Most of us woke up Wednesday expecting it to be like any other day, but a quick look at social media over the morning coffee revealed that something magical had occurred when we weren't looking: Entertainment Weekly had pulled off the impossible by reuniting the cast of Dawson's Creek for the show's 20th anniversary this year. Women (and yes, even some men) who grew up watching Dawson (James Van Der Beek), Joey (Katie Holmes), Pacey (Joshua Jackson) and Jen (Michelle Williams) were taking to Twitter to remember the show and celebrate something they never thought would happen. And as the tweets poured in and the battle (if one can really even call it that) between Dawson and Pacey started anew, one thing became crystal clear: today's youth might never experience a joy as pure as this.
For a number of us now in our 30s, watching Dawson's Creek was a formative experience. As part of The WB's late '90s teen-centric lineup, which also included Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Felicity, and Roswell, the show was a defining part of adolescence. The Kevin Williamson creation took a view of teens that shows rarely did at the time: that their problems were just as important and just as serious as those adults were facing. This often translated to Dawson and his small circle of friends speaking like adults — sometimes pretentiously so — as they experienced the triumphs and challenges of growing apart, growing together and most importantly, growing up. This coupled with the show's never-ending love triangles, which culminated in a series finale that was about, among other things, who Joey would ultimately choose — her soulmate Dawson or her true love Pacey — helped to make Dawson's Creek a pop culture success and a cornerstone of The WB's lineup for six seasons.
But looking at the current television landscape one has to wonder: will today's teens ever have their own Dawson's Creek? Will they have a teen show about real teen problems that was so influential in their youth that it will remain as beloved and important to them 20 years later?
A quick look around at the teen-centered shows of the last decade or so reveals that although there is more programming than ever before, there are very few shows simply about the trials of young adulthood. And when there is programming aimed at young audiences, many of those shows rely on gimmicks and hooks to tell their stories. The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, Teen Wolf, Shadowhunters, Marvel's Runaways, even Riverdale — they all have or had some sort of hook meant to separate them from the glut of programming available. Though these (often supernatural) hooks are flashy and fun, they often leave little time for the honest approach to storytelling that many of us who grew up on The WB experienced (Buffy was certainly not limited by its genre, so it's not to say this is necessarily always true or always harmful). But a wider view of the current TV landscape also reveals that it's entirely possible networks simply no longer believe true coming-of-age series sagas exploring emotionally compelling stories of first love, heartbreak and the up and downs of friendship as we age to be a viable storytelling option.
Are networks' instincts right? In an era where there are more than 400 scripted shows airing each year, can a series as simple as Dawson's Creek — a show unafraid to portray teens as the stubborn and stupid but also highly intelligent people they can be — find the same level of success in 2018 that Dawson's Creek found at the end of the last millennium? It's obviously difficult to say when many networks aren't willing to give them a chance; true teen-centered programming is few and far between these days. Even The CW, which is the successor to The WB, has just one show set in high school. Freeform and its so-called "Becomers" movement appears to be one of the lone cable networks making a solid effort in this area with shows like The Fosters and grown-ish, but so far, neither of these programs have reached the influential levels of The WB classics. But there is also another sliver of hope peeking through: Netflix.
The popular streaming service of choice for many young adults is currently challenging everything we thought we knew about current teen programming with a growing catalog of teen-centered shows, including On My Block and Everything Sucks!. The latter's '90s setting is arguably a gimmick meant to capitalize on our current obsession with nostalgia, but the coming-of-age stories the show is telling through its characters are just as simple and honest as those found on Dawson's Creek and therefore universal in their appeal. However, airing on a subscription streaming service also means these shows, and many like them, are not subjected to the same scrutiny as those that air on broadcast or even basic cable, and without ratings data, it's impossible to know how successful they truly are. But further proving that said shows are exceptions to the rule is the fact that they're also competing with the insanely popular Stranger Things, a genre show that is primarily about young adults.
Complicating all of this, of course, is the simple fact that the way we watch and consume entertainment has changed drastically over the last 20 years — hell, even the last decade. With DVR and a number of streaming options that all promote binge-watching, many of us no longer plan our schedules around when our favorite shows air and then gather around the watercooler the next day to discuss what happened. Furthermore, many younger viewers don't watch TV week to week at all. According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of people ages 18 to 29 say they use streaming services to watch TV rather than cable. It's also not uncommon for viewers to wait for an entire season to be available to stream before digging in. Without the collective viewing experience that was present when shows like Dawson's Creek were airing, it's difficult for any one show — especially one that's not part of a franchise or suited to Easter egg hunters — to become a true cultural juggernaut and influence an entire generation.
And so, as we enter the next chapter in television history, we have to consider that the magic of Dawson's Creek, The WB (and its incredible promos) and the rest of the shows that called it home might just be that: a form of magic specific to that time period. It's impossible to recreate The WB and the impact it had on the teens of the day in our constantly shifting and growing environment. There's no doubt that today's teens probably also deeply identify with certain shows — we're all searching to see ourselves represented on TV, and there are more possibilities to see ourselves represented than ever before — but the times have also changed and we may never again experience the overwhelming cultural influence of a teen-centered TV show the way we lived and breathed alongside the teens from Capeside. The question that lingers is whether or not today's youth will even notice.
Dawson's Creek is streaming on Hulu.