The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an “Oh my God, that was the best ever!” response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we will take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We’ve already reconsidered a number of once-beloved entertainments. This week, we consider the WB’s Felicity.
Background: Felicity debuted in September 1998 as part of the WB’s self-aware teen soap lineup. Created by a then-unknown J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, it starred a then-unknown Keri Russell as Felicity Porter — a girl, who, in pursuit of her high school crush, the crinkle-eyed Ben Covington (Scott Speedman), abandoned Stanford and pre-med and enrolled in college in New York. Set at the fictional University of New York, the show tagged along with a group of friends through the vicissitudes of college. Her motley crew initially consisted of the pint-size Julie (former Power Ranger Amy Jo Johnson), her sensitive best friend; Megan Rotundi (Amanda Foreman), the snarly Wiccan roommate; Elena Tyler (Tangi Miller), a tough-as-nails med student with a heart of gold; Sean Blumberg (Greg Grunberg), the would-be inventor; and Noel Crane, dark of hair and geeky of spirit (see NoelCrane.com for proof). After multiple cassette tapes sent to Sally, the haircut heard ‘round the world, cameos by everyone in entertainment (Tyra Banks! Jennifer Garner! Devon Gumersall!), and four seasons of whispering, Felicity ended in 2002.
Demographic: anyone between the ages of 12 and 25 during the show’s original airtime; anyone stumbling upon this show on their own via Netflix Instant; J.J. Abrams fans who are intrigued that his first foray into network television was a sensitive show about a frizzy-haired girl from California.
Nostalgia Fact-Check: Felicity debuted at a crucial point in my adolescence, hooking me on a story line tailor made for a teenage girl living in the Bay Area with an eye firmly trained on the hallowed halls of a college, any college, but especially one in New York. I recapped episodes with friends on the phone, debating the merits of Ben or Noel, and browsed endless racks of shapeless knits at the Gap, on the hunt for the perfect Felicity sweater. I recently rediscovered Felicity by chance, scrolling through the TV-series black hole of Netflix. Keri Russell’s earnest face peering out at me between Toddlers and Tiaras and Storage Wars sparked my memory, so I got comfy on the couch, excited to lose myself in a world where fisherman sweaters and Sarah McLachlan were de rigueur. While viewing, I was filled with a deep sense of nostalgia for college, or more specifically, that time in high school when college was almost, but not quite yet, a tangible experience. From the first flicker of the black-and-white opening credits, I remembered how much I had loved the show.
The University of New York exists in a world that’s pre-Facebook, pre-Gchat and pre-drunk text. (It also exists in the antiseptic New York of countless other sitcoms, and has the strange, clean glow of a back lot in Hollywood. Fact: Broadway is not full of millions of computer stores and a walking tour of Bleecker Street is not a good way to spend an afternoon. Also, that Dean and Deluca looks different on the inside.) It’s the age of answering machines and white boards and handwritten phone messages — vital ingredients in the angsty soup of miscommunication that powers the show. In this world, a single piece of paper, scrawled with a message and left hastily on a bed, has the ability to set off a chain reaction of events, causing untold amounts of drama (see the two-episode arc “Todd Mulcahy” and countless times when Felicity’s parents show up unannounced). It’s refreshing to remember the time before pervasive technologies, when social interactions carried weight.
Much of the show’s B-stories amount to a fetishized portrayal of the college experience. A show set at a school where characters actually go to class? Get out of here! But on Felicity, when characters aren’t running in and out of dorm rooms or having existential crises, they are in class. There are seminars and bearded professors dispensing gruff advice, and the most stress-inducing depiction of finals I’ve seen. There are essays and theory and intense discussions of Shakespeare, with people actually paying attention. The RA’s are immensely helpful and students are constantly vying for their attention. Felicity doesn’t nail exactly how college is so much as how it seems like it should feel. It’s a world full of anxiety, elation, insecurity, and an inflated self-worth that leads people into misguided majors like studio art. Depending on your age when you watch it, Felicity can feel aspirational (this is what college should be like!) or nostalgic (Oh, remember, there were some moments when college felt like this, kind of?).
Felicity’s choices, while occasionally irritating, made sense in their own way. Consider the haircut, an action so reviled that it earned its own subsection in Wikipedia. Upon review, it makes a perfect, aggravating sense. Felicity’s haircut came at the beginning of her sophomore year, a time when you’ve started to get your bearings and are armed with a ponderous self-righteousness that propels you toward foolhardy decisions. Cutting off her locks was the easiest, most superficial, and attention-getting way to turn over a new leaf. The haircut encapsulates what’s simultaneously best and most annoying about Felicity, which is Felicity Porter herself, the kind of girl who gets haircuts knowing they are also metaphors. Such people really do exist. And, more than ten years after the fact, we can all acknowledge that Keri Russell looks adorable with a pixie cut, right?
If Felicity’s tendency toward melodrama and naïveté — traditional traits of the young — often works in the show’s favor, it doesn’t always. Her Thanksgiving confession of a change in majors to her pre-med-obsessed parents is spot-on, isolating that moment in early adulthood when you’re so convinced you’re a grown-up you smugly think every decision you make is undoubtedly correct. But watching her I found myself filled with the same sort of humming irk that underscores my experience watching any number of female characters on TV, including Sookie Stackhouse and Carrie Bradshaw.
One of the things, of course, that Felicity shares with Sookie and Carrie is her unending love of a charming but not always deserving man. (The Felicity-Ben-Noel love triangle maps directly onto Carrie’s with Big and Aiden — Noel is nothing if not an Aiden— but not quite so closely onto Sookie’s with Bill and Eric. Bill might be the Noel of that particular situation, which is part of the problem.) Felicity’s love triangle was a potent one, in large part because of the characters’ self-awareness. Felicity knew, like both men and all of us at home, too, that Noel was the “right” choice, the good, devoted guy, and yet … Ben was always the one for her. She kept trying to make it work with Noel, but, when the heart wants a compulsive mumbler who looks adorable in a wide variety of flannels, well, you can’t argue with such a heart. The triangle encapsulated many of Felicity’s major themes — the conflict of heart and head, risk and reward, how to grow up and stay yourself, how to grow up and change yourself, and the possibility that short-term bad choices are long-term good choices — and Felicity knew that, which could get really irritating, in the earnest, self-aware way Felicity so often did. And yet, among people who watched this show, it’s still possible to get a good Ben vs. Noel argument going, and that’s really all one can ask of a triangle.
The occasional drudgery of rewatching this show is lightened up by a few shining moments, when the story is left to wander through the mind of J.J Abrams. The remarkable Twilight Zone episode, billed as a major television event, was a pleasure to watch. Full of oddly quaint diction and Twilight Zone–style edits, this is Abrams flexing his nerd muscle before we knew he had a nerd muscle to flex.
And then there’s the weirdest part of Felicity of all: the time travel. Late in the fourth season, after a tidy graduation episode that wraps everything up, there was a surprise — the show was picked up for five more episodes. With the traditional conclusion already aired, the writers concocted a time travel arc that imagines what would happen if Felicity went back in time and chose Noel over Ben, or, in other words, five episodes of speculative fan fiction filmed. Imagine my surprise when this recipe for a disaster turns out to be an enjoyable exploration on the hazards of time travel. Felicity’s sure-footed selection of Noel sets off a chain of events that irrevocably alter the characters’ personal histories, proving that despite our deepest wishes to be able to change the past, everything still happens for a reason. As Felicity tracks down the man who wrote the spell in the future that made her travel to the past (got that?), she walks him through the past four years of her life, reliving her past and preparing herself to face the present. The lesson learned? The past is indelible, there’s no way to change it, and the writers were totally correct to stick Felicity with Ben the first time around. It’s to the show’s immense credit that even now, watching it all again, I was relieved to know that for sure.