For the past three years, my sister and I have been sporadically watching “Dawson’s Creek.” Through intermittent binge periods we’ve borne witness to the epic highs — Dawson’s (James Van Der Beek, “Varsity Blues”) caricatural memeified crying face — and lows — Joey (Katie Holmes, “Batman Begins”) and Pacey’s (Joshua Jackson, “Fringe”) inexplicable break-up — of what is now a teen TV legend. With its small-town setting of Capeside, Massachusetts, obscure film references and mildly pretentious dialogue, the show was a certified hit in its heyday. Recently, we reached a new milestone while watching season five: the dreaded college years.
Maybe it’s simply the wear and tear of one too many seasons or the destabilizing shift in environment, but something in the teen TV blueprint seems to set this phase up for failure. With long-running shows, first seasons get bogged down by expository set-up, superficially hindered by a lack of emotional attachment or familiarity with the characters. Early middle seasons tend to hit a sweet spot; the characters are worth rooting for, the plot is not yet overly convoluted and everything is heightened by the freshly rejuvenated sophomore effort. But the post-high-school season? That’s the make-or-break moment. The litmus test of truly enduring teen television.
A few episodes in and it was painstakingly obvious that the show had fallen short of the mark. Faltering at the sight of a Capeside-less horizon, it haphazardly made substantial tonal shifts to compensate. Dawson’s Hollywood director dreams were hastily crushed and not even the addition of comedic mediator Busy Phillips (“Freaks and Geeks”) could save the show from this inevitable slump or its bright-eyed characters from reckoning with reality. Diverting the show’s original focus after four seasons felt futile, especially when it’s been built upon a very specific period of adolescence, of the simple everyday dramas that absorb the monotony of small-town teen life.
But this is no isolated incident. As seasoned teen TV viewers, this failure to smoothly transition into adulthood was hardly surprising for my sister and me. The post-high-school season decline has never been the exception but rather the hard-and-fast rule. But why is this the case? Why not go out on a high note? Why do countless shows give college the old college try, only to taper out into mediocrity and self-dug plot holes a season or two later?
One fast, easy explanation is money. Prior to the streaming-service era of the last decade, long-running shows were the norm, sustained by primetime slots that could draw in viewers week after week regardless of stale plotlines or tired punchlines. Exhibit A: Despite the dip in quality of “Friends” in its later seasons, each of the main cast was taking home a million dollars an episode. So that’s one very obvious incentive to keep a show going long beyond its lifespan.
Another answer lies in the fact that the CW — arguably the most notable teen TV network of the 2010s — was notorious for stringing out kernels of successful TV ventures for far too long. Take “The Vampire Diaries,” for instance. The first few seasons were fantastic, but the decision to swap out Mystic Falls High for Whitmore College was a doomed one. Seasons five and six were sub-par, but once Nina Dobrev (“Love Hard”) left, they really should’ve pulled the plug. Instead, they chugged on for another two seasons without their main character, and it got pitiful to watch. Those endearingly absurd supernatural plotlines began to feel less excitingly shocking and more messily strewn together as a result of grossly repetitive writing. Even if Dobrev had stuck around, it already had one foot in the proverbial coffin.
Twice is a coincidence, of course, but almost every teen show I’ve ever watched? Now that’s a pattern. Countless have suffered from the aforementioned post-high-school curse. There’s a reason the high school “Scooby Gang” shenanigans of seasons two and three of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” are widely considered its very best. There’s a reason why the keenly witty mysteries at the core of “Veronica Mars” initially set it apart from its more shallow teen TV contemporaries, until she expanded her P.I. work beyond the scope of Neptune High, and it promptly fell off. But don’t just take my word for it. Think of your favorite long-running teen show, and now of the season you usually stop at while rewatching … it’s the post-high-school season, isn’t it?
Evidently, these shows are unable to survive the transition out of high school because they never really intended to in the first place. A teenage show without teenagers feels like an odd joke I can’t quite remember the punchline to. There’s an irreparable loss of innocence there, a visibly shattered shell of naiveté in its characters that comes along with stepping into “the real world.”
In fact, some shows go to great lengths to avoid any and all breaking of such a spell. “Teen Wolf” stretched out three years of high school into six years on the air, making 19-year-old Tyler Posey (“Truth or Dare”) 16 in the first season and 25 going on 18 in the sixth. Others suddenly spiral into the more mature themes or randomly pair off characters just to mix things up. What else could possibly explain the strange, short-lived penultimate season relationships of Dawson and Jen, “Gossip Girl”’s Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester, “The Weekend Away”) and Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley, “You”) or “The Vampire Diaries”’ Alaric (Matthew Davis, “Legacies”) and Caroline (Candice King, “Juno”)?
In all fairness, a few exceptions do come to mind insofar as shows that made a clean departure from the high-school phase without a direct decline in quality or thematic continuity. Personal attitudes toward the downfall of Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel, “The Handmaid’s Tale”) aside, “Gilmore Girls” initially moved into season four with relative ease. In terms of setting, swapping out the Chilton corridors for Yale’s made little difference to the show’s well-established aesthetic and familiar returning characters; the Ivy League background slipped on about as easily as one of Lorelai’s (Lauren Graham, “Parenthood”) seasonally chic cashmere sweaters.
“Gossip Girl” made a similar transition with very little fuss. Although the first two seasons take place in high school, the petty scandals and backstabbing twists readily transcended Constance Billard, because they were never confined to it in the first place. Serena (Blake Lively, “A Simple Favor”) and Blair reconcile at an impromptu photoshoot in front of the Plaza Hotel, not a school hallway. They eat lunch on the steps of The Met, not a cafeteria. Blair’s momentary loss of Queen B status as she stoops to attend NYU in season three doesn’t derail the show’s framework, because her real reign of power was never limited to school-girl politics.
Both shows successfully made the post-high-school shift because the familiar backdrops acted as grounding forces, but also because the shows dared to envision a life for their characters beyond the realm of high school. They may have begun as “teen” shows, but they grew and evolved with their audience to become something so much more.
An off season doesn’t suddenly make “Dawson’s Creek” a bad show by any means, but Capeside was integral to its essence and its absence is a poignant one. It’s the sight of Joey climbing in through Dawson’s bedroom window, the emotionally taut, heartfelt conversations on the docks or the group filming little homemade horror films by the creek. At its heart, it’s a show about adolescence, and the gradual loss of childhood is a subject matter that rests at the epicenter of its very being. Yet, when the presence of Capeside and their contextual childhood was removed entirely, the rug was pulled out from under the show itself, shakily handling the threads that once wound the show together with the tightest of character relationships and overarching themes.
By the time winter break hits, I’ll probably cave and tune back in, whether it be out of pure curiosity or unresolved emotional investment in the unfortunate demise of Joey and Pacey’s relationship. Any teen show of five or more seasons is bound to make a few mistakes (and some certainly more than others), but perhaps that’s for the best. Maybe true teen TV simply isn’t meant to last beyond its predestined end: the main actors becoming somewhat famous or turning 30, whichever comes first. Either way, with the end of “Dawson’s Creek” came the career of four-time Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams, so, all in all, a fair trade, I’d say.
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at email@example.com.