A look back at the loves, longings and legacy of 'Dawson's Creek' on its 25th anniversary

"Edge is fleeting, heart lasts forever." 25 years later, one editor looks back on the loves, longings and legacy of 'Dawson's Creek'

A compilation of stills from Dawson's Creek on nostalgic polaroid, camera film and PC video player templates on a purple and pink background
(Image credit: Future/Alamy/Getty)

With all of the non-stop, world-shifting change of the past few years—you know, global pandemics, climate change, political strife, the usual—it's no shock that we've all been seeking solace in nostalgia lately, looking back to those simple days of the nineties and noughties when the biggest drama in your life was you not being placed in the same homeroom as your crush, or your BFF loving the same member of NSYNC as you. And it's not just millennials who seek nostalgia because they want to re-live the simpler times, but research shows that Gen-Z does it, too, because they wish they'd lived through those simpler times. Our School Daze series is doing just that: each day, an editor will wax nostalgic about the one high school show that shaped their teenagehood then and acts as a televisual comfort food now.

It was the infamous night that Pacey Witter lost his virginity. It was 25 years ago, in February 1998. I was eight years old, way too young to be watching most of the primetime programming on the WB—that generation-defining network that gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, and ill-conceived notions of what high school boys would be like—but definitely too precocious for Dawson's Creek

Dawson's was one of my back-button shows—you know, the TV shows you'd watch with your thumb hovering anxiously over the "back" button on the remote so that, should a parent barge into your room without knocking (hi, mom), you'd immediately be taken back to the safer, G-rated waters of a Nick at Nite I Love Lucy re-run. Yes, my grammar-school-aged self was years younger than my onscreen friends Dawson Leery, Joey Potter, Pacey Witter and Jen Lindley, but I was only a few months short of getting my period for the first time—again, way too young for such activities—and being instantly thrust into the humiliating, hormonal, hilarious mess of growing up. 

On this night of Pacey's deflowering, scandalously at the hands of his twice-his-age teacher, Ms. Tamara Jacobs—that would be season one, episode three, entitled "Kiss" in case you want a rewatch—I was sleeping over at the babysitter's house with my sister and the sitter's three young sons. We were piled into a room with basketball paraphernalia and Disney bedsheets and, being that I couldn't miss a single moment of my favorite show, I forced everyone to have a secret, closed-door viewing of that night's episode on the room's small, VCR-built-in TV. 

Of course, moms being moms, the sitter's Spidey senses tingled and, realizing that five kids all weren't making a ruckus for more than two minutes straight, she indeed barged through the door, caught us and our tawdry TV screening, and, understandably, freaked out and told my mom what we were watching. It was the first time I can remember the fear of getting in real trouble for something I did. It was also the first time I experienced the sheer thrill of getting in real trouble for something I did. 

Yes, I knew watching Dawson's Creek—with its "parental discretion advised" warning before every episode—at such a young age was wrong. But I was also learning the very teenage sensation that wrong felt kind of good every once in a while. 

Michelle Williams And James Van Der Beek Of "Dawson's Creek"

(Image credit: Getty)

Now, watching the show back (and you best believe I did a big old marathon for our teen TV week), the happenings of Capeside High look admittedly wholesome in the glare of shinier new teen shows like Euphoria, Sex Education and the Gossip Girl reboot. But so much of the teen TV genre—hell, so much of what we think about high school as a whole—wouldn't be the same had Joey Potter not climbed through Dawson Leery's window all those years ago.

You wouldn't have the love triangles of Riverdale, Never Have I Ever or The Vampire Diaries without the soapy Dawson-Joey-Pacey storyline. Without Joey Potter, you wouldn't have Rory Gilmore, Liz Parker or Haley James. Without Jen Lindley, you wouldn't have Marissa Cooper or Serena van der Woodsen. You wouldn't have Eric Effiong, Victor Salazar or the Heartstopper lads without Jack McPhee—the list goes on and on.

I entered high school months after the final episode of Dawson's Creek aired. And truthfully, the tales of Dawson, his friends and his epic cry face wouldn't be mirrored much in my own life—my parents graciously never dealt drugs out of the back of the family business, my nights of underage drinking with friends thankfully never ended with anyone drowning in a creek, and I never was on the receiving end of the single most romantic gesture from an emotionally intelligent teenage boy (being bought a wall, obviously). 

But the sentiments shared by the characters—those first-love aches, the identity searching, the hormonal hijinks, the classroom anxieties—did, and not just for me. The baked-in nostalgia of the show, loosely based on creator Kevin Williamson's own coming of age, made it so that despite the overt nineties-ness of it all (so. many. crewneck. sweaters), Dawson's Creek feels like high school, for everyone, forever. 

“Why are we so quick to forget the bad and romanticize the good?” Joey asks herself in one of the show's final episodes. “Maybe it’s because we need to believe that the time we spent together actually meant something, that we were there for each other in a time in our lives that defined us all, a time in our lives that we will never forget. I can’t swear this is exactly how it happened. But this is how it felt.”

You can stream Dawson's Creek on HBO Max or Hulu Plus.

Christina Izzo

Christina Izzo is the Deputy Editor of My Imperfect Life. 

More generally, she is a writer-editor covering food and drink, travel, lifestyle and culture in New York City. She was previously the Features Editor at Rachael Ray In Season and Reveal, as well as the Food & Drink Editor and chief restaurant critic at Time Out New York

When she’s not doing all that, she can probably be found eating cheese somewhere.