The Dearly Departing

At the official "Dawson's Creek" chat room on the Web, under a string of posts titled "get a clue people, pacey is WAY better for joey," the gloves are coming off. After six achingly expressive seasons, the WB's teen soap will depart this week with a two-hour finale, during which its writers promise to resolve the love triangle that has propelled the series. Among fans, two camps have sprung up. There are the idealistic "D/Jers" who believe Joey, played by Katie Holmes, is destined to end up with her first love, Dawson, played by James Van Der Beek. (After all, it is his creek.) On the other side are the "P/Jers," who think she belongs with bad boy Pacey, played by Joshua Jackson. First, the P/J position, as summarized by Web fan Twkltoes1213: "I used to be a d/j but not anymore. [D]id anyone notice how selfish dawson is about joey?" And the case for Dawson, from run4peach: "Pacey is a gutless punk. He is almost like Satan." After that one, the posts start to get nasty.

By most measures, "Dawson's Creek" is not a popular show. It's the 96th-rated program in prime time this season, with only about 3 million viewers a week. But it has something that higher-rated shows like CBS's "Hack," for example, may never have: fans as insanely devoted as Twkltoes1213. Which is why "Dawson's" will be such a loss for the WB. The eyeballs will be easy to replace. But a beloved series that defines an entire network? Those don't come along every fall. "It was the little engine that could," says WB entertainment president Jordan Levin. "But a network has to prove that it can replenish itself." The WB won't be alone. This spring several more cherished series are saying farewell. Next week UPN will lose its premier drama, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." CBS's "Touched by an Angel" just ended its nine-season run. (Go ahead, make your jokes. Enjoy hell.) ABC hasn't yet decided on the fate of "The Practice," a two-time Emmy winner for best drama, but creator David E. Kelley isn't giving fans much cause to hope: last Monday's "season" finale was titled "Goodbye." Meanwhile, on HBO, "Sex and the City" will launch its sixth and final season in June.

Who's suffering the biggest blow? It's a close call between UPN and ABC. Before acquiring "Buffy" from the WB two seasons ago, UPN was known exclusively for pro wrestling and urban-oriented sitcoms like "Girlfriends." With "Buffy," the fledgling network scored a hat trick, inheriting a topflight TV star (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a built-in audience and a dose of artistic prestige. "It's helped the overall image of the network even more than the dollars it's brought in," says UPN president Dawn Ostroff. "It made people look at us in a different way." But experts are skeptical that "Buffy" was around long enough to make a real impact. "Right now, UPN doesn't have a show that establishes who they are," says analyst Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive vice president of Initiative Media. At this week's "upfronts," during which networks introduce their fall pilots to advertisers, UPN will unveil its largest slate ever, including shows from Will Smith and "Matrix" producer Joel Silver. The success rate for new series, however, is very low. And even if there is another "Buffy" in the group, it might not emerge for a season or two.

Four years ago, "The Practice" was a brand to build a network around. But rising salaries for the cast and a disastrous decision by ABC to move the show from Sunday to Monday have crippled the legal drama. Last week's finale drew just 8.1 million viewers. Still, the makers of "The Practice" assumed they were safe because ABC is known to be starving for quality programs. According to executive producer Bob Breech, however, network executives won't even take a meeting with Kelley to discuss the show's fu-ture. (If it's any consolation, they declined to speak with NEWSWEEK, too.) "ABC has not mounted a truly successful drama since we began seven years ago," says Breech. "So what are they thinking?" He isn't entirely correct: "Alias" is a winner. But the spy saga isn't a network linchpin like NBC's "ER." ABC's top hour this season? "The Bachelor."

The other shows had the advantage of knowing their fate well in advance, giving them months to plot their swan songs. The "Dawson's" writers have set their finale five years in the future so Joey could decide her romantic destiny as a world-weary 25-year-old rather than as a naive college sophomore. On "Buffy," co-executive producer Marti Noxon promises the series will go down in a blaze of gore. "We didn't want to do a slow-motion montage of great moments," Noxon jokes. "Save that for the wrap party. Just because we're weeping doesn't mean everyone else is." By this fall, it may be the networks asking her to pass the Kleenex.