Why 'Felicity' Still Matters 10 Years Later

Ten years ago, a young woman named Felicity Porter graduated from the fictitious University of New York and embarked on a new life with Ben Covington, the boy she had originally moved across the country for.

Felicity (1998-2002), the WB drama about the trials and tribulations of a California girl in Manhattan adapting to the real world, was the brainchild of J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves -- long before the words "Star Trek reboot" and "Cloverfield" were ever printed on the pages of entertainment magazines everywhere.

Over its four-year run, Felicity featured one of the most likable and engaging ensembles on television. The show wasn't just about its titular heroine and her struggle between Noel (Scott Foley), the cute nerd of an RA, and Ben (Scott Speedman), the sensitive jock with daddy issues. Storylines evolved to include those hovering around one of GenY's most memorable love triangles. There was Elena (Tangi Miller), the uptight med student who had problems letting people in, vulnerable Julie (Amy Jo Johnson), the girl on a search for her biological mom (hello guest star Jane Kaczmarek!) who ends up getting raped by Brian Krakow from My So-Called Life, Sean (Greg Grunberg), the get-rich-quick schemer who ends up falling for former goth Megan (Amanda Foreman), and Javier (the hilarious Ian Gomez), Felicity's flamboyant manager at Dean & Deluca (for those of you who argued that the entire show was a blatant ad for the New York-based coffeeshop, in hindsight, you may have had a point).

The show coincidentally debuted the same year as Darren Star's Sex and the City. However, this was an entirely different perspective on life in the Big Apple. Instead of chicks downing cosmos and kissing-and-telling their way through brunch, viewers were given the chance to glimpse the struggling lives of young people who were far from glamorous. It also gave real-life college students (myself included) a romance they could root for...and relate to. While Noel developed a crush on Felicity, he broke up with girlfriend Hannah (who looked a lot like Alias's Sydney Bristow -- oh, hello Jennifer Garner). Then Ben came to his senses and realized his feelings for Felicity, and suddenly the audience (and our gal pal) was faced with a crucial dilemma. Both suitors had their strengths. Both of them were worthy of her love. Which one to choose? Forget The Bachelorette. We were given a legitimate cliffhanger by the end of Season 1 that had people signing up for either Team Noel or Team Ben.

Looking back on the show a decade after it went off the air, Felicity still holds up as a beautifully cast portrait of collegiate life at the turn of the 21st century -- and the tail end of the 90s -- a time right before things "went viral," before Homeland Security became a reality, and before the term "DVR" entered the nation's lexicon. Despite some of its now-dated references (floppy disks! Sarah McLachlan CDs!), the show remains relevant and somewhat timeless in its sensibility.

Credit the simple and insightful writing. The first season was chock-full of those rites of passage most 18-year-olds still experience in college: learning about separating whites in the laundry, the thrill of getting a mini-fridge for your dorm room, vomiting on a friend after a wild party, struggling to declare your major. That said, these carefully constructed episodes were no afterschool specials, and they weren't glorified depictions of life after high school either. Felicity was all about the subtleties, the whispered greetings and conversations, the emotional moments, and that minimalist score (thank you, W.G. Snuffy Walden, for your acoustic soundtrack). All of those elements, including the nuanced performances, seamlessly blended together to resonating effect.

Kudos also go to the wardrobe team for styling the characters in timeless and realistic garb. You see, Felicity didn't have to rely on flashy trends or fashions to keep viewers hooked. It proved that you could have a female protagonist with frizzy hair run around in bulky sweaters and talk to an unseen woman named Sally on a tape recorder -- and still get ratings.

As the seasons wore on, and as our favorite UNY students got older and wiser, the show inevitably pulled some stunts to spice things up. 

Let's begin with The Haircut Heard Around The World. The vitriol with which viewers expressed their rage over Felicity's decision to cut her curly locks was unbelievable. TV critics blamed the decrease in viewership on the new 'do. That never stopped me from watching the show. I mean, come on, we've all experimented with our appearances in college. I myself am guilty of rocking a goatee for one month in the spring of 1999. Then there was Noel's early quarter-life crisis during which he shaved his head, called himself "Leon," and took an impromptu trip to Europe with a girl who "looks a lot like the hot chick from the Doritos commercials." This was followed by a revolving door of new characters (British Molly! Pregnant Ruby! Tyra Banks!), a cliffhanging shooting at a winter party, and one of the first portrayals of a same-sex marriage on television (the heartwarming nuptials of Javier and Samuel). 

But what was probably the craziest thing to happen to Felicity was that out-from-left-field plot twist towards the end of the final season when our Miss Porter traveled back in time to right some wrongs (preventing Noel's accidental death, winning Ben back, etc). Granted, the show's writers and producers were given an unexpected, last-minute 7-episode order by the network after they had already graduated most of their characters and tied up loose ends in what was intended to be a proper send-off.

I for one would have preferred to see the show go on and portray life after college (could've been helpful with my own move across the country after graduation). But alas, it made sense, ending it all there. After all, we have to leave things behind in order to prepare for what's in front of us (I'm feeling the urge to sing Semisonic's "Closing Time" all of a sudden).

Finally, here's where things get a little personal...One of the reasons why Felicity resonated with me (still does) was because I too was a member of the Class of 2002 while the show aired on television. For once, I was able to watch characters learn and grow up along with me -- as if in real time -- and feel like my own life was being reflected on my small TV set in my small dorm room. I remember waiting for the T at the Kenmore Square station in Boston and studying the billboard from across the tracks (as seen above on the left). It looked interesting with his golden hue and promise of...possibility. Kind of like my freshman year at BU.

What was once a pleasantly watchable hour of television alone turned into weekly group viewings in dorm rooms throughout campus. And what we were all being treated to week after week was an unforgettable journey made by a brave, young woman who pursued a dream, stuck by her guns, stumbled graciously, and discovered a whole new trail she wished to blaze on her own.

Thank you, Mr. Abrams, and thank you, Mr. Reeves.

@TheFirstEcho

*P.S. -- And whatever happened to Sally?

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

No, thank YOU TheFirstEcho for writing about our show so eloquently. Really great story. I agree with everything you wrote about and miss all those I was fortunate enough to work with and share those years with. JJ & Matt hit a homerun with the show and it resonated with the audience in a very lasting way. I still get people coming up and telling me how it bonded a family relationship getting together to watch the show. I was very lucky to be a part of it.

- @GregGrunberg aka. SeanBlumberg

Busig said...

Thank you for posting this article. I loved the show and agree, I also thought the whole back in time dream was silly and out of character for both Ben and Felicity. I too wanted to see a post college story. After 4 years of struggling with their relationship, I would have liked to see B & F get married. Would love to see a reunion show, but probably not going to happen. :(

Jenn said...

I just added "Felicity" to my Netflix queue, as your post makes me want to re-watch the series!

jaimie said...

I was also a class of '02er and feel like I grew up right alongside felicity and her friends every week on my tiny dorm room t.v. I still revisit the show on dvd and netflix now. wouldn't change a thing. great read. thanks for the memories.

Celly Inatomi said...

I feel like I grew up alongside felicity too! I just loved your text!

Piotrek099 said...

Thank you for this post. "Felicity" will always have a special place in my hart. When I first watched it I was on highschool. Now I'm after college and just watched the pilot again and felt a little warming inside :)