In a line that sums up at least a few of the things that are wrong with the new year's most anticipated show, Dawson's Creek, one character says to the blond boy-bombshell hero, ''Dawson, fasten your seat belt -- it's going to be a bumpy life.'' The All About Eve reference -- a camp quip rendered tired and trite from overuse -- is all wrong for the tone of this new drama, a teen soap opera that wants to be equally fresh, earnest, and hip.
In fact, tone is a distinct problem in this show. In another episode, 15-year-old Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek) is moping around his ritzy Boston-suburb house, and his mom (Mary-Margaret Humes), in an attempt to ask what's wrong, has to take a deep breath to deliver this clunker: ''You've never been good at disguising that look of preoccupation you get when something's bothering you.'' Given that Dawson's Creek is a series from the laptop of the hottest young screenwriter in Hollywood, Kevin Williamson (the Screams, I Know What You Did Last Summer), dialogue like that is a big red warning flag that something is amiss. All the knowing pop-culture self-consciousness that has made Williamson's horror flicks so refreshing too often proves a didactic drag here.
Dawson is the starry-eyed center of Creek, a dreamy, sensitive soul whose motto is ''I reject reality.'' An aspiring filmmaker, his ambition is to make sensitive-soul movies in the manner of his hero, Steven Spielberg. (In interviews, Williamson has said he wants to make films like his hero, John Hughes. Hmmm: One career leads to Amistad; the other to Curly Sue -- this could be that rare example of a fictional character having better taste than his creator.) Van Der Beek has handsome features attached to a face shaped like a cereal box. (He's an ideal television actor: all talking head.) His Dawson is puppy-dog enthusiastic about filmmaking and horndog hot for girl next door Jen (Michelle Williams), a sloe-eyed blond who favors loose sundresses.
Dawson also has two best pals. There's Joey (The Ice Storm's Katie Holmes), a darkly pretty tomboy who climbs through Dawson's bedroom window to talk Jaws production stories 'til dawn. And Pacey (Joshua Jackson), an amiable, mumbly shlub with caterpillar eyebrows who, in the show's least believable plotline, is making it with his hotsy fortysomething English teacher (Leann Hunley). As an ensemble, the actors are engagingly loose-limbed, but Holmes is the standout, clearly capable of more complex emotions than Williamson has given her sidekick character so far.
Much has been written about Creek's sexual frankness, without giving Williamson credit for the cagey way he's found to be naughty enough for some ratings-grabbing controversy: He flips convention, making the teens the thoughtful moral arbiters and the grown-ups either clueless bluenoses or reckless bed bunnies. And one of the better things about the show is that it's not afraid to make its young protagonists look the self-absorbed hypocrites teens can so often be. Jen, for example, literally sneers at her grandmother for the old lady's discomfort at saying the word ''penis,'' yet when she wants to discuss boy-toy equipment, she asks coyly, ''Do you think Dawson has a pistol or a rifle?'' Ol' Grams should take a shotgun to Jen the next time that little wench sasses her.
A good soap needs layers of thick, juicy subplots -- Party of Five certainly knows how to stack 'em up -- yet Creek is parched in this area. There's Dawson's wooing of Jen, and Pacey's extracurricular activities. The only other prominent story line is about Dawson's mother cheating on his dad (John Wesley Shipp). Small cast, few plots -- Williamson may have been trying for intimacy, but there's a clammy constriction to Dawson's Creek that could prevent viewers from warming up to it. The WB thinks Creek is an ideal match with Buffy the Vampire Slayer as its lead-in, but I'm not so sure. Buffy revs up its fans with wisecracking, full-blooded vivacious teens; they make the Creek crew seem a little poky. (The net has said it welcomes whatever viewer-luring controversy its sexual themes attract; in that case, it might have done better to pair Creek with its other family drama, the moralistic-in-a-different-way 7th Heaven.)
In any case, Dawson's Creek needs less cleverness and more emotional spark. As the 16-year-old in my house said after watching three episodes, ''It's like My So-Called Life without the life.'' C
THE WB Dawson's Creek 9-10 PM TUESDAYS