“Alternative Lifestyles” (season 2, episode 3; originally aired 10/21/1998) and “Tamara’s Return” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired 10/28/1998)
As statutory-rape fantasies go, Dawson’s Creek has surprising persistence. After running Tamara out of town in season one and spending half a season on much better material, the show brings her back in “Alternative Lifestyles” so Dawson can be even more explicit in his (read: the show’s) denunciation of her behavior. But then Abby pursues an older dreamboat, and he’s all twinkly for Jen, and Pacey and Tamara make out on the abandoned set of an R&B video, and suddenly it’s clear nobody on Dawson’s Creek cares about statutory rape at all. Yes, technically, that’s where all these sexual roads are leading, but in this universe, in these specific situations, it’s all in-name-only. The kids aren’t physically 16, and their twice-their-age suitors leave no more psychological impact than an equivalent high-school fling. And who is the State of Massachusetts to stand in the way of five minutes of true love? So bring on the baby cougar with the mysterious past! Mount the guy from the cologne ad on a mast shirtless! So what if it’s wildly irresponsible? Is this Dawson’s Creek or Freaks And Geeks? Court the buzz Ryan Murphy-style and never look back. There are ratings at stake.
Jack, Andie, and her overall shorts could not have come along at a better time, because everyone else is a mess. Dawson spends two weeks calling himself a sexual being and making out with Joey some more. Joey is busy responding to the transparent whims of the writers by inventing some vague angst in her relationship with Dawson. Jen’s only friend is Abby Morgan. Mitch and Gail are being so “Dawson and Joey” right now. Tamara’s trying to sell her Capeside property but first appears by stalking Pacey at school? And did I mention Dawson keeps making out in front of us? These two episodes smack of desperation: The cliffhanger image of Tamara in the side mirror, Pacey and Tamara diving into each other’s mouths at an act break, Jen sighing against the wall outside of Dawson’s bedroom, apparently planning her escape from this show. The heightened soap-opera tactics are threatening to overturn the ship.
On the bright side, there’s so much going on that it’s not all Melrose Place. “Alternative Lifestyles” and “Tamara’s Return” are particularly interesting—and grounded!—in their depictions of high-school friendships. Just because there are six kids in the credits, two of whom remain “special guest stars” for now, doesn’t mean they’re Zack Morris and the gang. Right now five of them are loosely connected and Jen is totally segregated. Jack is on his way to being a main character, but right now he just shows up in the middle of fights to bring some comedy relief (between “Crossroads” and “Alternative Lifestyles,” I really hope this becomes a running gag).
Dawson’s Creek has never featured a non-competitive female friendship, and Jen glomming onto the equally isolated Abby is a step on that road. At first Abby just uses Jen for the vicarious escapades, but now Abby seems to genuinely care about Jen, and Jen certainly cares about Abby. At the same time, it’s hard to deny the fact that their relationship hasn’t been as fulfilling to Jen as she thinks. Abby is all about peer pressure and getting her way; Jen is her disposable support. When Dawson responds to Jen’s advances with a bewildered, “Who are you?” he isn’t trying to shame her. This girl is miles from the confident, independent Jen of season one. The way Jen reacts each time Abby harasses Kenny is telling. With Joey and Andie in the picture, if on the edges, it’ll be interesting to see if and how the show develops a more healthy (or at least less parasitic) female friendship.
Because the episodes are packed with incident, season two has a bit of a problem with showing. Are Andie and Jack really related? If I recall correctly, they haven’t had a single scene together in four episodes. Dawson and Pacey barely have time for each other until Tamara and Andie unwittingly push them together. Dialogue suggests Dawson talks to Pacey incessantly about his relationship hiccups (“Joey is being sarcastic and oversensitive, and you, my friend, are being self-absorbed and suffocating. There you go, problem solved”), but if the show would slow down, the audience might have a stronger sense of how Pacey is responding to Dawson and Joey’s relationship. Pacey and Andie have been the spine of these episodes, unfailingly funny and cute without getting too sentimental, but I’d trade a whole episode of them wading into courtship for a scene between Pacey and Joey. Just a hint of that bittersweet longing would make up for the alienation of an episode called “Tamara’s Return.”
While Bodie’s off at Milford Academy (talk about problems of depiction), Bessie’s increased presence fleshes out her character and her relationship with Joey. The Icehouse has three settings—swamped, dead, and late-night straggler—so Bessie’s always vacillating between frantic taskmaster and laid-back aunt. Joey couldn’t handle the burdens of living with her sister in season one, and those problems haven’t gone away. The Potters have a hectic morning, they escalate into fighting, Joey seeks a new role model. But this time, when they talk about it, both Bessie and Joey move forward. Bessie agrees that it’s not fair to demand so much of her sister, and Joey embraces Bessie’s problems as her own. We’ll see how committed she is to that nicety in the future, but the selflessness suggests the show is still invested in traditional coming-of-age stories. If “Tamara’s Return” proves anything, it’s that Dawson’s Creek is much better with common relationships than uncommon ones.
- R.I.P. Dawson’s bedroom ladder. Fine for Dawson and Jen, but you know what they say about that Potter girl.
- That “Isn’t this funny?” music that plays every time Dawson lectures his parents about his sex life contradicts itself.
- “Is that the sexual being himself?” Mitch has a strong two episodes, but the best part is when Gail gets a ride from Frank From Accounting and he kisses her goodbye. Mitch is being all rugged in the yard, and Gail is being all “Stop punishing me.” So Mitch goes, “There’s no trust here, there’s no honesty. I don’t know what to do to get it back,” and just as he finishes, he pulls a tie and the curtain falls behind him. It’s such a dramatic, Dawson moment.
- I counted: Gail and Mitch have 47 pillows on their bed.
- It seems like the problem Joey finds in Laura’s restaurant plans is one they’re already aware of, but then Laura asks to pick Joey’s brain further? “You can be as self-deprecating as you want, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re a natural.” We get it, we get it, Joey’s good at everything.
- Joey uses the language of film comedy to describe Jack: “You’re a walking sight gag.” And later, “There’s obviously a lot more to you than pratfalls.” He responds tellingly: “Well, Joey, you ain’t seen nothing yet.” Indeed!
- Seriously, where’s Bodie at, String? I give Modern Family a hard time for pretending to have gay characters, but this one pretends to have an interracial relationship that’s almost totally off-screen. You can’t do the work of progressivism just by saying so.
- Now that Joey’s into art, the show is really milking this abstract expressionism metaphor. At the end of “Tamara’s Return,” Joey whips herself into that Emmy Rossum frenzy because she thinks Dawson is all she has—which makes almost no sense after two episodes of Joey strengthening ties to Bessie, Laura, and Jack, but the writers must write—and now she’s unsure how she feels about their relationship or something. “Dawson, I don’t mean to sound like a blob of paint, but can we just let this one thing remain unresolved right now?” And suddenly Dawson turns into an uneven brush stroke of sickly green-brown and Joey resolves into a blue circle with a kink at NNW, and it all makes sense.
- The technical execution is occasionally as awkward and unmotivated as some of the stories—Pacey’s not even in focus when he talks about Dumbo, the camera swirls around Dawson and Joey at the park for no reason—but the long shot at the end of “Alternative Lifestyles” connecting all the kids outside the school is a nice summation of the episode. And the foreground nets on the docks make up for Jen having a lampshade that matches her wallpaper.
- We need to talk about Tamara’s straw hat. Hard to have a Pinter moment with that thing chewing the scenery.
- At least “Tamara’s Return” ends in a meaningful flourish. Andie and Pacey are in the window of a café while Tamara appears across the street. Andie asks, “Don’t you know that woman?” As Pacey looks, his face appears through the window as Tamara is reflected over him. He turns and says, “I did. Not anymore” and Tamara drives off behind him. This time maybe she’ll stay there.
- I love this piece by Lindsey Bahr about her experience as an extra on “Alternative Lifestyles.”
- Next time: “Full Moon Rising” sheds some light on the McPhees, and “The Dance” brings some definition to all these vague relationships. Strap in!