It became one of the 1990s most iconic television series, but the idea for Dawson’s Creek was born when showrunner Kevin Williamson was put on the spot by television executive Paul Stupin asking if he had any ideas for a television production.
Fresh off the success of his screenplay for the hit horror movie Scream, Williamson decided to head in a new direction and came up with the idea of a teen series based on his own youth spent growing up near a North Carolina creek.
Stupin liked the idea enough to have Williamson pitch it to Columbia TriStar Television, and within a day Williamson had written a 20-page outline for Dawson’s Creek. He pitched the show as “Some Kind of Wonderful, meets Pump Up the Volume, meets James at 15, meets My So-Called Life, meets Little House on the Prairie,” and insisted that it speak to the teenage audience of the day.
After Fox decided to pass on the show after seeing Party of Five struggle in its ratings, Dawson’s Creek would find a home on the newly launched WB network.
The show’s lead stars were mostly unknown prior to being cast in Dawson’s Creek. Joshua Jackson starred in The Mighty Ducks and was initially considered for the role of Dawson, but Williamson felt that his good looks would not fit the geeky underdog role he envisioned for the titular character and gave him the part of his best friend Pacey Witter.
James van der Beek was a regular off-broadway performer, and sent in a video tape audition that impressed the showrunners with his cerebral and nervous personality. Van der Beek beat out Charlie Hunnam, Adrian Grenier, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Scott Speedman for the role.
Selma Blair was nearly cast in the role of Dawson’s female best friend Joey Potter, until an audition tape from high school student Katie Holmes stunned Williamson, and she was called in to meet in person. She insisted on finishing her high school play first, but after two weeks flew to Los Angeles and secured the part.
Michelle Williams had only appeared in a few low-budget films and commercials. She auditioned with a heartfelt scene in which her character Jen Lindely visits her dying grandfather. Williams beat Katherine Heigl for the role.
Premiering its first episode on January 20th 1998, Dawson’s Creek earned mediocre ratings for its first two seasons, but performed well with younger audiences. It was bolstered with the addition of its controversial “love triangle” storyline, and would ultimately run for six seasons.
The show launched the careers of its its lead cast, with all of them going on to star in a multitude of major movies of television series. Despite having the least screen time of the four lead roles, Michelle Williams would become an acclaimed actor, and has since earned two Golden Globe Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award, and nominations for four Academy Awards and one Tony Award.
Dawson’s Creek would earn accolades for its frank portrayal of teenage issues, including being one of the first shows to feature a gay character, and is even credited with the first on-screen kiss between two men.
The show is credited with ushering in a new era of young-adult television. After the success of Dawson’s Creek, shows like The OC and One Tree Hill would carry the torch of melodramatic teenage dramas.