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When Dawson's Creek and Felicity turned genre

Contributed by
May 16, 2018

During its 11-year run, The WB had plenty on offer in the genre department, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Supernatural, Smallville, and Roswell. But two of the network’s flagship shows didn’t have a lead character fighting demons or casting spells. Instead, Dawson’s Creek and Felicity dealt with quintessential teen scenarios such as dating woes, hanging out with friends and studying for tests—minus the saving-the-world extracurricular activities of some of their network pals. Even though they didn’t live above a Hellmouth or come from a different planet, both Dawson’s Creek and Felicity injected science-fiction and horror into the everyday lives of these characters as a way to explore fractured relationship dynamics through a different narrative form.  

These iconic shows turn 20 this year—Dawson’s Creek debuted March and Felicity in September of 1998—so in honor of this milestone, SYFY FANGRRLS is going to take a look at how time travel, The Twilight Zone, slasher movies and found-footage films helped unleash the bottled-up emotions of these romance-obsessed protagonists.  

Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek) is obsessed with movies, so it isn’t a stretch that he would treat a date like Friday the 13th as one to celebrate. This is his Halloween, his April Fool’s Day, a day Dawson scares his friends through a variety of harmless gags. But in the Season 1 episode “The Scare,” a serial killer targeting young women is dominating the conversation.

Dawson loves horror movies, much like creator Kevin Williamson. “The Scare” opens with Dawson and Joey (Katie Holmes) watching I Know What You Did Last Summer, a movie Joey is less-than-enthusiastic about (and a movie Williamson wrote, ironically enough). A Scream poster hangs over Dawson’s bed, again another nod to creator Williamson’s pre-Creek work.

Dawson's Creek The Scare
A meta movie becomes a meta talking point when Jen (Michelle Williams) gets a creepy phone call. She plays along at first, calling herself Drew Barrymore. But when she gets scared, she picks up a knife. After all, there is an actual killer on the loose. Guest star Scott Foley—his character Cliff makes the call in an attempt to woo Jen, I know—later starred in Scream 3 (spoiler alert — he played the killer). 

“The Scare” riffs on a number of horror movie conventions: the POV stalker shot is right out of John Carpenter’s Halloween (this movie is referenced in Dawson’s film class), Jason’s hockey mask makes an appearance, Jen gets the dolly zoom shot treatment and there are a number of jump scares accompanied by classic horror music cues. The audience is probably just as familiar with these references as these characters are. We have seen or at least are familiar with the pop culture that it is being riffed upon. Real danger, however, lurks in the serial killer targeting young women, or the stranger they pick up at the convenience store after a run-in with her violent boyfriend, and, of course, hearts are in danger of getting ripped open. Not with a knife, but as a consequence of rejection.

The horror narrative is a catalyst for dealing with fractured relationships. In “The Scare” Jen and Dawson are dealing with their post break-up status, Joey still has feelings for Dawson, and Pacey (Joshua Jackson) is still interested in older women. In Season 3 when Dawson's Creek does a self-aware version of The Blair Witch Project—called “Escape from Witch Island”—Joey and Dawson are still figuring out what they are to each other. Meanwhile, the writers explore a low-stakes “friends with benefits” pact between Jen and Pacey. Love spells, a story of tragic romance and a super creepy location provide the backdrop for these discussions. Non-existent bells ring, candles flare up as if by magic, the shaky-cam is invoked.

Dawson's Creek Escape from Witch Island
Again there is overt acknowledgment to the source material. Characters note on several occasions that Dawson is ripping off this latest cinematic phenomenon. Opinions of this movie vary—Jen found it painfully dull and the lead annoyed her, Joey continues to be scared of all things horror, and Dawson calls it groundbreaking, because of course he does.

Heightened emotions increase in a time of peril. These characters are never truly in danger, but it gives them a reason to unload those bottled-up emotions. Well, Joey did have a conversation with the Lady Killer, but thankfully he was caught before he could claim his next victim.

Another character that knows about intense feelings is Felicity Porter (Keri Russell). Before he was better known for Star Wars, Star Trek, Cloverfield, LostFringe and Alias, J.J. Abrams co-created a show (with Matt Reeves) that dealt with the trials and tribulations of a young woman going to college. There’s nothing particularly sci-fi about this set-up, but instead of opting for the now-popular musical episode, Felicity got the Twilight Zone treatment in Season 2. Post-infamous haircut, Felicity is dealing with a broken heart. She has dated both Ben (Scott Speedman) and Noel (Scott Foley) and the love triangle is in full swing.

“Help for the Lovelorn” is Abrams paying homage to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, with everything slightly off-kilter, including the camera angles. It looks authentic—not just because it's shot in black-and-white, but because the episode was directed by an original Twilight Zone director, Lamont Johnson. Present-day New York is transformed into a version of the 1950s with a few purposely anachronistic touches. In an unnerving moment, Felicity’s trusty recorder speaks to her even though it doesn’t have a tape in it. Janeane Garofalo returns as Felicity’s cassette pen pal Sally, but instead of dispensing advice she takes on the Rod Serling narrator role.  

The Twilight Zone isn’t necessarily the first option that springs to mind for a unique episode of a ‘90s teen show, but Felicity’s earnest nature coupled with her love triangle predicament provides the perfect leaping-off point. In “Help for the Lovelorn” she is given the chance to be cured of her lovesick heart, but it comes at a price: her actual heart. It is a creepy episode, in which Felicity questions her reality and ends with her trapped in a box.

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Felicity’s roommate Meghan (Amanda Foreman) is a Wiccan with varying talents. She has previously performed spells on Felicity to impact her love life, or to induce clumsiness. Meghan also has a box that she is very protective of, and neither Felicity nor the viewers know what the contents are—basically, the early origins of J.J. Abrams obsession with the Mystery Box. In “Help for the Lovelorn,” Felicity wakes up in a room with no doors or windows. Her friends Ben, Noel, Elena (Tanji Miller) and Julie (Amy Jo Johnson) are also trapped there. When Felicity manages to escape after climbing up her friends, she screams upon seeing where they are. The episode cuts to a doll on the dorm floor, and Meghan wonders aloud how the Felicity effigy escaped the box.

This is an entirely standalone episode. These events did not really take place, and the characters are not really dolls trapped in Meghan’s box. Essentially, the show takes a break from the angst-filled narrative, exploring the love triangle while paying homage to The Twilight Zone. One thing that can be said about the 22-episode season is it allows writers to be inventive, to think outside the box—or, in this case, reveal what is inside it. The box is a metaphor for your late teens/early 20s. As Sally explains in her closing narration, it is “a strange gray area, where what you want, what you need, and what you’ll be, are forever in question.”

Felicity dabbles in witchcraft again in the final season, this time with a big dose of time travel. Yes, time travel. The story behind this out-of-left-field narrative decision is best explained by Matt Reeves, who at a Paley Center event describes how this came to be. The WB had given multiple assurances the final season would be 17 episodes. Felicity graduates in that final episode, bringing the college story to its natural end. However, after another show got canceled, Felicity was "gifted" a 5-episode back order. Their solution: send Felicity back in time to see what the outcome would be if she picked Noel instead of Ben.

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Ending a series with what is tantamount to an experiment is jarring, less so when you know the reason behind it was because of the network. How you feel about these episodes might depend on your Team Ben/Team Noel allegiance, because ultimately Felicity ends up making the same choice. There is an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind inevitability to the proceedings. No matter the timeline, Felicity always ends up with Ben—even when she picks Noel. As with the Twilight Zone outing, there is something very enjoyable about this concept, especially if you can embrace the silliness of it all. It gave the cast, and particularly Russell the chance to flex her comedic chops; she plays Felicity as part-frantic, part-super confident in her actions because she already knows how everything plays out.

Stories of first love connect Dawson’s Creek and Felicity with how they both incorporate the mystical into a narrative very much grounded in reality. Dawson and Joey might not talk like typical teens in 1998, but a friendship that is threatened by burgeoning feelings is relatable—as is the desire to tap into fears via horror movies or stories of witchcraft and forbidden love. Time travel allows Felicity to experience the other side of the love triangle she was at the heart of, and the Twilight Zone homage is a fun exploration of what happens when a character wants to stop caring as much as she does.

References to Kevin Williamson’s pre-Dawson’s Creek work were littered throughout the “The Scare” and “Escape from Witch Island." As for Felicity's “Help for the Lovelorn” and the time-travel arc? It's a peek into what J.J. Abrams' career eventually became. Love can be scary and can make you want to turn back the clock, and on Dawson’s Creek and Felicity, characters got to experience the extremes of first love with a few jump scares and mystical twists to rival their WB peers.