With the book Life: The Movie, cultural critic Neal Gabler a few years back offered a thesis that is, well, entertaining. He provided a probing look at political phenomena like Ronald Reagan, made cutting comments about cultural curiosities like John Wayne Bobbitt, and documented the merging of entertainment and reality. Or, more precisely, entertainment's overtaking reality.
"It is not any ism but entertainment that is arguably the most pervasive, powerful, and ineluctable force of our time--a force so overwhelming that it has finally metastasized into life," he wrote. The modern state of grace, then, is celebrity--"the condition in the life movie to which nearly everyone aspires."
All of which brings us to the logical end point of Gabler's speculations: the conviction that nearly everyone on a college campus aspires to be a character in Dawson's Creek, the television show, which enjoys the highest ratings of any show in its demographic of twelve-to twenty-four-year-olds. (It's also the biggest hit for the young-at-heart WB network.) Dawson's began several seasons ago with a focus on high-school students beginning their angst-ridden years. Now it's progressed to a show about post-adolescents beginning their college years. Of course, there is nothing more angst-deepening--with the possible exception of high school--than college.
And there is no college quite like Worthington University, where a key player in the Dawson's cast, Joey, is a very confused freshman living in a very big dorm room. Joey's chief curricular pursuit seems to be creative writing; her chief extracurricular pursuit seems to be her creative-writing professor. His demeanor is more libertine than genuine. But Worthington itself isn't genuine. The fake Worthington happens to be the real Duke University, where the show started filming last summer.
Like legions of prospective students, the show's location scouts saw Duke as a sort of cinematic ideal: This campus has star quality projecting from every Neo-Gothic spire. On the Dawson's website, a producer rhapsodizes about grabbing "some amazing footage of the fall foliage on the Duke campus." Even more amazing than that foliage footage is "the excitement in the air" when the crew shifts to Duke from its Wilmington, North Carolina, filming base. It's "almost akin to the day of a Duke basketball game," claims the producer. Basketball or Dawson's--that's entertainment.
On one episode this season, a pondering Dawson spoke this ponderous line: "Maybe it's true what they say about our generation. We've all grown up immune to the media." Immune to the media? Fixated on the media is more like it.
In its visits to campus, Dawson's has employed dozens of extras, college students who are paid to act the part of college students. They've spent time being herded, walking a short distance, wearing earnest expressions, and engaging in affable small talk. Then they've spent more time being herded, walking a short distance, wearing earnest expressions, and engaging in affable small talk. All of that is for the privilege of serving as a backdrop (and for a hundred dollars for a day's drudgerous labor). During a December shoot, just after the exam period, one student was worried because she had forgotten her student-identifying prop--a textbook.
The show even spurred a course, Film and Video 111T, a fall seminar on the subject of episodic television. Its instructor was Josh Gibson '95. Gibson says he's not an avid TV watcher and that his students don't "necessarily embrace Dawson's." But the show is a useful point of departure for exploring the art form. And he says the show's premise has a clear appeal to its audience: A close-knit cluster of young people from a small town, and from more-or-less dysfunctional family circumstances, grow up, disperse, and struggle to remain close. For one assignment, the seminar students re-edited a Dawson's segment to present a character in a "subversive" manner, even with a science-fiction veneer. For another, they interviewed viewers and plunged into websites in an investigation of "fan culture."
For their part, the seminar students said they identify with the Dawson's characters; those characters are given sometimes "sappy" portrayals, but they're smart. How nice it is to be young and smart, and how unusual it is to find that combination in TV representations. As one student put it, the Dawson's kids talk to each other about issues that real-life parents ought to be talking about with their real-life kids.
The course culminated in a field trip to Screen Gems Studio in Wilmington. There, the students were treated to some Dawson's filming, prompting the comment that the routine--multiple takes for even minimal segments--is "repetitive" and "kind of boring," but that the actors "have the best snack food." They went on to meet the production team, tour through the wardrobe department (where one student asked the coordinator, "Can I have your job?"), and watch a props person gleefully shatter a $20 fake shot glass on the head of one of their surprised peers. And they learned about the serious advantages of product placement, an arrangement that helps fund those $20 fake shot glasses.
Just beyond the studio is a former nursing home that's been transformed for Dawson's into a fraternity house. The fake frat is stuffed with athletic trophies, a jukebox, a set of World Book encyclopedias, old National Geographic magazines, and a knight's helmet. On the walls, there are composites of past classes in their powder-blue tuxes, and a plaque of fraternity greats that carries the names of John Travolta, Elton John, and Tom Petty. It was realer than real. "This is the nicest fraternity bar I've ever seen," said one admiring student.
But the students were especially enamored of the studio set that represents a Duke—that is, a Worthington—dorm corridor and dorm room. The fake Neo-Gothic arches and windows are faithful to the vision of twentieth-century campus planners; those planners were themselves, of course, feeding off a rather distant architectural tradition. The room has those basic freshman accouterments: R.E.M. and Red Hot Chili Peppers CDs, a "Women on the Rise" poster, and some academic tomes, along with the somewhat out-of-context book, How to Survive a Blind Date. It looks out on a huge canvas-backed digitized image of Duke's main West Campus quad. Through appropriate lighting, the scene beyond the room can be turned into quad at dawn or quad at twilight. Someone pronounced it "the most attractive backdrop ever." More succinctly, a student said, "This is so weird."
Weird, but inviting. On the Dawson's website, the production designer says he was aiming to create "the most idealistic dorm room anyone had ever seen"; people should "see this dorm and wish that they could attend the college." In researching real-life dorm details, the crew realized that "even at prestigious schools like Duke and Harvard, the dorms were still tiny little rooms with very utilitarian hallways. So reality kind of took a back seat, which freed us to create a very warm, yet semi-imposing space."
The reality on the show is that Dawson is drawn to filmmaking--nothing self-referential there--and he isn't a great college success story on the West Coast. But if college is all about role-playing, it can be a great ride. As Dawson observes in a recent episode, "I love college. It's like going to a French movie." Back on the East Coast, the creative-writing professor has a more limited view of the worth of Worthington: He describes the place as "a progressive if over-priced liberal-arts college." Sometimes those creative types are just too cynical about reality.
Is there a history to unreality? The fictional Worthington University has a real website worthy of a progressive, over-priced, fake institution. Worthington's case for itself proves that history belongs to those who can fake it best: "When Worthington University opened its doors in September 1787, it had forty-eight students and a faculty consisting of its founder and president, Josiah Worthington, three professors, and one tutor. Today Worthington offers instruction in forty-one departments and programs and fifty major fields of study and awards the bachelor of arts and graduate degrees." (One wonders what's happened to the bachelor of science degree.)
There's an "ongoing faculty" of "more than 280," which is to be preferred to a retreating faculty of 280. The library houses "Sarah Ashford Worthington's impressive collection of Americana"--perhaps extending to teacups and television scripts.
Admission is, of course, competitive: Applicants must possess "intellectual talent, mental discipline, and imagination." One might imagine, getting to the basics, that good looks would be a more reliable ticket into Worthington.
On the studio tour, someone asked actress Katie Holmes, who plays Joey, that smart and serious Worthington freshman inhabiting the designer dorm room, whether she'd like to be a student at Duke--or Worthington, if there's any meaningful difference. She said it would be "too stressful." That doesn't sound very entertaining. But for the Dawson's denizens, there's the weekly encounter with campus life the way it should have been and never quite was. Is Worthington a worthless fantasy? Not at all--certainly not for those who would be slow to let go of their genuine Worthington T-shirts.