Joey Potter is a headstrong, vibrant, wily, sultry, and determined go-getter. And yet, in a gloriously contradictory manner, in spite of her tough-as-nails exterior demeanor, Joey's also a frail, sometimes uncertain, emotionally sensitive, in-need-of-love person", said the show's official book. Joey, named for Jo in Little Women, for years had been climbing in Dawson's bedroom window and platonically sharing his bed. Joey's mother had died from cancer when Joey was thirteen and her father, Mike (Gareth Williams), was in prison for "conspiracy to traffic in marijuana in excess of 10,000 pounds." Her harried, unmarried, and very pregnant sister, Bessie (Nina Repeta), about ten years older than Joey, was raising her while running the Ice House restaurant, where Joey worked as a waitress. GQ described Joey as "kind of an uptight fussbudget—one who's always twisted up over doing the right thing and bungling-up ways to hook up with her crush and across the creek neighbor, Dawson.
"I'm a lot like Joey", said Holmes. "I think they saw that. I come from a small town. I was a tomboy. Joey tries to be articulate and deny that she doesn't have a lot of experience in life. Her life parallels mine, which is all about new everything—relationships, personal perceptions—and about being guarded." Holmes filmed the pilot of Dawson's Creek in Wilmington, North Carolina, during spring break of her senior year of high school in 1997. When the show was picked up by The WB, Holmes moved to Wilmington, where the show filmed.
The 5 ft 9 in (1.75 m) tall brunette enchanted the press, writers of both sexes commenting how Holmes was the sort of girl one wants to bring home to meet the parents and to marry."The Audrey Hepburn of her generation", was one typical comment.Time called her "impossibly lovely" and Entertainment Weekly said she was "next up for idolhood. Variety, reviewing the pilot, said Holmes "is a confident young performer who delivers her lines with slyness and conviction. Holmes made such an impression in Hollywood, The New York Times Magazine claimed everyone was seeking to cast a "Katie Holmes type", who, the reporter claimed, "is a throwback to the 1950s: she is a smart girl next door (as opposed to the babe-o-rama blondes)"—the sort represented by her Dawson's Creek co-star Michelle Williams. But her "type" was no less attractive, Arena magazine declaring her "the most coquettishly sexy woman on television. Anywhere."
The show was aggressively marketed by The WB Network before its premiere in January 1998. The cast was featured in the J. Crew catalog and trailers for the program were shown in movie theatres. Before the premiere, the show's talk of sex caused a stir in the press; one of the show's producers, Procter and Gamble, withdrew after negative press in its hometown newspapers. Holmes was soon on the covers of magazines such as Seventeen, TV Guide, and Rolling Stone. Jancee Dunn, an editor at Rolling Stone said she was chosen for the cover because "every time you mention Dawson's Creek you tend to get a lot of dolphin-like shrieks from teenage girls. The fact that she is drop-dead gorgeous didn't hurt either."
Reviews were mixed. The Blade said the characters "just talk like they came from a planet ruled by Manhattan psychologists, one where small talk is punishable by death. Holmes herself needed help with the dialogue. "Sometimes before we read a script, I have to get my dictionary and call people to make sure I'm pronouncing some of the words correctly. The show brought her national attention and many fans back home; Toledo's Thanksgiving Day parade in November 1998 had record attendance when Holmes was named grand marshal.
Dawson's Creek ran from 1998 to 2003, and Holmes was the only actor to appear in all 128 episodes. "It was very difficult for me to leave Wilmington, to have my little glass bubble burst and move on. I hate change. On the other hand it was refreshing to play someone else", she said in 2004. Holmes confirmed that, as often happens on soaps, the character was a caricature of the actor:
“ I miss her spirit, and her spunk, and I miss her anxiety. She always had these long speeches about her fears and her future and love. It was a great tool for me personally because I got to get it all out. I was able to psychoanalyze all of it everyday with her and then I wouldn't have to do it on my own. So much of me is in Joey and it really felt like I grew up on television.
"As Joey", said Life magazine, "Holmes has had seismic influences on teen life... Through it all, Joey has managed to hang on to her integrity... The show—and Katie's character in particular—has touched a nerve.