Film: Catcher in the wry

Dream on: this is how you wish it had been when you were a teenager. John Lyttle checks out the latest import from the States

In retrospect, America was the right - the only - place to invent the teenager, just as the Fifties was the right decade for the creature to walk amongst us. Where else but in a land that pursues happiness while demanding success could kids really get to be crazy and mixed-up? No where but over there; the home of the brave and rebels without a cause, of hep cats, hippies, hackers, slackers, brat packers and Generation X; successive pop phenomenon worshipped for youth, courted for income, feared for delinquency.

A rich and dramatic mix, especially when the demographics are dropped in: three and a half million teenagers are added to the American population per annum, with numbers already running at around 90 million. Small wonder the US has produced throbbing pulp masterpieces like Party Of Five, Beverly Hills 90210 and My So-Called Life while we have the plodding Hollyoaks: the difference between the cult of personality and the plot-driven, between subculture and soap.

Or, to put it another way, there's Shit Creek and then there's Dawson's Creek. Don't worry if you haven't heard of it - yet. Despite being one of the two hottest new shows on American television - the other is the feminist-dividing Ally McBeal - Dawson's Creek snuck onto Channel Four last Saturday as if the channel was ashamed of its latest import, or at least determined not to duplicate its Stateside controversy; the shock- horror of discovering teenagers masturbate ("Walked the dog?"), are obsessed with sex ("Do you think my breasts will come between us?") and detest grown-ups. As the eponymous Dawson says to his randy Mom and Dad: "Don't you people ever stop?"

Which sounds glib. And is meant to. Kevin Williamson is the man at the typewriter and as Scream, Scream 2 and I Know What You Did Last Summer prove, Williamson has an ear for adolescent verbal swagger and the faux sophisticated rites and rituals of those actually desperate to do nothing but fit in. The Screams having helped remind Hollywood that the teen audience wasn't dead but merely bored comatose, he's ideally positioned to pilot, pen and produce DC and exploit the surprise ratings the TV version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer scored.

And to turn autobiography into something beyond zit-com. Dawson (James Van Der Beek) wants to be the next Spielberg. Video camera at the ever ready, he is determined to live his life as a film - except it's a weekly series instead. Thirtysomething for fifteensomethings, in fact: a show that takes teenage feelings/stirrings nearly as seriously as teenagers do and at the same time is a fantasy of being teenage. Retorts tooled a decade too late, Dawson and friends get to blurt out. How smart: Dawson wants to be a director, best friend Pacey (Joshua Jackson) works, pace Tarantino, in a video store, tomboy Joey (Katie Holmes) behaves as if she's seen one too many episodes of Saved By The Bell, new girl Jennifer (Michelle Williams) has apparently lifted her moves from Amanda on Melrose Place. As the cast smirk, the moment anything or anyone drifts towards the preachy, "So what did we learn from this 90210 moment?"

Perfect sense: when you're at the age when mood and behaviour can't always be labelled, what else is there except the shorthand of rock lyrics, favourite film scenes and hitting your imaginary marks? The air not only smells of teen spirit, but is thick with pop references and wet dream dialogue. Cue Pacey, addressing his curvy English teacher, destined to claim his virginity come episode three: "You know, lady, I'm the best sex you never had." It's exactly right - just what a horny smartmouth would say if he thought he was Christian Slater in Heathers.

There's a risk, however. The danger here is that once advertisers are tied up, what was hot amongst the fickle yesterday might be stone cold today. The fledgling WB network is willing to gamble, though, if only for the merchandising spin-offs. Another 22 episodes are under order and Miramax, eager to gatecrash the party, have hired Kevin Williamson to develop WasteLand. In the meantime it behoves middle-youth to tune in tomorrow and remember the way it was. Or the way it wished it was: smart but naive, brutal but sweet and oh so cool: when existence was a voyage of discovery and not a trip down memory lane. Life as a movie, movie as life: in an era where faked teen documentaries are called The Real World, who's to say which is mirror and which is reflection?

'Dawson's Creek', Channel 4, Saturday, 7pm.

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