In its first three seasons, "Dawson's Creek" was a sweet and funny show. The kids didn't talk like real teenagers--they were much too thoughtful and witty--but they acted like them. They had crushes, did homework, and worried about getting into college. Dawson Leary, the cornerstone of the show, was bright and perhaps too introspective, but he was genuine. We all knew someone who, given a scriptwriter or two, could have been like Dawson.

Last year, all of that changed for the kids from Capeside. The season began with Dawson receiving what people older than him call "sexual favors" from a stripper named Eve while driving a powerboat that wasn't his. The season went downhill from there. It was as though executive producer Kevin Williamson couldn't decide whether he wanted "Dawson's" to be a snappy show about teenage life, as it had been, or a series that put perpetual adolescent horniness on display.

My so-called cancellation: MSCL's real-life teens didn't make for real ratings

Once upon a time, programming marked for teens was just a rehash of old soaps. "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Melrose Place," the twin meccas of the Clearasil crowd in the early '90s, were mind-numbing versions of adult fare like "Dynasty." They had the same implausible plots and conniving characters, everyone just had tighter skin. Then in 1994, ABC premiered "My So-Called Life." Claire Danes starred as the 15-year-old Angela Chase, a girl who was making her way through the awkwardness of high school. She had her melodramas and she had her victories, but the stunning thing was the show's overarching conceit: It would be an unvarnished portrait of adolescence. No holds were barred, but the alcoholism, sex, and unruly attitudes were all used in the name of verisimilitude and showing kids a way out.

"My So-Called Life" didn't survive (it was cancelled after 19 episodes, despite critical acclaim), but it became the mother of today's quality teen TV, spawning a host of heartfelt shows that, no matter how improbable the setting or edgy the situations, were there to explore real teen issues. "Dawson's Creek" (with the old Dawson), "Felicity," even ""Buffy the Vampire Slayer," are direct descendents.

While no one is going to confuse the WB's lineup with Shakespeare, these "So-Called" shows boasted a certain sophistication, ironically because they dealt with the humbling, workaday realities of teen life honestly and smartly. The "90210" model was suddenly threatened. Clones like "Hyperion Bay" and "Get Real" failed, and it looked as though Gen-Y had embraced a better cultural sensibility than their older siblings, where behavior got matched up against some moral system.

Then came Dawson's oral exploits, and the momentum had passed back to the Beverly Hills gang. More evidence came when the latest in the "So-Called Life" mold, "Freaks and Geeks," failed to summon a following (it recently retreated to a family cable station), and a new breed of teensploitation shows loomed on the horizon. And they were nasty enough to curdle your Yoo-hoo. "Manchester Prep," a spin-off from the movie "Cruel Intentions," was canned by Fox even before it bowed amid reports that Rupert Murdoch was appalled by a bestiality scene in the pilot. But the floodgates had opened.

A few weeks ago, Fox debuted "Opposite Sex," whose premise is that three boys are brought in to integrate an all-girls high school. "Opposite Sex" has nothing to say about gender relations or teenhood--or anything else for that matter--but it does have plenty at which to gawk. In the first episode, the lead character, Jed, comes home to find his older brother, Rob, in the advanced stages of amorousness with a gorgeous blonde. In what must be the most graphic depiction of sex ever presented on network television, we see Rob pistoning up and down between the spread legs of his girlfriend, a white sheet draped strategically over the fun zone. A few minutes later, Jed takes a stroll through the girls' locker room. The scene is filmed in slow-motion--JiggleCam--and suddenly you realize that David Hasselhoff has a legacy. Last week's episode had a topless teenage lesbian pleading with Jed to help her, well, learn to drive stick.

The shows compensate for their hopeless logic by attending to the superficial. Where Claire Danes was cast as a perfectly attractive teen, but one who could credibly bemoan her acne in the mirror, the stars of the new teen shows are there to generate maximum heat. The cast of the new show "Young Americans" is impossibly beautiful, even by television standards. The fresh-faced crowd of once-and-future models can stitch together barely half a dozen acting credits between them. The most seasoned thespian, Mark Famiglietti, spent two seasons on "Hang Time" during the Dick Butkus years.