That creek though. OK, I didn’t care too much about the creek – the only body of water I was familiar with during my teens was the London Thames, and it wasn’t a place you took a gentle swim in, unless you had decided to give up on life that day. No, it wasn’t the creek in Massachusetts that moved me, but the love triangles surrounding it.
From 1998 to 2003 I would sit for what felt like hours (probably only forty minutes a week actually) watching a show full of hyperbole, dramatic heartbreak, and hyper-intellectual but convoluted dialogue from teenagers. I did not have that same vocabulary; no one I knew did, especially not my friends. Yet still, this show spoke to me. And I didn’t completely know why at the time.
It definitely was not about seeing myself physically represented – there were approximately three black characters in the whole series: Joey’s brother-in-law (played by Ode Ndefo), Dawson’s film geek nemesis (Bianca Lawson) and her principal father, played by TV legend Obba Babatundé. Joey’s brother-in-law was a recurring character who appeared about five times throughout the whole series. He was talked about a lot but his absence did feed into absent-black-father tropes a little, even if he was supposed to be “off working”. To be honest, my biggest issue with him as a character was that his name was Bodie.
So although the main characters looked nothing like me, I too was a tween/teenager, and thus everything they went through felt personal to me. And most of all, I just wanted to be Joey. It wasn’t because I was crushing on Dawson (he was always just a tad too whiny for my taste). Nor did I have the ability to be lowkey shady like she was, but still, I loved the idea she represented. Girl Next Door/ Across the Creek, coming into her own as a heart-breaker, unassuming and whip smart with big life potential. Plus she was in love with her best friend and I strongly identified with that storyline. I didn’t have a male best friend that I was in love with, but that was really not the point. It was simply about being the girl who is looked at differently one day; the she’s-been-here-all-along-but-I-never-really-saw-her-until-now girl.
I wanted to be that girl for someone, and I mean, didn’t we all? It was very of the era too (see: She’s All That, Ten Things I Hate About You, The OC and One Tree Hill, to name a few). Plus, the bonus of falling in love with your best friend, the one who knows you the best; I think that’s pretty much everyone’s dream in general, when it works.
It was naive to say the least, but I would try to reenact that storyline in my own life well into my teens and “adult years” (I use quotation marks here because there is nothing grown up about trying to live a storyline of a teen show). One particular scenario when I was between 16 and 18, involved me making friends with and then pining after a boy who was not as enamoured with the friends-to-lovers storyline as I was. He was instead much more interested in getting into the pants of my best girlfriend at the time, so although it didn’t go the way I wanted it to, I still got to indulge in some good old fashioned teen drama.
And then I discovered the other side of the romantic friends trope: enemies-to-friends-to-lovers, in the shape of Joey and Pacey.
Pacey was the underdog of the show; scrappy, intelligent, with a big heart and an even bigger lack of faith in himself. He only pulled himself up to succeed when a strong woman was involved (his teacher – dodgy, his first girlfriend Andy, and then finally, Joey). Joey however, managed to bring out the best and worst in him, because he loved her so much. That was when I most wanted to be her. Aren’t the greatest love stories the ones where only the object of your affection has the power to destroy you fully, but they don’t, which stupidly makes you love them more? No? Just me? Whatever. I loved Pacey a.k.a. Joshua Jackson.
I had a major crush on Joshua Jackson, way before The Affair and before everyone else was wising up to his hotness potential. My crush is decades old, from way back when he dunked his head in bleach and made an attempt at playing a gay teenager in Cruel Intentions (side note: Sarah Michelle Gellar’s finest role if you ask me). But as Pacey, he was the ultimate. Cute but flawed, sometimes suffering from acne like I did in my early teens, and he had a fraught relationship with his parents, specifically his father. He was raised to believe he wouldn’t amount to much, but then Joey came into view. He had bickered with her for most of his life and suddenly she was all he could think about.
Here’s an embarrassing confession; I have the box set of the show now and re-watching as an adult, I would try and pinpoint the moment he fell in love with her, as if it were a simple formula I could later replicate. But to the writers credits, there is only the moment he realises, which is then revealed to the audience as him watching her sleep, after another character makes reference to that being one of their own markers for loving someone. It’s a nice scene if that kind of thing doesn’t creep you out.
Anyway, the reasons why Pacey was pretty much the perfect guy (for Joey, for me, whatever) are obvious. He patiently teaches her how to drive. He saves her family’s B&B. He picks her up after she breaks up with her college boyfriend and is stranded in the middle of the night. He’s basically the friend that drives you to the airport at the last minute but gives you shit about not arranging alternative transport the whole way there. Not to mention she lost her virginity to him after NINE MONTHS of no sex as a teenage couple, which had nothing to do with a religious promise or future plans for marriage. He just waited until she was ready, and even then, she initiated it. I know, we really shouldn’t congratulate men for doing what they’re supposed to do, but we’ve all been teenagers and hormones don’t often come with a lot of sense.
So Pacey was awesome and he never bragged about it because it was just how he was, plus he didn’t think much of himself. But boy could he love you. He was the underdog of my dreams; giving too much of himself and then blaming himself when it didn’t work out. In fact in a lot of ways I identified with Pacey. I didn’t have a car or a boat, but we were basically the same person. Joey very quickly became the centre of attention after going unnoticed for so long, but as a teenager that was just never my story. Pacey on the other hand, only thought something of himself when someone else did, and I was the same.
I think most of my teen years were spent sitting quietly in the corner, waiting patiently for someone to tell me how great I was and that it was OK to step into the light. Which explains why back then, I coveted any attention I received from boys, even the ones I had had zero feelings for up until that moment. I was forever wondering; could this be my Pacey? Could I be his Joey? Not necessarily the most healthy.
Childish fantasies aside though, Joey and Pacey’s relationship was the first on screen romance I had followed and watched progress (not counting Ross and Rachel in Friends because I was not yet old enough to fully understand the jokes and tension in their “adult relationship”), and their interactions gave me a hearty dose of what I saw as reality. Apparently Disney was a big fat liar, and happily ever after was not waiting for all of us when we finally found love. In fact, sometimes love just wasn’t enough.
The episode where Joey and Pacey break up after he yells at her because secretly he’s frustrated about the different directions their futures are inevitably going to take, broke my heart. Plus, they were at the prom ON A BOAT which in my view, is an act of violence by the prom coordinators. But Pacey was frustrated and I remember watching and thinking “What are you doing? You’re meant to be!”
And even though I had to wait another two seasons for it, in the very end, Joey chooses Pacey (this isn’t a spoiler; the show has been over for 15 years, get it together). All was right in the world I felt, and I would have been pissed if she had chosen Dawson. Plus, I grew up alongside this show, and I cared about what happened to the characters, even if it was just a story. And it was my first real experience of watching character development, which would later help my own writing.
The girl next door wasn’t real – Joey moved out, went to college, lived in France and became much more than just the object of someone’s affection. Dawson chased his own dreams and made a career out of his teenage self obsession by making a TV show about it (I know meta, possibly lazy writing, whatever). And Pacey, well, Pacey struggled a lot – he found his calling as a chef, then he lost it, then he was a Wolf of Wall Street type, then he lost all of his money, and then he was a restaurant owner, whilst continuing to indulge in some good old fashioned self destruction with an older married woman. But then Joey comes back into town and reminds him that he’s great all by himself. And she chooses him.
So the things that needed to change did, and the one thing – L.O.V.E – stayed the same. Joey and Pacey ended up together. And out of all the characters, as a teenager I was mostly Pacey; secretly self-destructive, emotionally complex, with a desperate need for love and an inability to handle it. But I was also smart, giving, and willing to be anyone’s friend. I wasn’t exactly the girl you fell for, but I had the potential to be.