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These Teens Skipped Over the Wonder Years

These are historic times.

ABC has a sitcom (“Ellen”) about a lesbian, CBS a sitcom (“Murphy Brown”) about a woman torturously coping with breast cancer and a drama (“Touched by an Angel”) about God, and “ER” is going to cost NBC an astounding $13 million an episode.

So what can the young, peewee WB network do to create its own distinctive, trailblazing niche in this forest of giants? Hmmmm. Are you ready?

Meet the network that’s hottest to trot.

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In other words, executive producer Kevin Williamson--and the characters he created for WB’s new “Dawson’s Creek"--could use a cold shower.

Williamson and WB are collaborating on mainstream television’s first series about sex. Utterly, totally, myopically and obsessively. Not doing it but talking about it and winking about it in double-entendres--endlessly.

Which you could accept, perhaps, were it not for the protagonists of this hotblooded hour being just 15.

One of whom is sleeping with his gorgeous English teacher in a sick, felonious liaison that is treated here merely as a quirky, titillating romance to snicker about, a sort of silly schoolboy crush, even though WB says the two will ultimately get some kind of comeuppance.

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It’s almost as if those pushing the levers of “Dawson’s Creek” had no memory of Mary Kay LeTourneau’s conviction of child rape in November. LeTourneau is the 35-year-old Washington woman who had an affair with a 13-year-old student while she was a teacher, then had his baby.

In “Dawson’s Creek,” the minors are anatomically fixated, and some of their elders just as genitalia-minded. Even the zits here are sensual, the rationale being that the youth of this age are usually on hormonal overload and think about sex a lot. Generally true. But only about sex?

WB network CEO Jamie Kellner says the appropriate minimum age for the 9 p.m. series (8 p.m. in some time zones) is 11 or 12. “This is not for kids,” he told a gathering of the nation’s TV critics in L.A. recently.

He and other WB executives obviously felt that Williamson--a currently hot screenwriter who wrote the popular youth-in-jeopardy films “Scream,” “Scream 2" and “I Know What You Did Last Summer"--could deliver a signature series about teens that would increase the network’s relatively low visibility as it expands to Tuesday nights. “Dawson’s Creek” may be that ticket.

It’s good-looking and well-acted, creating a deceptive aura of serious storytelling in a sleepy, idyllic suburban setting in which 15-year-old Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek), a bright, sensitive budding filmmaker, is treading water in a whirlpool of lust. Desire is everywhere about him, and water wings nowhere in sight.

Joey (Katie Holmes), Dawson’s once-platonic neighbor with whom he still innocently wrestles in bed (how’s that for reality?), is now hot for him. In the pilot, she asks him in code how often he masturbates, and in a future episode she obliquely speculates about his penis size with Jen (Michelle Williams), Dawson’s latest crush, who we learn later lost her virginity at 12 and went on to “sleep with half of New York City.” The other half presumably was caught in traffic.

Meanwhile, Pacey (Joshua Jackson) is Dawson’s best bud and the one getting it on with his teacher, the criminally tarty, new-in-town Tamara Jacobs (Leann Hunley), a 40-ish woman whose movie-star looks and glamour tell you she could have any man she wants but likes boys instead. Pacey meets her when she walks into the video store where he and Dawson work and tosses around movie titles like “The Graduate” with the brazen flirtiness of a hooker. When Pacey mentions “Summer of ’42"--another movie in which a mature woman has sex with a youthful male--you know this twisted relationship has a future.

“Dawson’s Creek” doesn’t cut it when measured against other adolescent coming-of-angst series: ABC’s late, great “The Wonder Years” and late, sometimes-great “My So-Called Life” and even Fox’s thoughtful “Party of Five.”

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The latter two affirm how ideals and good thoughts don’t necessarily equal commercial success. But “The Wonder Years” was a stunning example, from creators Carol Black and Neal Marlens, of soaring ratings matching soaring aspirations and creativity, and how a boy’s oft-painful adolescence could at once be funny and tender and his awkwardness and uncertainty a metaphor for an entire generation.

The cherubic Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) was himself in sexual chaos through junior high and high school. Just a whiff of his beloved Winnie, and other swell-lookers, often made his heart thump. But it was all in the context of a wider kid universe where other things were happening and where he had other interests that became story points. Moreover, that universe was presented from the perspective of its protagonist, not from that of a writer trying to fit teen characters to adult dialogue and sophisticated insights, as Williamson does in “Dawson’s Creek.”

And unlike the new WB series, “Wonder Years” didn’t have genitals for brains. Dawson’s parents are all over each other in front of their son, even writhing fully clothed on the coffee table early in the first episode. The mother is a TV news anchor. “Watching her work is the best foreplay,” the father tells Dawson, who learns in a future episode that his mother is sleeping with her co-anchor.

Dawson is the moralist of this series. So Williamson--displaying his skill at inventing pseudo-hip dialogue that reads great on a word processor but is foreign to the average American--has Dawson lecture his mother on her behavior: “The complicated mind of an adulteress. Do you have some new earth-shattering rationale why you’re breaking the sacred vows of a marriage?”

Later, Dawson addresses the same topic with Jen: “Is the proposition of monogamy such a Jurassic notion? Is it no longer reasonable to think that two people can be enough for each other for their entire lives? Maybe it’s chemical. Maybe there’s some kind of hormonal imbalance that causes one to fornicate with their co-workers.”

Keep in mind that Dawson is 15.

As is Pacey, who, when initially resisted by Tamara at the end of the pilot, explodes:

“You’re a well-put-together knockout of a woman who’s feeling a little insecure about hitting 40. So when a young, virile boy such as myself flirts with you, you enjoy it. You entice it, you fantasize about what it would be like to be with that young boy on the verge of manhood, ‘cause it helps you stay feeling attractive. It makes the aging process a little more bearable. Well, let me tell you something. You blew it, lady, ‘cause I’m the best sex you’ll never have.”

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Turned on by his baby talk, Tamara kisses him passionately, an indication of what awaits in coming episodes, when we learn that Pacey is not her first student conquest.

What’s striking is the realization that much of Hollywood probably believes that “Dawson’s Creek” is the way America functions (or dysfunctions), that from sea to shining sea this is the land filling the gap separating the East and West coasts. No wonder so much of prime time is so out of touch.

TV Guide has saluted Williamson for “so accurately capturing the teen experience,” likening “Dawson’s Creek” (in a fit of whimsy, one hopes) to “The Catcher in the Rye,” a theme picked up by Kellner when he addressed the TV critics. “They’re real-life stories about what it’s really like to grow up,” he said.

You wonder how much of the American mainstream--including teenagers--would agree.

*

* “Dawson’s Creek” premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WB (Channel 5). The network has rated it TV-14-L-D (may not be suitable for children under the age of 14, contains coarse language and suggestive dialogue).


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