The Kids Are Alright -- `Dawson's Creek' Frankly, Lovingly Presents Teen Coming Of Age

PASADENA - Its cast has already been on the cover of "TV Guide." Its creator and executive producer, Kevin Williamson, is a hot Hollywood property after penning "Scream," "Scream 2" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer." Executives at The WB are hoping it does for their network what "The Simpsons" did for Fox.

Can we go to the tape, please?

Tomorrow night at 9, "Dawson's Creek" finally will debut. It should bear a warning: "The following drama contains adolescent situations in which a group of friends frankly discuss sex, love, parents and the future. This show may offend viewers who prefer to think of teenagers as sheltered naifs or horny monsters."

Emotionally provocative and beautifully written, "Dawson's Creek" simply is the best show of the 1997-98 season. It may prove to be the best coming-of-age series ever done on television; certainly, it belongs in that too-small pantheon of "My So-Called Life," "James at 15" and to a lesser extent, "Party of Five" and "Doogie Howser, M.D."

But you're probably more interested in the opening episode than in the test of time.

Set in the mythical Massachusetts town of Capeside, "Dawson's Creek" introduces us to four key players as they enter their sophomore year of high school. Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek) is an only child, blessed with good looks and an intellectual precocity that his emotional experience hasn't caught up to yet.

His lifelong best friend, Joey (Katie Holmes), has a more problematic life. Her mother is dead, her father is in jail and her older sister lives in unwedded bliss with her boyfriend.

Joey is the practical ballast to Dawson's untethered idealism. In the opening scene, she prepares to leave his bedroom after they've finished watching the movie "E.T." (Dawson is an aspiring film director and Spielberg devotee.)

Startled, Dawson asks where she's going. Joey patiently explains that they're getting too old to sleep over, that it's a only a matter of time before their hormones kick in and that she just wants to "contain the fallout."

They argue back and forth, with the slow-dawning knowledge that no matter what they decide that night, the discussion itself has begun to alter their relationship. "Why'd you have to bring this up, anyway?" says Dawson.

Note: When "Dawson's Creek" was previewed to television critics, some found it highly improbable that even intelligent, somewhat self-aware teenagers could sleep together without having sex. If that's also your belief, you can stop watching and go back to the reassuring world of "Beverly Hills, 90210."

Sex does come to "Dawson's Creek." However, it is a vehicle of sometimes painful self-discovery rather than the banal TV package of candlelight, soft focus and you-got-a-condom pseudo-responsibility.

Which brings us to the other two main characters: Dawson's friend, the sardonic and romantically underachieving Pacey (Joshua Jackson) and Jen (Michelle Williams), a beautiful newcomer from New York City whom Dawson instantly - and naively - enshrines in his romantic imagination as the perfect girl.

The story line in "Dawson's Creek" most likely to generate controversy begins as a clumsy flirtation between Pacey and his English teacher. Following a funny encounter replete with arch references to "The Graduate" and "Summer of '42," Pacey seems to get the wrong idea and thoroughly humiliates himself in front of her.

To save face, he lashes out. "The truth is," he starts, "You're a beautiful knock-out of a woman who's just a little scared of turning 40. . ." The ensuing pivotal speech could knock out a few 40-year-olds in the television audience.

As you may have surmised, this series' throw weight lies with its characters, whom the talented cast serve well. Actions derive from complex personalities rather than from superimposed crises, giving "Dawson's Creek" a leg up on the situation-driven "Party of Five." The show also has a moral point of view that reflects the potential conflicts between adolescents of the '90s and their parents, who were raised in the self-absorbed '70s.

The dialogue is superb, though some may find it occasionally too witty and well-informed to be issuing from the mouths of 15-year-olds. Still, that factor is likely to help attract older viewers as well as the 12 to 18 audience "Dawson's Creek" is meant to court. Williamson is a master at capturing the sounds and sensibilities of hopeful teenagers living in a cynical age; he excels here with material that he has said is largely autobiographical.

Finally, the show has heart - a rare sincerity manifested in respect for the characters and for the at-home viewer. With its sharp-eyed, loving exploration of that age when we are smart but not yet wise, "Dawson's Creek" proves youth is not wasted on the young.