Discoveries and Time Magazine’s All-TIME 100 TV Shows: “Felicity” (SPOILERS!)

THE SPECS:

Who: “Felicity,” a drama series that aired on then-network The WB (the CW’s predecessor, owned by Warner Brothers) from 1998-2002.

What: “Felicity,” a drama revolving around the fictional college experiences of Felicity Porter (Keri Russell), who follows her high school crush and moves across country to attend university in New York, despite the fact that she could have attended Stanford near her family and her home of Palo Alto, California.  The series documents Felicity and her friends’ various seeds of angst, romances, and self-discoveries.

When: The show aired in its entirety from 1998-2002 on the WB, better known now as the CW.  It is currently available for streaming via streaming service Hulu Plus.

Where: The show is set primarily in New York City, New York.

Why: Two reasons.  First, I am in the cult of JJ.  Meaning, I love just about everything that JJ Abrams touches, and if I don’t love it, I will at least try to love it.  As it turns out, Felicity is JJ’s first project as writer/director/producer of a television series – before Alias, before Lost.  I never gave this show much notice when it was on, preferring shows, at the time, that were either more grown up and adult (despite the fact that I was nearly Felicity’s age at the time of the show’s airing) and/or science fiction and/or fantasy related.  I wanted to rectify that and to add this show to the already long list of JJ-endorsed and/or production company Bad Robot-owned projects that I have already consumed.

Second, it has been suggested more than once that this viewer and this blog check out the FX series The Americans, which stars Ms. Russell as a Russian spy posing as an American housewife during the 1980s.  I harbored no preconceived notions about Russell, though I was aware of some of her previous body of work.  I decided to watch the show that put her on the map first before jumping headlong into the heady spy drama in which she currently stars, which brought me back around to Felicity.  Thus, having discovered the full series on Hulu (which was actually fortunate, as I had begun watching the series a year ago via other means, so I simply started over), I jumped back into Felicity.  Because I was in college right around the same time as the main character, the nostalgia trip was heavy and, at times, both delightful and painful in that exquisite way that memories can be.

How – as in How Was It?  

I rate the show four out of five stars.  I watched all four seasons and enjoyed the series for the most part, but the writing, particularly, with this show was somewhat all over the place, both from a story standpoint and from a tonal standpoint.  There was a certain “indie” feel to the show that endeared it to me in the end, though, and the cast was so innocent and genuine in its late nineties earnestness, this viewer could not help but be drawn into the world of Felicity Porter.

SYNOPSIS

Felicity Porter (Russell), valedictorian and all around girl “with a good head on her shoulders,” has received acceptance to study pre-med at Stanford, with the endorsement of her doting but overbearing parents based in Palo Alto, California.  She is all set to accept that life path until her high school crush, Ben Covington (Scott Speedman), signs her yearbook at graduation with a heartfelt passage about how he wished he had come to know Felicity better during their school years.  Moved by the yearbook entry, and convinced that she and Ben are meant to be together, Felicity decides to chuck all her best laid plans and follow Ben to New York City, to study at the fictional University of New York, much to the chagrin of her parents, who fly out to convince Felicity to get her act together.  Though initially full of doubt, Felicity elects to stay, realizing that her move was as much about her own self-discovery as it was about becoming closer to dreamy, sensitive, but ultimately troubled Ben.

There, Felicity meets good friends and her college family nucleus, including Julie (Amy Jo Johnson, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers), who initially breaks the girl code and canoodles with Ben; Elena (Tangi Miller), a fellow pre-med student; her resident advisor Noel (Scott Foley, who folks might know better now from Scandal), with whom Felicity has an initial romantic relationship that establishes the primary love triangle governing the series; her initially hostile but eventually protective goth Wiccan roommate Meghan (Amanda Foreman); and Ben’s roommate Sean (Greg Grunberg), who is older and generally focused on creating outrageous inventions and who harbors a secret crush for Julie until he becomes involved with Meghan.  Felicity also works for a local coffee shop under openly gay manager/barista Javier (Ian Gomez), who becomes one of her best friends.

The series follows Felicity’s good times and bad, as she struggles to obtain a sense of self-identity through school, her conceived future aspirations, her friends, and her romances.  Oh, and she cuts her hair, which was big news at the time.  More on that in a minute.

THOUGHTS

Felicity, though I watched this late nineties show in 2015, was a surprisingly mature coming of age drama for any year or time period.  Though it was part of the nineties explosion of teenager soapy dramas, such as sister series Dawson’s Creek, which aired on the same network, Felicity might have been a better if not the best niche entry from the genre – or at least better than most than I remember.  This show was an underrated gem, at least with respect to its first two seasons.

The first season was the best, as it depicted shy, smart Felicity, a fish out of water and far from home, struggling to come to terms with her decision to move all the way across the country essentially for a boy, and one with a far more messy life than his idyllic high school persona led her to believe.  She works through this struggle, at first, by sending verbal letters to her friend Sally via cassette tape that they exchange by mail and repeatedly record over; Sally, presumably older but not much older than Felicity (and voiced by Janeane Garofalo) dispenses her quiet wisdom about Felicity’s cautious and less-cautious steps through life from the vantage point of having just lived it and of living it again as her adult years move forward.  The tone of the show, from the program’s first opening theme to the gratuitous use of close-ups on Russell’s baby face and free-flowing curly mane of hair, lent a lot of quiet angst to the proceedings but did so in a way that never felt contrived.  Sixteen years out of college, I still found myself connecting to Felicity and her friends because I WAS them – maybe still am.  What’s more, I knew people like them.  Felicity’s friends were my friends, even though I didn’t know anyone that was exactly like any of the characters (there might have been a close equivalent in Elena).

What’s more, these characters were imperfect.  This wasn’t a soap focused look at beautiful people with beautifully messy lives.  These beautiful people were genuine, quirky, and flawed.  They made mistakes.  They experimented.  They were finding out about themselves at the same time that we were finding out about them.  For example, Felicity decides to curry favor with and help Ben by editing an essay for a class they shared, though she ultimately rewrites it, which causes the professor to launch an investigation into possible cheating, as the writing sounds nothing like Ben’s normal auteur voice.  Later on, when the two are moving toward being a couple, they break into the school’s swimming pool, shut down for lack of funds, while enjoying some underage beers, and they get caught.  Elena allows herself to become sexually involved with a pre-med seminar professor (Chris Sarandon) only to question the ethics of doing so when he awards her stellar grades, which later becomes the subject of investigatory inquiry. Ben is the son of an alcoholic father (played by John Ritter!), who Ben painfully and emotionally rails against in their estrangement. Julie becomes involved with a film student in the first year that forces himself onto her, but her own past leads her to question whether or not it’s rape.  Julie is adopted and searches with yearning for her birth parents.  Noel is close to his brother who is gay and who comes out to Noel first of everyone in his life.  Meghan rebels through punk dress and pagan worship, though she hails from a wealthy, straight-laced, conservatively Christian family….and the list goes on, as the characters struggle to relate to each other, to themselves, and to the world in which they were growing up.

Of course, some of Felicity is typical teen soap melodrama, but it never feels that way because the characters’ and their performers’ reactions are natural.  They also talk like normal teenagers/twentysomethings navigating college, at least for the time, which is a tribute to good dialogue writing.  Plus, Felicity broached some heady subjects for the Y2K era that still resonate today, such as gay marriage (Javier marries his long-time boyfriend) and, of course, the raging and ongoing war between Apple and Microsoft. Noel is a huge Apple fanboy; I think the company was a promotional sponsor.  Yet, in the end, the show was about kids in college, including Felicity herself, who were trying to figure out who they were, what they wanted to do, and how their dreams matched up against the realities of the time.

As this viewer alluded to above, however, the show was not perfect.  As the seasons progressed, the writing and even some of the regular show elements took some questionable turns or disappeared altogether, though one such turn was not, in this viewer’s opinion, the much maligned chopping of Keri Russell’s hair.

Back in the day, the ratings for Felicity slipped in the second season, and the network, of all things, blamed it on, in this viewer’s opinion, the very well scripted and logical decision of the title character to cut off her trademark locks after a particularly emotional entanglement with the two men in her love triangle, Noel and Ben.  In reality, the ratings slip was most likely caused by the network’s decision to change the show’s scheduled air date, I believe to Sundays, which, at the time, put it up against programs like The X-Files, a juggernaut in its heyday, which coincided with Felicity’s run.  For this viewer, through the lens of 2015 and the easy-to-relate-to nature of the characters, the decision to chop off her hair made logical sense for Felicity’s story arc; she needed a change and a mechanism by which to step away from herself and step outside of her comfort zone and to disassociate herself with the girl pining after two very different men but particularly the somewhat wishy washy Ben. The chopping of hair never really bothered me, but for the fact that her crop was not styled as nicely until it grew out a bit for the latter of half of season two.

To the contrary, there were bigger fish to fry with Felicity that probably ultimately contributed to it lasting only four seasons, unless the original aim of the show the whole time was to focus on Felicity’s undergraduate years.  First, the theme song changed, from an angsty hum, by a woman, with gritty black and white photographs of the characters in the streets of New York City in the first two seasons, as heard here…:

…to a peppier ditty written and sung by JJ himself that featured cutaways from the show’s episodes for the third and fourth seasons, as heard here:

This new theme song and, therefore, the new mood setter did not fit the overall angst-driven self-discovery thread of the show, and the change was a bit jarring because the new theme did not marry as well with the tone and direction of the episodes attached to it.

Second, Felicity forgot about “writing” to Sally as time went on; it was so forgotten, Sally was never mentioned again.  Felicity’s relationship with Sally allowed the viewer to peer more intimately into Felicity’s inner thoughts and to understand that the struggles and journey of self-discovery don’t stop with college.  Yet, one day, around the start of the third season, there were no more tapes and no more mention of Felicity’s jet-setting friend. Even if Janeane Garofalo wasn’t available to voice the unseen character, this plot device, Felicity’s confessions to Sally, was sorely missed and contributed to a tonal shift (along with the theme song) that did not seem to match that for what the show initially aimed.  If Felicity outgrew these letters and confessions, a mere mention of that would have been helpful; however, Sally was simply omitted without a second thought.

Third, Amy Jo Johnson left the series prior to the last season due to personal issues, and while Julie was never my favorite character, her departure disrupted the continuity and stability of the dynamics between the characters.  It’s almost as if the show had to struggle to make up for her loss, given that she was Felicity’s best friend and had close relationships with Ben and Sean.  Her departure might have been sudden and the need to adapt quick, but the adaptation was never complete.  It also did not make sense that the characters did not try harder to look for her or to reach out to Julie, even in the actress’ absence, given the written method of her departure.

Fourth, and perhaps the biggest questionable writing choice among the long-term story’s quirks and foibles, was how the series ended (spoilers).  Several outcomes emerged upon the close of Felicity and her friends’ college graduation.

1. Felicity, despite her fight to explore a long-term interest in and to major in art instead of pre-med, decides in the end to attend medical school, for reasons that are never fully explained.  There is a suggestion or the implication, facilitated by Felicity’s struggles to enroll in a particular art class, that she is not as capable as some other art students, but she seems to give up without fighting, and then, somehow, is able to make up for lost time by enrolling in medical school, despite not having a pre-med undergraduate education.  It felt forced and disingenuous to her character and to the story in how it was executed; also, it would have made sense, even if it was somewhat dramatically uninteresting, if she had decided to take on a fifth year of undergrad to better prepare herself for the jump to medical school, which might have also elongated the series and helped to stave off cancellation.  The show, in fact, seemed to abandon some of the realism, which rendered the first two seasons so engrossing and good, in the final season.  The lack of realism and disjointed turns in the character arcs dampened the finale episodes’ impact somewhat for this viewer and no doubt did so for viewers at the time, contributing to its ratings decline and paving the way for the inevitable cancellation.

2. Felicity cheats on Ben with Noel, which becomes fodder for an out-of-nowhere device that allows Felicity to travel back in time in her dreams and try to change her course. Prior to this purported time travel, Ben decides to be pre-med senior year and enrolls with Felicity at Stanford Medical School following their undergraduate graduation.  The problem is, Felicity and Ben, with their rocky past in tow checkered by trust issues stemming from Ben’s erratic behavior and Felicity’s need to cheat with Noel, grow apart, to the point that Ben starts sort of cheating with someone else.  This time jump allows Felicity to explore alternate pathways and how her life might have been affected if she had made different decisions that allowed her to stay with Noel.  Prior to the time jump, we learn that Elena dies in a car accident, even though she is alive again in the alternate past. Sean and Meghan married in the future we first encounter, only to not find the same level of love in the new timeline.  While this might have been an exciting plot twist on some of JJ’s other shows, such as Alias or Lost, Felicity was never established to be science fiction, and the execution of this “what if” exploration of past mistakes was not handled well.  It caught this viewer completely off guard and felt both convenient and trite, particularly since one of the show’s major themes centered on dealing with the ramifications of choices made, however poorly made they were in the end.  It also led to the series end being somewhat anticlimactic overall.

3. Felicity and Ben falling apart in the end seemed inevitable, unless the two could find a way to lasting love, but their relationship was always troubled, given that it was founded on Felicity’s rash decision to follow Ben to college.  If Felicity had not ended up with Ben (though I think she did in the end anyway), she might have become a great role model for other young girls in this situation by asserting more of her independence and foraging ahead through life, the consequences of her choices and actions in tow. Not a lot of what the title character did in the end made much sense, which seemed to imply that the writers lost track of their own characters.  Of course, Alias was up and running by then, and JJ and his co-creators might have been distracted and unable to multi-task show-running, an epidemic that would also affect Alias as JJ jumped later to Lost and to other projects.  Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, but it was a repeated mistake and one of Mr. Abrams’ primary needs for improvement as time goes on; he should have learned his lesson then, presumably, but perhaps, he was fumbling through TV show creation as his title character was navigating the uncharted waters of her early adulthood.

In the end, though the fourth season took this interesting if ill-conceived roundabout in story exploration, such exploration does not detract from the overall quality of the show, particularly of the first two seasons, which were heartfelt, genuine, and full of emotions to which most viewers could relate when reflecting upon their past or present youth, especially if college was involved.  As a result, Felicity is an entertaining show and one worth watching, by viewers of all ages, as well as an addicting story, for those interested in sexual tension and romantic triangles with handsome men.  It was also a great introduction into the storytelling mind of J.J. Abrams (with his co-creator Matt Reeves).  Furthermore, Ms. Russell and the rest of the cast offer some sweet, touching performances that tug at the heart strings without being manipulative. Plus, Scott Speedman is, and continues to be, easy on the eyes!

RECOMMENDATION

Felicity is highly recommended to anyone interested in teen dramas like Dawson’s Creek, Beverly Hills 90210, or One Tree Hill, as long as the viewer is prepared for less traditional soap opera twists, turns, and melodrama and better overall quality (in this viewer’s opinion). This show is also highly recommended to fans of J.J. Abrams’ shows, such as Alias or Lost; in fact, Jennifer Garner appears on several occasions as Noel Crane’s prior girlfriend Hannah, a music composer (she was married to Scott Foley in real life at the time), and Felicity helped to launch or further grow several actors’ careers.  The program also flirts with some “after school special” topics such as underage drinking, drug use and addiction, rape, and mental health issues like depression and may provide some interest and/or empathy to those who struggle with similar issues. It is worth noting that Felicity was promoted by Imagine Entertainment, including executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, the same team that has produced some great films and some other equally laudable TV projects, such as Arrested Development.   Felicity contains some suggestive situations and is rated TV-PG.

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