A long time ago in November of 2000, the WB Network, the frog that would eventually lip-lock with Viacom/CBS to become toady’s CW prince, aired a particularly absorbing episode of its hit teen drama Dawson’s Creek. The episode, season 4’s “The Unusual Suspects”, begins with a mystery – a dog set on a boat afloat in Capeside High School’s indoor swimming pool. Student and staff spectators alike were in awe. Remember 2000 was a simpler time. The novelty of such a prank may be lost on an audience jaded by a fairly rough decade of war and recession, but back then, a wily Clinton was still in office and No Strings Attached was on repeat in all our discmans (“What’s an mp3?”) A boat in a pool was rightfully awe-inspiring, and the mystery and intrigue of the episode was palpable.
A little background for the episode: Pacey and Dawson, former longtime besties, are currently on the outs, due to Pacey and Joey’s, Dawson’s other bestie and perhaps crushie, recurrent habit of making out and holding hands. Jack, a jock added as a series regular along with his sister Andie barely a season prior, is a secondary character/friend and is gay, possibly closeted, maybe out, maybe not gay (Really, it was twelve very long years ago.) Jenn, the blonde, notorious Creek game changer, is significant too but not necessarily for the purposes of revisiting this particular episode.
Jack, Pacey and Dawson are immediately suspected by Principal Peskin – it was his boat and his dog in the pool – to be the most likely culprits. Specific reasons are given but it comes down simply to Pacey being the bad boy of the show, Dawson being ostensibly unlikely but having ample opportunity (and it is his Creek after all), and Jack being decided upon by the writers to be
gay important to the series’ dramatic interests. So the investigation begins. There’s traditional film noir lighting during the questioning scenes, some good cop bad cop played by the Principal and Dawson’s father, and a sequence of flashbacks narrated by each suspect. Their alibis are airtight and their testimonies touch upon a lot of the A and B plots of the series to this point. Jack spent the time in question with Jenn coaching a soccer team, where Jenn has an introspective moment or something. When Dawson is reminded of a pact he and Pacey had made in the past to pull a prank of this magnitude, he coldly reminds everyone that their friendship has ended. Pacey was making out and hand holding with Joey. (In 2000, that was definitely enough to satisfy many devoted shippers, while sending others into a frenzy. Good television, people.)
The episode culminates in the audience and Joey’s discovery that they did, in fact, do it. They pulled it off cleverly and together. Whether the answer to ‘how’ is satisfactory, the answer to ‘why’, especially for Dawson and Pacey, forces the viewer to reconsider what we know about these characters and the dynamics of the series. It’s done surprisingly well too. The temptation to force square pegs into a circular hole to generate a new story or gimmicky mystery was rightfully resisted and the squares as a result became more fleshed out people – corny, small-town New England people with complicated relationships and an affinity for boating.
Pretty Little Liars on ABC Family is certainly no Dawson’s Creek, if only for the lack of a nautical element. But in 2012, Rosewood, Pennsylvania is the best simulacrum of Capeside, Massachussets we have; Capeside circa “The Unusual Suspects” especially, when it comes to using mystery as a vehicle for plot. The death of Alison DiLaurentis, an admittedly dark start to a teen drama but comparable to Dawson’s Creek killing its own troubled blonde girl on its way out in ’03, provides the framework for similar natural character development. Surely, that wouldn’t be nearly good enough to seize an audience and PLL (as the kids call it these days) outpaces the Creek (as the kids never quite called it those days) in its cliffhangers, mysterious reveals, and also hasn’t shied away from the record for adulterous parents and the incredulous teen vocabulary battle (“Kids don’t really talk like Spencer, do they?!”) that the Creek kids once made prominent.1
Pretty Little Liars functions under the umbrella of mystery in a way consistent with what television has discovered from years of experience teens want. Remember the nerdy and awkward girl next door Josephine Potter that matured with time? Pretty Little Liars does. Remember when Pacey hooked up with a teacher? Pretty Little Liars remembers. What the mystery of A and the death of Alison add to the series is an unrelenting ‘boat in the pool’ mode that allows us to follow more closely what these characters may or may not become, without the crutch of feeling that things are as they’ve always been so they must at some point return to that. This week, we were taught to even question family makeups themselves. The reveal that Jason, Alison’s brother, is also Spencer’s brother may have been genuinely surprising to some, but more importantly, it functioned in a way that, even though distressing to Spencer, didn’t distress the PLL world. To many, the reveal probably just made sense. The weight of the news has been rippling backwards through the series for some time now. The reveal simply provided an answer, while creating a multitude of questions in the PLL fashion. (Good television, people.)
Basically, Pretty Little Liars is a damn good ride for those of us that don’t actually need to go anywhere. The comparison with Dawson’s Creek is mostly unnecessary, PLL can probably hold its own being merely compared to Gossip Girl, but is important only in that, if it holds, the gap between a generation of viewers, the space between Nielsen demos, the difference between the angst that matters and the inconsequential angst of yesteryear isn’t as large as it may seem sometime. And if Aria, Hanna, Emily and Spencer can live on screen as real persons with real drama, teen drama but real nonetheless, then maybe we won’t all be forced to grow up so quickly to gain more introspection and insight. Simply, I don’t wanna wait for our lives to be over. I want to know right now what will it be… do do do do
1Rory Gilmore being the closest competitor for the remainder of the decade.