Dawson’s decision to send Joey to Pacey was not inevitable. The entire love triangle of Dawson, Joey, and Pacey was a glorified accident, the call of a group of young and raw writers, mostly in their 20s and mostly working their first TV jobs, as they tried desperately to create order out of chaos and shape one of the flagship shows of the young and hungry WB network. When their choice paid off, it would launch the careers of some of the most influential writers in television today.
And as the writers’ room was crafting Dawson’s tears, an entire ecosystem of pop culture observers was building up around it. The TV recap site Television Without Pity began as a Dawson’s Creek hate-watching site and grew from there to become a website that broke ground for the way we continue to talk about TV more than two decades later. And it was on the forums of Television Without Pity that the first and earliest GIFs of Dawson crying would pass from computer to computer.
To find out exactly how Dawson came to cry and why that moment has had such a long afterlife, I decided to talk with the writers who made him do it and with the TV recappers who would make the moment loop in GIF form across our screens forever after. Here’s our cast of recurring characters.
“True Love” was written by four writers — all still working in the TV industry — and I talked to each of them. The first, Greg Berlanti, was the showrunner for Dawson’s Creek when “True Love” aired. He would leave the series after its fourth season to create Everwood. Eventually, he would become the executive producer in charge of the TV shows of DC Comics, and he would serve as executive producer on Brothers & Sisters, Political Animals, Riverdale, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and You. In 2018, he directed Love, Simon.
The second, Tom Kapinos, would take over as Dawson’s Creek showrunner after Berlanti departed. He would go on to create Californication and Lucifer.
The third, Gina Fattore, would eventually become a co-executive producer on Dawson’s Creek and is remembered by fans for writing many of the pivotal Joey-Pacey love scenes. She would go on to write for Dare Me, Better Things, UnREAL, Masters of Sex, Parenthood, Californication, and Gilmore Girls.
And the fourth, Jeffrey Stepakoff, would also become a co-executive producer on Dawson’s Creek. Before he joined Dawson’s, he worked on shows like The Wonder Years, and afterward, he wrote and developed Disney’s Tarzan and Brother Bear. In 2007, he wrote Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing. He’s currently the head of the Atlanta-based Georgia Film Academy, which provides training for Georgians to work in the entertainment arts industry.
Meanwhile, watching and recapping every episode of Dawson’s Creek were Television Without Pity cofounders Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting. Their website would become the place where pop culture commenters like NPR’s Linda Holmes and Go Fug Yourself’s Jessica Morgan would cut their teeth as writers — and it would be where the rest of the internet, including Pulitzer-winning TV critic Emily Nussbaum, learned how to talk about television.
But in 1998, all of that was just beginning. Here is the secret history of how a beloved but mediocre show almost fell apart, pulled itself together instead, and ended up accidentally creating contemporary pop culture in the process. Here is the story of dawsoncrying.gif.
Dawson’s Creek premiered on January 20, 1998, and the fledgling WB promoted it hard. This new show, the network had decided, was going to be the show that defined the WB. It would create the network brand of beautiful angsty teenagers maybe having sex in beautiful nostalgic Americana landscapes.
Season one was not an unmitigated critical success — a New York Times review called Dawson’s Creek “a lesson in the dangers of overhype” — but it was a sensation. It was the new show that everyone had to talk about. Which meant, for one of the first times in TV history, it was the new show that everyone had to talk about on the internet.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: I was working on a movie idea with [Dawson’s Creek creator] Kevin Williamson. And in the midst of that, he said, “I want to show you this TV show I’m working on.” He popped in a VHS tape, and I watched the pilot of Dawson’s Creek.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: My cofounder Tara Ariano and I met on a bulletin board about Beverly Hills 90210 in the mid-’90s and became bulletin board friends. We read these recaps, which were called wrap-ups, by Danny Drennan. And we then just started chatting offline.
And then Dawson’s Creek premiered.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: Initially, it seemed to me a little weird that the characters all spoke like adults. But over time, I sort of fell in love with the fact that they had this kind of heightened language that was their own, but their emotions and all of the things that they were going through still made them very much teenagers. That tension, you know, I really liked.
Tara Ariano, cofounder of Television Without Pity: None of the teens sounded like teens. They just all sounded like characters on a TV show. They were very hyperverbal. That became the charm of the show and what people liked about it; that it was this heightened reality. It wasn’t a vérité style.
That was annoying to me at the time, but ultimately, Dawson was a problem. Dawson was just such a pill.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: Kevin asked me to come and work on the second season of the show as a staff writer in television for the first time. And he had been so good to me and had really kick-started my entire career. And even though I wasn’t initially planning on working in TV, it sounded fun. So I did it.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: We started writing these lengthy screeds on the bulletin boards and then someone suggested that we start our own wrap-up about Dawson’s Creek. Possibly so that we would shut the fuck up and let them go back to talking like normal people. But possibly because they thought it would be a good idea, which it turned out to be.
Tara Ariano, cofounder of Television Without Pity: My husband David T. Cole is a web designer, so he made us a site called the Dawson’s Wrap, and we started doing recaps. It did well enough in its first year that, after that, we went back and added a bunch of other shows. That became Mighty Big TV, and then that became Television Without Pity. And Dawson was our flagship show.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: I remember us all of us gathering around the computer to be like, “Oh, they’re writing about us on the internet. This must be nice!” And then realizing that, no, most of what people write about you on the internet is not very nice.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: That was the idea: that Dawson’s Creek — we were very unfair to it, I’m sure — was trying to be something and failing. And it also seemed to be oblivious to what it actually did do well.
I give it credit: It learned. It developed an intelligence about itself. And crying Dawson is Exhibit A.
As Dawson’s Creek ended its second season, series creator Kevin Williamson departed the show, along with most of the original writers’ room. With a skeleton staff, the new Dawson’s Creek struggled to find its voice. Showrunners cycled in and out of the writer’s room, and ratings plummeted. The TV show that the WB had built its brand around just two years earlier was now in danger of cancellation.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: At the end of season two, Kevin left, and I think every other writer on staff either left or was let go by the studio. So I was the only remaining writer from previous seasons that was on the staff at the top of season three.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: It was indescribably weird in retrospect. The first day of season three in the writers’ room, only Greg Berlanti had ever written an episode of Dawson’s Creek before. And even he didn’t go all the way back to season one.
Tom Kapinos, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: I realized pretty early on that the things we were talking about in the room didn’t really bear any response to the show I had watched for two years. I remember getting this feeling like, this seems like we’re headed for some kind of a disaster. But I didn’t know what I was doing. I assumed this was just TV.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: We were having some ratings problems at the top of the season. I went off to make a movie, and I came back, and the network was making some changes to the folks that were above me, who I quite liked.
Tom Kapinos, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: We had this infamous femme fatale storyline, which we hit a wall with. And then we also hit a wall with this storyline where Pacey and Jen were going to embark on a casual fuck-buddy relationship. I guess somewhere around episode eight, the network flipped out.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: Now that people don’t even make those long seasons of television so much anymore, I look back and I can see how there was this rhythm to the year, and it was exhausting. Especially that season. We had a production shutdown around Thanksgiving.
Tom Kapinos, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: We just had to change course. And I think Berlanti just sort of was like, “Okay, this is what the show is going to be.”
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: The studio and the network came to me and said, “What would you do?”
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: It seemed as though, perhaps because Kevin Williamson had left, the rest of the team maybe felt a little bit freer to let the show become what it wanted to become. Which was not a show about Dawson.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: I had always felt like there was a real natural kind of love triangle, very much in the vein of the King Arthur tale: Arthur at the center and Lancelot and Guinevere all connecting romantically. In that story, they’re all good people and they’re all heroes. But the heart wants what it wants, and that can complicate things.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: The Joey and Pacey chemistry that was there in season one obviously worked.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: Joey and Pacey’s chemistry was, you know, actual chemistry, and not this sad two-wet-envelopes-lying-next-to-each-other thing that was happening with Dawson and Joey.
Tara Ariano, cofounder of Television Without Pity: Pacey was obviously the better character and always had been. And the two of those actors were like magic to watch.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: Because I had written so many episodes, the network and the studio and the cast wanted me to step up and run the show, rather than import a new person.
I was very hesitant at first. I tried to turn it down. But they said they’d help me.
I said I would do it if they let me have an actual gay kiss between two characters. That had never happened on network TV before. And the network agreed to that. So after that, I felt like it was worth it.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: It says a lot about how much TV has changed that like we were like, “Okay, we’re gonna set up Joey and Pacey for like 12 episodes. And also we need to end a lot of the other storylines and stuff.” We didn’t really get there and activate that story till the 12th episode of the season.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: When we finally did start to reorient the season around that love triangle narrative, in the back half, we were just doing stuff on the fly. But it was really connecting with the audience.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: The Joey-Pacey stuff was more interesting to recap.
Tara Ariano, cofounder of Television Without Pity: They were so much more fun to watch, too. That’s what you want in a teen drama, is that kind of spark, and it doesn’t happen that much.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: It was as atypical then as it is now for the ratings to grow for a show in season three or beyond. But the ratings started to grow again.
The actors were happy, and everybody was excited. I think we found what the show would be without Kevin there.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: By the time you get to the final beat of a story, it should be rolling downhill. If you have set everything up correctly, it should be falling into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: It was, in a strange way, fanservice. Because that whole season, leading up to crying Dawson, you could kind of sense that Dawson was going to get a cartoon skillet in the face.
With the Joey-Pacey-Dawson love triangle in place, the show approached its season three endgame: the moment when Dawson would have to tell Joey to go to Pacey. Fans anticipated Dawson’s comeuppance eagerly. But they would have to wait for the finale, “True Love,” to get what they wanted: the moment when Dawson would cry.
Dawson’s tears were funny out of context. But in context, they were incredibly satisfying. In the writers’ room, they were the culmination of an incredibly vexed and chaotic season of television. And on the boards of Television Without Pity, they were the payoff for three seasons of mounting hatred toward Dawson and everything he stood for.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: At least for our corner of the internet, it wasn’t so much “Will they or won’t they?” It was, “When are they going to screw Dawson over so we can enjoy it?”
Tara Ariano, cofounder of Television Without Pity: He was not an appealing lead character. This is often a problem with shows where the lead’s name is in the title: They have to always make that person the hero because they’re not going to get them out of the show.
Jeffrey Stepakoff, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: John Wells used to say that writing television is like improv jazz. By the time we got to the end of the season, Greg, Tom, Gina, and me — I think we had really, really good improv jazz. We were making beautiful music in the room.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: We wrote that episode, “True Love,” together as a group, Tom Kapinos and Jeff Stepakoff and Greg Berlanti and I. We traded off on scenes.
Tom Kapinos, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: I wrote the Dawson crying scene! Who knew back then?
I actually compared the script file to the finished product, and it’s pretty much word-for-word. I think Greg may have tweaked a little bit of the dialogue here and there. That just goes to show how that whole season was essentially crisis mode: We were writing this stuff really quickly.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: I was the one who actually went to Wilmington [where the show was shot] with the script. I was there when they shot it. I was standing in Dawson’s backyard.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: Until you said that GIF came from the end of season three, I did not remember that. I’m not saying that we had Dawson cry a lot, but…
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: I don’t think we would have scripted a crying response. As a general rule, our scripts were light on stage directions. They were mostly just dialogue.
Tom Kapinos, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: It says, “Joey makes a decision, a simple enough gesture, and in that single second, Dawson’s reserve shatters. He can’t hold it together anymore.” There’s a little bit more talk, and he says, “Just go.” And then I write, “And he means it. Tears streaming down his face.” And then Joey backs away from the scene.
So yeah, it’s in there!
Television Without Pity recap, 2000: “Just go,” Dawson commands her. “Jo, go, I’m telling you, before I take it all back, all right. Just go! GO!” Joey turns, and as soon as she’s looking the other way, Dawson’s face crumples into the most hideously misguided man-crying scene since Luke Skywalker learned the truth about his father in The Empire Strikes Back: “Noooooooo! That’s not true! That’s impossible!” Joey runs through the wedding. Dawson collapses in a heap of moist sobbing goo on the dock.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: Anytime you got to a season finale, there’s just that combination of exhaustion and excitement. And it was just such a hard year in so many ways.
I’ve often found that the emotions of your real life spill over into what you’re making. And I know for myself, I couldn’t believe that I had finally made it there. To this moment where I could just be standing in Dawson’s backyard, feeling a sense of relief that we had actually done it and made it to the end.
So I was thrilled when James cried! I felt like crying myself. I was like, “Okay, this is great.”
Tom Kapinos, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: I don’t know that I meant it, you know, with that intensity. Dawson was certainly an emotional character, but I didn’t think of him as someone who would break down crying like that.
Tara Ariano, cofounder of Television Without Pity: It’s just so overdone for what the moment is. It’s just like, this is a fucking teenager.
Tom Kapinos, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: You know, some people are ugly criers, and he was just an ugly crier. So it was just intense. I can see how it took on a life of its own.
Tara Ariano, cofounder of Television Without Pity: Sometimes, especially when it’s a show that you watch every week and you get to know the characters and the actors so well, when something like this happens, you see it coming. And it’s like, “Oh no. This is beyond the capability of what you’re asking this performer to do.”
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: That was absolutely the most unflattering iteration of Dawson’s hair and his character, that whole season. And that it culminates in this legitimately brave, I would say hideously ugly cry, where he has what appears to be a painted sea anemone attached to his head, masquerading as hair, and now it’s on the Mount Rushmore of GIFs? I mean, this poor man, truly.
Tara Ariano, cofounder of Television Without Pity: Like it was so funny. But also you just sort of felt bad for him, too. This is still a very young actor, and that’s one of his very first roles. Playing the pathos of this moment is clearly beyond him. It was like, “Oh yeah, this is not gonna be good for you. The fans are going to destroy you for this.”
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: GIFs were miserably hard to make back then. You needed a staff. You needed to be a smart-smartie. And they were already happening. The number of screenshots people took! Or people physically using a disposable camera to photograph it. Demian, one of our moderators at the time, was the one who with a hammer and tongs crafted the first GIF and uploaded it to the forums.
People recorded it. It was a thing. But as far as thinking that in 20 years you will say “crying Dawson” and my almost-80-year-old parents will know what that is? I don’t think I would’ve thought that.
Dawson’s Creek went off the air in 2004, after six seasons of melodramatic love triangle configurations and reconfigurations. But the GIF of Dawson crying would go on much longer.
To get a grasp on the afterlife of the GIF, I spoke to some of the people who would help it live on. Filmmaker Lauren Palmigiano asked Van Der Beek to recreate the GIF for a Funny or Die meme in 2011 in a sketch that rocketed across the internet. And Nahnatchka Khan, the director of Always Be My Maybe and showrunner for Fresh Off the Boat, would draw on the legacy of the GIF when she had Van Der Beek parody himself in her cult-classic sitcom Don’t Trust the B — in Apartment 23.
Meanwhile, I asked internet culture reporters Miles Klee and EJ Dickson to weigh in on exactly why the Dawson Crying GIF endured so long and why it was probably one of the first GIFs many people ever saw.
Nahnatchka Khan, showrunner for Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23: I feel like it was one of the first ones to go really viral? It’s just the perfect length: At first, you don’t think he’s going to go as far as he does and then he goes to the final face. It’s certainly one of the first GIFs I can remember seeing.
Miles Klee, internet culture writer: This GIF is really peaking in the five to 10 years after the show ended, especially around the 2009 to 2011 era, when Tumblr culture and some of those adjacent subcultures were very preoccupied with very recent nostalgia for things from high school or just a few years ago. That was the kind of peak for that scene. You’d use it to indicate any kind of histrionic emotion.
EJ Dickson, senior culture writer for Rolling Stone and former editor for the Daily Dot: It was probably one of the first GIFs I ever saw. My understanding is that use of this GIF was primarily taking place on Tumblr. I don’t know if GIFs were as integrated into our cultural lexicon then as they are today.
Lauren Palmigiano, filmmaker: I was a writer/director at Funny or Die. Often celebrities would be interested in doing something silly with us, and James came in for a meeting. Usually, the deal when someone comes in is the writers have all met beforehand and come up with ideas for this person, and they come into the room and we just start throwing ideas. James liked a bunch of ours, and he got the joke and was down to make fun of himself, so we ended up doing a full Van Der Week.
Nahnatchka Khan, Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 showrunner: When we were looking to shoot the pilot for Don’t Trust the B in 2011, I knew I wanted Chloe [played by Krysten Ritter] to have a friend who was playing themselves. It felt like she would be friends with someone famous. Our casting director put together a small list of zeitgeist actors who were the right age, who were really funny actors, who would be down to play themselves.
James was at the top of the list. He did a bunch of Funny or Die videos where he made fun of himself. He seemed to have a great sense of humor.
So we sat down with him, and he was so game for everything. He completely got the joke.
Lauren Palmigiano, filmmaker: One of the pitches came from me. The crying meme was the most internet-y thing about James Van Der Beek, so I thought, why not make more? We thought, let’s celebrate it, make more of them, add to it. And it might be something that makes some noise on the internet. Which was always the goal at Funny or Die: to make something that will get people clicking.
And James had a really great sense of humor about it. He already knew about the meme. He said people had sent it to him before.
I had actually been a Dawson’s Creek fan growing up. I don’t remember clocking his crying when I watched it on the show, but I do remember thinking the scene was heartbreaking. They were breaking up! It was awful. I did love the Pacey years, though.
Nahnatchka Khan, Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 showrunner: We talked about doing some reference to that GIF, but I don’t think it ever made it into the final shooting script. But he would have been down with it. It’s iconic! Even when we were shooting the show, back in 2012, it was known.
Miles Klee, internet culture writer: The popularity of that GIF maybe speaks to that feeling that the stuff you liked as a teen is pretty cringe when you think about it. You were maybe obsessed with it at that time, and you go back and you’re like, “Oh, lol, it’s these older people playing teens, written by older people who are pretending to know what teens do today.”
But because it is using these heightened teenager emotions, which are a real thing, it’s also timeless. You’re cringing at your past self but also recognizing why these things had such power over you.
EJ Dickson, senior culture writer for Rolling Stone: It’s the same as the Saved by the Bell I’m So Excited meme. It resonates in the same way. The cast was on this teen show that wasn’t taken seriously, they were attempting to do a dramatic scene, and the actors were extremely earnestly trying to communicate this tonal shift. James Van Der Beek clearly took it extremely seriously, and the earnestness just backfired so tremendously. And there’s nothing the internet loves more than failed earnestness.
Miles Klee, internet culture writer: I would compare this GIF to that moment on The Simpsons when Lisa dumps Ralph Wiggums publicly in this really humiliating way. And then Bart keeps replaying the moment, and he’s like, “You guys, look, if you slow it down, you can see the exact moment that his heart tears in half.”
And when you see that GIF, you actually do have the visceral, physical feeling of your heart exploding, just torn asunder. That’s what the face is conveying. It’s just this total collapse.
We’ve all been there, so it’s truly relatable. And the relatability is the basis of all memes and internet culture, and anything that has that kind of staying power. So I think we all must identify with him in that moment.
Crying Dawson is a legend. But that’s not the only legacy Dawson’s Creek left us with. The show that was almost canceled ended up breaking barriers of network television — and because of the plotline that culminated in Dawson’s tears, it lasted long enough to become the place where some of today’s most prolific TV writers learned how to make TV. Meanwhile, some of the biggest barriers the show broke have been all but forgotten, overshadowed by the memory of the melodrama and the tears.
Jeffrey Stepakoff, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: You can’t talk about this episode without also talking about the kiss Jack has with Ethan. You know that was the first time we had a gay kiss between two men on television, right?
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: That storytelling was really pivotal for me personally, because I didn’t come out until a couple of years before that. I’ve had a lot of LGBT people through the years talk to me about the importance of Jack’s character.
Jeffrey Stepakoff, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: One of the great legacies of the show, I think, would be the great people that came out of that writers’ room, and the impact that they have had on storytelling in our entertainment industry in this country.
Greg was very young. He was maybe 26 years old? It was a young room. I was probably the oldest person because I was in my mid-30s.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: I’m so glad I got to learn showrunning on another person’s show. By the time I did Everwood, I was able to start things off from a different place, and incorporate a lot of what I had learned.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: I wrote seven episodes of season three. Normally if you were a beginning TV writer, you would write two.
Everything that you could encounter, production-wise, writing-wise, everything that could go wrong did. Dawson’s Creek was my film school. I learned so much.
Tom Kapinos, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: I came to the show as someone who was focused on dialogue. I was known as someone who could write clever dialogue and a good scene. But I didn’t really know how to tell a story, and I didn’t really know how to craft a moment.
Berlanti was great at that. That was probably what I took away the most of: It’s not just about trying to be clever all the time. It’s about crafting some kind of moment that the audience is going to remember, even when they forget the plots of things.
Dawson’s Creek didn’t only launch the Greg Berlanti empire and multiple other major TV writers. It is also the show that would help define its own genre: the relatable teen soap opera.
Dawson’s Creek ended before the modern CW was launched in 2006. But it created the format of the show that would define the early years of the CW, and it started off the showrunner who would push the CW away from teen soaps and into comic book shows. So Dawson’s Creek is, in its way, as foundational to the branding of the new CW as it was to the WB before it.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: There’s a before and after to the way teenagers were written.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: Once upon a time, in the ’70s, your teen content was like if John-boy got a story on The Waltons, or maybe Mary gets a story on Little House on the Prairie.
You start to see more teen-focused dramas in the ’80s. You have Saved by the Bell. And you have Beverly Hills, 90210, which, lord love it, because who else will? It started out as this Degrassi-like PSA-based thing and then it became a soap. But it was certainly not realistic. No one expected it to be realistic.
Jeffrey Stepakoff, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: I remember watching a show that I felt was transformative. I thought, “This is going to change everything.” It was My So-Called Life.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: My So-Called Life airs in 1994. And it was like, “Oh, you can just do that. You can just tell teenage life like it happened. With people who look like regular people. Huh. Why isn’t everyone doing that, then?”
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: I felt very strongly that My So-Called Life would be the last teen show I would ever love.
Jeffrey Stepakoff, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: My So-Called Life was probably the first really great television series about a teen that featured an honest portrayal of her life and the lives of teens during this time. It was created by Winnie Holzman, and it was executive produced by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, who had written Thirtysomething. Thirtysomething was one of the bridging shows that led to this era of character-driven storytelling that’s emerging in the late ’90s.
I worked on this series in 1998 called Hyperion Bay. It was informed by Melrose Place and informed by 90210, which were happening at the time. But it was also informed by the realistic, richer storytelling of Thirtysomething. That’s what we were trying to make for the WB.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: I think Kevin Williamson was trying to split the difference between soapy teen fun times where everybody is wearing full makeup to bed, à la Beverly Hills, 90210, and this sometimes almost abrasively genuine experience of watching My So-Called Life. Which was not a perfect show but was absolutely like nothing we had ever seen before, to a breathtaking degree. Dawson’s was trying to split that difference.
And it didn’t exactly. All the teen dramas that came after it were able to do it a lot better. Or were able to look at Dawson’s Creek and be like, “This is where Dawson’s failed.”
Jeffrey Stepakoff, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: Dawson’s Creek is informed by My So-Called Life, and certainly informed by Felicity [which premiered in September 1998], and in some ways informed culturally by Buffy [which premiered 1997]. From my perspective, it was the best realization of this kind of character-driven storytelling, the kind of storytelling that I very much wanted to be doing at that time.
Greg Berlanti, Dawson’s Creek showrunner: And now, you can still hear it today. You can trace Dawson’s all the way through to what we’re doing now on Riverdale, whenever they have just a slightly heightened dialogue and tone.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: So Dawson’s Creek’s legacy is probably as this sort of signpost on the road to perfecting stuff like Riverdale. Which again, not a perfect show. But it knows what it is, and it does that thing.
Dawson’s Creek’s most lasting influence, however, is how it affected the the way we talk about television.
The show is part of the grammar with which popular culture speaks. We still talk about the show today, but more importantly, we talk about TV in the way we learned to talk about TV watching Dawson’s Creek.
Gina Fattore, Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer: The sweetest thing to me during quarantine was that, at a certain point, I discovered this podcast called Thirst Aid Kit, and there’s an episode about Joshua Jackson on Dawson’s Creek. I like to go on long walks and check out new podcasts. So I’m listening to these two women just joyfully talking about what this meant to them, this story and especially that relationship between Joey and Pacey. I wrote a lot of scenes for them.
We were always writing from a place of character, and Joey was like this even before I got there. She was a hyperachieving girl who did extra-credit projects and got straight As and clearly wanted to go to college. And Pacey was not that person.
We don’t get to see those relationships all that much: a heterosexual relationship where the guy is supporting the woman in her ambitions and in her dreams. It was just what we were writing because it was right for the characters. And it was especially meaningful to me because I had been a very hyperachieving high school girl who did all the extra-credit projects. So it was like this vision of what would it be like to have a partner who really supported you enough to buy you a wall.
It was so joyful and moving that these women were talking about it 20 years later and what it meant to them.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: My brother told me this story: He went to NYU, and one day he went into a computer lab to print something. There were two rows of eight or 10 monitors on each side, and he’s walking through to the back of the room to get to the printer. And one whole side of the room was reading Television Without Pity.
This would have been sometime around 1999, 2001. He was like, “Yeah, the Real World recap had just gone up.”
Tara Ariano, cofounder of Television Without Pity: We didn’t invent recaps. That was Danny Drennan, who founded Mediarama. We were inspired by him. But everyone is still doing it, and I feel like that’s why: Because we were doing it, and people liked them.
At the time we were doing it, they served an entertainment purpose as well as a practical purpose because there wasn’t streaming. And if you missed a show, you could read the recap and actually find out what happened. But now, people just like the fast analysis. And you can get it everywhere on the internet.
Sarah D. Bunting, cofounder of Television Without Pity: Dawson’s Creek was there right at the beginning of when people were doing that second-screen experience. You would watch the show, get up, go to your 40-pound desktop unit, dial into the internet, and have your thoughts.
It was present when that was becoming the way we as a culture consumed culture, that collective experience. So its legacy is, maybe, helping all of us to learn how to talk about TV.
Dawson’s Creek was never a prestige show. It was never a logical fit for an internet show, either: It didn’t have the geek cred of a Buffy or an X-Files. But nonetheless, Dawson’s Creek emerged at the dawn of the prestige television era and the dawn of the internet TV message board, and it fundamentally, accidentally, shaped the discourse of both those cultures.
So there’s a reason that dawsoncrying.gif integrated itself so thoroughly into the language of the internet: So did the show on which it was born. Dawson’s Creek built the teen soap, the CW, and the way we talk about television — and Crying Dawson built the way we talk about everything else.