The numbers don’t lie. Teens are the next darling demo. It seems that, by the early `80s, their parents, the boomers, were having kids in record numbers and continued to do so well into the `90s. This is not a group to ignore. As with their ubiquitous boomer parents, whatever this group thinks is hot will be really hot. This month, ‘TeenScreen’ checks out which celebrities they are worshiping, what sports leagues are doing to attract them, as well as a profile of a daring new one-hour teen drama on WB that depicts teenage life as it really is.
* * *
Grabbing the attention of the teen demographic is simple, in some respects. In the horror genre, a slight twist on the classic slasher film-heavy on suspense, babes like Neve, Drew and Courteney screaming bloody murder and a cranked up post-grunge soundtrack-reels `em in from malls near and far. Another tried and true recipe is the arch, trendy soap opera format, namely Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place, which transport the pimples and first-kiss crowd away from their own, less glamorous problems to those of the rich and surgically enhanced. As cynical as these formulas may seem, there’s no denying that when a genre hits with teens, it hits big.
Enter Dawson’s Creek, a new one-hour drama on WB, which ventures off the beaten track to zero in on teens. The 9 p.m. Tuesday night series, debuting January 20, has generated a flurry of advance buzz, largely due to its daring new take on the coming of age drama. Dawson’s Creek’s secret formula? Sincerity and honesty, believe it or not.
‘I think it definitely conveys a sense of honesty, portraying what they talk about-the real emotions of teens-things adults also feel,’ says Paul Stupin, who shares Dawson’s Creek’s executive producer credits with the series’ scribe Kevin Williamson (who also penned Scream and Scream 2) and Charles Rosin. Unlike Williamson’s feature work, the show’s strikingly earnest approach features hyperrealistic dialogue that picks up where Claire Danes’ sensitive My So-Called Life left off, chronicling, above all, the angst of the not-quite-grown-up set. The latter series, pulled after one season on ABC for reasons the network never fully explained, is now a hit in reruns on MTV, where it airs weeknights at 7 p.m. A spokesperson for the network explained, ‘Teens are just crazy about the show. They have it memorized word for word.’
Dawson’s Creek has also met with challenges at the network, even before its broadcast debut. When the press first screened the series last spring, an uproar about the amount of sex on the series caused it to be moved to a later time slot, presumably in order to keep its racy content away from the younger demographic. ‘We try to balance off what may be considered the racier aspects of the show with kids just talking about it-really coming to terms with sex,’ says Stupin.
Indeed, producers are banking on the possibility that naked depiction of teenage angst equals good drama-and not just for teens. ‘There’s a certain universal appeal to subjects like what really is going on on the first date. The first real attraction-everyone remembers that point in their life even if it was five, 10 or 20 years ago,’ says Stupin. Even though the show is intimately focused on characters age 14 to 16, it is not without cross-generational appeal, according to producers. ‘If you examine the life of a teenager, you see some of the same fundamental issues of adults, like `What should I ask her?’ and `Why hasn’t she called?”
Of course, the fact that the series was penned by a screenwriter who’s been dubbed ‘The bard of Gen-Y’ and whose feature Scream became one of the hottest films of last year has contributed to the buzz. Williamson wrote the first pilot script, the second script and a number of others for the series, modeling the lead character, Dawson, after his own teenage years growing up on the outskirts of L.A. But what’s most likely to cause a buzz among parents is the way characters in the series voice what teens are really thinking, but in real life may be afraid to say.
‘We’re really lucky Kevin Williamson created such a brilliant script,’ says Stupin. ‘I think what we’re trying to do is honestly depict the kinds of conversations that kids have. But sometimes our kids talk like 30-year-olds,’ he admits. Having grown up in the self-help, psycho-babble `80s, teens on the show and in real life are very self aware, Stupin notes.
‘Emotionally, sex is a big part of teenage life. We set out to do an honest show, and sex is certainly a whole lot of what they talk about,’ says Stupin. For instance, Dawson and his dad have a confrontation over Dawson’s belief in abstinence, with Dawson saying there’s no sex in a Steven Spielberg movie (Spielberg is Dawson’s hero). Another storyline deals with marital difficulties between Dawson’s mom and dad, told through Dawson’s eyes. ‘[The show] looks at how this impacts, alters and refocuses his own personal life-how he copes with parts of life that are not idealistic,’ says Stupin. ‘Things that are not part of a Spielberg movie. The key is that Dawson is idealistic, and when he looks at life, there’s friction and sparks as he reconciles that idealism with things not always as neatly resolved.’
The romantic focus of the show is Dawson’s involvement with the girl next door, which is also something of a rude awakening. ‘He has an image of who this girl is,’ says Stupin. ‘It turns out she’s not as idealized, not on the pedestal he put her on. People are human.’
Perhaps the show’s most controversial storyline centers around a school teacher who has an affair with Dawson’s best friend, Casey. ‘This sets up the expectation where you think at the end she is going to blow him off. It’s a surprise when the situation reverses and Casey confronts [the teacher], revealing that both of them are in a situation that’s way over their heads.’ While risquž in content, according to Stupin, ‘the conflict is resolved in a way that emphasizes that such relationships are wrong.
‘Again, it’s a universal issue. Everyone at one point had a crush on a teacher, this just pushes it to see how it effects the character when something like that actually happens. Ultimately, both characters pay the price for it. It doesn’t resolve neatly,’ says Stupin.
‘It’s the kind of story that we’re intrigued by-unexpected, fresh and interesting,’ Stupin notes. Shying away from touchy subjects like these would be a mistake, he adds. ‘If you say you’re going to do a teen show and are going to make it honest, that means you have to deal with the fact that they’re feeling a lot of things. Sex is one of them. If you don’t pander to [teens] but respect them, you’re going to end up with the kind of drama any network would be proud to have on the air,’ he adds.
‘It’s not like we’re deliberately trying to take risks. We just want to keep the story fresh and unpredictable. We’re coming along at a good time. Kevin has brought new life to the teen genre.’