“The All-Nighter” (season 2, episode 7; originally aired 11/18/1998)
It turns out all season two had to do to get its act together was start remaking season one. On the heels of Tamara and “The Dance” comes “The All-Nighter,” which is basically “Detention” without the Breakfast Club conceit. In place of Abby Morgan, we get Jason Behr’s Chris Wolfe, a name with so much pun potential I can’t believe Dawson’s Creek wasn’t given the Emmy right then and there. In place of Truth Or Dare, we get a purity test. And in place of a raw lack of resolution, we get at least as many endings as The Return Of The King, and only the midterm part feels earned. If I didn’t know better, I’d be rooting for the return of Jen’s ex.
I won’t go so far as to say you can tell when Dawson’s Creek clutch David Semel directs an episode, but there’s a visual focus here that’s been missing, pun most definitely intended. How rushed were the crew this season to have so many out-of-focus shots (like the one in “The Reluctant Hero” where Joey tells Jack she had a nice time)? The lighting alone in “The All-Nighter” is worth discussing, going from the late-afternoon sunlight pouring through Chris’ generous windows to the single overhead lamp at the table to the late-night ambient light from all the little lamps lit around the house. The purity-test sequence is especially great! In place of the circular long shot cliché, Semel shoots a tightly focused montage that swirls around the room instead, letting the kids get jovial and embarrassed in this elliptical haze. It really feels like a memory of an hour punctuated by self-consciousness. “The All-Nighter” is so well-told, from the hallway argument to the wake-up montage, that it’s almost beside the point to mention the pat finale. That part’s a fantasy, right?
Actually, “The All-Nighter” does feel like a moment out of time. With everyone except odd man out Jack cramming for an English midterm at Chris’ mansion, the episode has time to explore all those relationships the show’s been neglecting. Oh, the romantic pairings are here, too: Jen and Chris just want to have a good time with each other, Dawson and Joey are still Dawson and Joey, wake me when Andie and Pacey aren’t adorable. But at last there’s a world outside of boyfriends and girlfriends. It’s not a big debriefing on a universe where Joey’s single, but Pacey and Dawson actually talk to each other onscreen again! Meanwhile Andie invites Joey to the all-nighter. And Jen gets to spar with both Dawson and Joey throughout the evening.
The Jen-Dawson scenes are mostly about planting seeds, although I love the amused look she gives him when he asks if she understands Chris’ intentions, and it’s refreshing to see them talking like friends on the track. But the Jen-Joey scene is the kind of thing Dawson’s Creek should have more time for. These two girls travel in the same circle of friends but have never really gotten along, and there’s a lot of power in exploring the confusion there. Just as Joey admits to lashing out at Jack because she’s mad at herself, it seems she’s mad at Jen mostly out of transference. “God, I am so sick of talking all the time” is a line that reads a lot angrier than Katie Holmes plays it. “Don’t you just want to have something left to, to just experience?” The fact that she’s expressing her dissatisfaction with the show she’s on to Jen Lindley of all people is hilarious, but weird, teenage moments like this are so much more moving than the tearful breakdowns.
What’s most enjoyable about “The All-Nighter”: The quality of idiocy is not strained. Everyone gets his completely characteristic moment of selfishness, from Dawson flipping out at a child to Andie freaking out about Pacey’s poor plotting. I even laughed at the righteousness with which Joey tells Dawson to respect her need for space. Everyone's little lapses of decency are perfectly understandable as character foibles, and everyone exhibits virtues as well. Back in early season one I praised the way Dawson’s Creek even has time for Nelly the ditz to shine. Nice to see the show get back to that place.
- Movie Night is such a fun, malleable formula. Here it’s Dawson and Gail crying over historical weepies. Gotta love how Dawson lectures through the movies and stops them whenever he wants.
- Gail offers the first of several iffy points of advice this week: “When you think about it, honey, every inch of pain that touches you makes you a deeper, more real individual.” Remember what I said about everyone having her moment of idiocy?
- Speaking of which, Dawson is approaching Twilight levels of brood-staring, mostly at Katie Holmes, mostly from a few feet away. I know that voyeurism is the unspoken lifeblood of this show—just consider how often Dawson watches The Ballad Of Jen And Chris—but come on, man.
- On the subject of voyeurism, how’d that shot of Andie sitting in a skirt poolside make it past the censors?
- The English teacher is another in a long line of adults who inexplicably hate the main characters of Dawson’s Creek. “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the midterm and your impending failure is but hours away.”
- Time capsule: “Have you ever seen this man’s house? His family is totally loaded. They got a satellite dish.”
- Great moments in Meredith Monroe’s performance: After Joey says, “Sounds like we’re gonna get a lot of studying done here,” Andie tells her, “Reminder: I’m in complete control here.” She’s so great at playing sheltered youth that I love seeing her corral the group.
- Great moments in James Van Der Beek’s performance: The way Dawson’s so intent on sulking through time spent with Joey. He barely lets himself laugh at the idea of catching his parents have sex (which is especially funny considering Mitch and Gail).
- Great moments in Joshua Jackson’s performance: That look on his face when Andie says his fling with Tamara was “not exactly an admirable event.”
- He responds with this show’s favorite defense, “I am a sexual creature. So are you.” Aristotle must be proud to have offered that template. Pacey follows with some other iffy wisdom: “Sex is never innocent.” I think I see what he means, but maybe “innocent” needs some definition here.
- The precocious kid plot even works for me here, because she isn’t interested in being a sounding board for the older kids. She has goals of her own. “Psst! Gorgeous!” Dawson’s surprised. “What, do you hide in the vents?”
- Deena says Joey puts a little smiley face in her letter “o”s. In case you were wondering where all of Joey's smiliness goes.
- Great moments in Katie Holmes’ performance: In the wake-up montage, Andie’s monopolizing the soundtrack with her frantic planning, but there’s this great, dazed insert of Joey slowly getting up with her hair all messy.
- Great moments in Michelle Williams’ performance: “Then what did Emily write?”
“The Reluctant Hero” (season 2, episode 8; originally aired 11/25/1998)
When Joey says, “Dawson, do you think things could get back to normal between us and we could just be friends again?” all I could think about was how the episode opened: “Previously on Dawson’s Creek: ‘Joey, if you don’t understand why [we can’t go back to being friends] then you don’t get me!’” Bygones! Like a lot of this vague anxiety between Joey and Dawson, their reunion is inadequately explained. Maybe that’s true to adolescence. So is Jen getting her act together and then suddenly getting drunk with Chris every night. But altogether, after an episode like “The All-Nighter,” I’m more disappointed than impressed by the commitment to realism. The mumbling is pretty lifelike, too, but occasionally incomprehensible dialogue doesn’t make Dawson’s Creek a better show.
What does it all mean? What is the purpose of Joey needing space from Dawson—who is her world, with whom she has fallen in love twice—in order to be friends with him again? Is it just so Jack can come in for a hot minute? Honestly, the Jack-Joey romance brings out so much understated creativity that I love it in isolation. It’s hilarious to see the two most sensitive guys in Capeside doing that macho standoff thing in Joey’s yard. They look like particularly dumb dogs. Jack is almost too charming on his “dat” with Joey—if the show has a Mary Sue right now, it’s Jack—and the scenes between Joey and Dawson now have even more tension coursing through them. But as a piece of the larger narrative, Joey's romantic life feels pretty arbitrary. No wonder it feels that way to Dawson.
The other subplots are equally unimpressive. Pacey helps Ms. McPhee when she has a break at the grocery store, because we had no idea that Pacey is kind of awesome and that he and Andie are great together. And Dawson goes to a party so he can judge Jen. Chris was just about to have a three-way with Jen and some guy, which makes perfect sense, and in barges Dawson to carry Jen out. Paternalism in friendship would make an amazing episode, especially on such an opinionated show as Dawson’s Creek. So would the stated idea that Dawson and Jen are the saddest characters on the show. But there’s no nuance here, no exploration. Dawson and his quiet, condescending baby voice are right, and Jen and her unbuttoned shirt and damaged expression are wrong. If the vomit weren’t a comedy cue, this review would be a lot angrier. There’s nothing reluctant about Dawson’s ostensible heroism. Again, what is the point of this plot? If it’s so intent on side-stepping the thematic implications, the least it could do is find something new in the teen-drama version of misery porn.
Fortunately, the actors and the writers have found a nice groove. Even Chris, who invites Jen to his party, and then glances at Dawson without saying anything as he wheels around. Ignoring Dawson, which is often a healthy way to watch, the Jack-Joey scenes are pretty fun, too. The way he says, “Oh, well then, get over it already,” is such unexpected ribbing coming from Jack. And it will never feel redundant to see Pacey gain self-esteem. At the end of the episode, he wants to go up to Andie’s room. She asks, “What did you have in mind?” And with an adorable straight face, Pacey says, “What do you think? I’ve still got three chapters to read.” It’s great that “The Reluctant Hero” lets Pacey live up to his potential, but it wastes so much of its own.
- Another Movie Night sans Joey: Pacey and Dawson watch Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. He complains about it being black-and-white, but I thought he was down with that in season one? Joey was the one who complained about old movies being too romantic, right?
- Dawson won the Boston Film Festival juror’s prize for best short film in the junior division! Why wasn’t that an episode? Wouldn’t Dawson want to be there?
- More adults on this show really hating the kids: Pacey’s counselor gloats about how Pacey “failed” his career aptitude test.
- Dawson mumble-considers his options in front of Jen: “Let’s see, we’ve got script-writing career advancement on one side, useless drunk oblivion on the other. It’s a tough call.” So she gets all defensive and tells him not to judge her, and he says with minimum effort, “I didn’t say a word, Jen.” Why does anyone like Dawson?
- Correct me if I’m wrong, but “The Reluctant Hero” marks the first episode in season two to feature Dawson’s baby-voice, Joey’s half-smile, Jen’s lip-bite, and Pacey’s mumbling. It’s the grand slam of annoying performance.
- Joey says, “You know, Jack, you do have a certain charm. But don’t worry, I’m gonna ignore it and hang out with you anyway.”
Next week: Just “The Election,” in which Andie runs for student council president.