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TV is great equalizer in making you feel your age

The last time I felt this old? June 13, 2004. The first day I could date an Olsen twin.

Not practically, mind you. Just legally. And the fact that Mary-Kate and Ashley — the toddlers who looked for all the world as though they’d grow up to resemble the sort of thing that lives under a bridge in fairy tales — had somehow matured into objects of desire, well, that was enough to have me reaching for the Metamucil.

Lately, though, I can’t shake the urge to consult an estate planner, courtesy of the guys from “Dawson’s Creek,” all of whom are back in prime time playing — gasp! — grown-ups.

It seems like just yesterday they were strolling down the beach while listening to Paula Cole, having coed sleepovers, and talking about pleasuring themselves to thoughts of Katie Couric, all under the disapproving glare of Grams.

But now that Michelle Williams has moved into feature films and Katie Holmes has moved into the pages of US Weekly and People never to work again, Joshua Jackson is saving the world from weird science on “Fringe” (9 p.m. Thursdays, KVVU-TV, Channel 5), James Van Der Beek is a sexual harassment suit waiting to happen as the smug new ICU chief on “Mercy” (8 p.m. Wednesdays, KVBC-TV, Channel 3) and Kerr Smith is the on-again, off-again, sensible side of the central love triangle on “Life Unexpected” (8 p.m. Mondays, KVCW-TV, Channel 33).

When it was last seen two months ago, “Fringe” left off with FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) becoming aware — as viewers did in the May season finale — that Peter Bishop (Jackson) was a product of the alternate universe that seems to play a key role in most of the “X-Files”-minus-the-little-green-men craziness Olivia, Peter and his mad-scientist dad, Walter (John Noble), investigate each week. And Thursday’s episode reveals just how that came to pass.

Large portions of the hour, one of “Fringe’s” finest yet, involve the drama’s more technologically advanced “other world,” where the World Trade Center still stands, zeppelins dock at the Empire State Building and Michael J. Fox never replaced Eric Stoltz in “Back to the Future.”

And while Noble continues to turn in one of the most richly layered performances you’ll see on TV, Jackson’s Peter has evolved from a snarky malcontent with daddy issues into a brainy action hero, a jack-of-all-trades with a 190 IQ who’s not afraid to charge down dark alleys and always seems to “know a guy,” no matter how obscure or illegal the task at hand.

Van Der Beek, meanwhile, has joined “Mercy” to shake things up and add a strong, albeit over-the-top, male presence to keep the medical drama from drowning in estrogen. His Dr. Joe Briggs is a cocky, womanizing, condescending caveman. Basically, the anti-Dawson.

Seconds after a young patient nearly dies, Briggs pulls Chloe (Michelle Trachtenberg), one of the series’ core trio of nurses, aside to ask about one of her colleagues. Or, as he puts it, “the one with the giant fun bags.”

Later, when he gets Nurse Busty alone, he proceeds to take a special interest in one of her patients. “I’m pretty sure I can do a circumferential pulmonary vein isolation and a linear left atrial ablation to achieve bidirectional conduction block. I’m one of, like, five guys in the world who can perform that procedure.” He then responds to her breathy “Wow!” with a nonplussed “I know.”

But as tough as it is to see Jackson and Van Der Beek playing capable, successful adults, Smith has been doing that for years. It’s his “Life Unexpected” love interest, Shiri Appleby, who leaves me feeling like I need to get up in the middle of the night to pee.

In the time I’ve been covering television, Appleby has gone from playing a teenager in love with an alien in The WB’s “Roswell” to playing the mom of a teenager in love with someone named Bug on The WB’s successor network.

Granted, her Cate is a hip, hot, morning-DJ mom just getting to know the daughter she gave up for adoption in high school, but she’s a mom nonetheless.

“Life Unexpected” is a heartwarming throwback to vintage WB dramas, a break from the flashy, hypersexual series to which The CW has gravitated.

But I’d probably enjoy it more if its stars didn’t keep reminding me I’m now a good 20 years outside its target demo.

And that horrible noise I’ve started making when I walk? That creak? I’ve named it Dawson.

Christopher Lawrence’s Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. E-mail him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com.

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