On October 3, 1999, the world watched the final moments of the then-WB network college drama Felicity with bated breath as the titular character played by actress Keri Russell sat in a salon chair and strands of her lush locks were cut and hit the floor in a pivotal moment of the episode and the series.
Many wouldn’t guess that Star Wars filmmaker J.J. Abrams and The Batman director Matt Reeves were the minds behind this series which followed Felicity Porter, an endearing, wide-eyed high school graduate that follows a boy, Ben (Scott Speedman) to New York for college after he writes a meaningful message in her yearbook. This derails her parents’ plan for her to stay in her hometown of Palo Alto and attend Stanford to become the doctor they always wanted her to be. The result is a four-season coming-of-college-age series that take us on a college journey filled with a richter scale of ups and downs.
The WB of it all
Felicity left an impact on a generation which existed a specific era of television that was lightning in a bottle. We were in the golden era of the WB channel which included a cornucopia of TV shows which were formative in many lives. In addition to Felicity, we had Dawson’s Creek, Charmed, The Jamie Foxx Show, Popular, Roswell, 7th Heaven, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among others.
The WB network (which has since morphed into the CW) knew what they had and in 2000, put it all on the table with their “The Night Is Young” campaign which featured an “Oh What a Night!” promo video which featured nearly everyone in their TV empire including Russell and her Felicity co-stars dancing and partying alongside other members of the prestigious WB cool kid crew of the early ’00s including James Van Der Beek, Joshua Jackson, Katie Holmes, Holly Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano, Shannen Doherty, Garcelle Beauvais, Katherine Heigl, David Boreanaz, Sarah Michelle Gellar as well as Oscar winner Jamie Foxx and the glorious entity that is known as Michelle Williams.
The “hairtastrophe” that shook culture
As I write this, I’m immersed in season two. In episode 20 titled “Ben Was Here,” Felicity is now a Resident Advisor and one of her advisees Ruby (played by the charming Amy Smart) find themselves amidst a dorm room migration caused by a busted pipe in Kelvin Hall. They are now in sleeping bags on the cafeteria floor talking about their love lives.
Felicity’s hair has become the new normal at this point and Ruby is in a complicated relationship with Noel (Scott Foley) and is pregnant. Initially, Noel was thought he was the father but it turns out he wasn’t.
For those of you who aren’t Felicity-heads like myself (yes, I was at the reunion at ATX TV Festival in 2018), there is more to this. Felicity once dated Noel and the two had a messy breakup (sparked by her boinking the mysterious hot art student Eli played by Simon Rex and Noel getting back with his ex-girlfriend Hanna played by Jennifer Garner). This eventually led to the historic TV moment at the end of season one where the audience was left guessing if Felicity chose to go on a road trip back to Palo Alto with Ben for the winter break or spend it with Noel, who will be spending winter break in Berlin for an internship.
This leads to season 2 where it is revealed that Felicity chose Ben and Noel is not happy about it… and neither is her BFF Julie (Amy Jo Johnson), who is also involved in this parallelogram of love. Felicity eventually just cuts all ties with everyone involved in this love quadrangle and makes a big move to cut her hair. As many can relate, the symbolic act of cutting her hair represents a fresh start, a relatable move for those seeking closure or a new chapter in life. (The decision to cut Russell’s hair was a joint one between her and Abrams, though Russell was the one most impacted.)
Ratings stumbled a bit due to the “hairtastrophe” of it all, but Felicity‘s sophomore season is arguably one of the strongest as it continued to be a progressive show for the time. In season one, there was a storyline portraying the nuances and complexities of the aftermath of date rape through the character of Julie. This storyline extended to season 2 when Julie spoke openly about her experiences during a protest organized by Felicity against the student medical center for not providing the morning after pill to students. Sad to say, it’s no surprise this storyline is still relevant in 2023.
The Felicity rainbow coalition
Felicity existed during an era when television was cautiously embracing progressive storylines, tackling issues like date rape, reproductive health, abuse of power, race relations, immigration, adoption, and mental health. While its approach might seem tame by today’s standards, it was ahead of its time compared to many of its contemporaries. The show’s inclusivity, particularly in its LGBTQ representation, was noteworthy. It casually introduced queer characters without resorting to dramatic coming-out moments or queer-bashing narratives. Noel’s brother comes out as gay early in the series and we see lesbians, drag queens and other queer characters appear seamlessly with the core cast.
Felicity’s boss at Dean & Deluca Javier (Ian Gomez) is openly gay and an immigrant with an indecipherable Latinx accent. Javier eventually became a regular character on the series and could have easily been a punchline but the character evolved into a fan favorite, garnering fully-fleshed out character arcs including marrying his boyfriend, becoming an American citizen, and going back to college. Gomez, who identifies as heterosexual (as far as I know), played Javier with respect with the right amount of comedic charm. For the late ’90s this was kind of a big deal.
Tangi Miller‘s character, Elena Tyler, stood as the sole Black character on the show, a significant presence in a predominantly white cast. While she possessed a sassy demeanor, the character defied stereotypical tropes, emerging as a multidimensional supporting character who subverted expectations. An overachieving med student, Elena was the most fashionable and level-headed among the group. She navigated social dynamics with finesse. Even though she was the voice of reason amongst the madness her life got messy. This includes her affair with a professor (played by Fright Night star and Oscar-nominated actor Chris Sarandon) who, in a pre-#MeToo era, was later found out to be a predator later in the series.
The character of Elena was way before Hollywood entered the “age of inclusivity” and each show vies to be representative of as many marginalized folks as possible. In a way, Elena embodied the experiences of marginalized individuals, doing so effortlessly and naturally. Her platonic relationship with Noel, a white heterosexual male, was another groundbreaking aspect, rarely seen on television during that era.
Felicity may not meet today’s standards for progressive storytelling, but it undoubtedly pushed boundaries for its time, paving the way for more inclusive and nuanced representations of marginalized groups in television.
In an interview with Vice, Miller spoke openly about how it was being “the only” on set. “I feel like I did have to remind them that, hey, I’m here…” she said. “It wasn’t bad because I felt like J.J. and Matt and the team that we had were conscious, as you can see in how they developed the storylines. I heard horror stories from other [Black] folks [on other shows], you know, ‘I’m working on this show and I’m just there,’ as opposed to really being included. I felt like they worked really hard to include me. They were always checking in to see how I was doing and how I was getting along with everybody. I appreciated that.”
The inclusivity of Felicity was something I was drawn to whether I realized it or not. The show was primarily white, but it existed in a world where POCs and queer people existed, whether as tertiary characters, guest stars or recurring roles. As Miller pointed out, it seemed there was a concerted effort of inclusivity behind the scenes as well.
In the first season, there’s an episode titled “Friends”, which was written by Woman King director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who also worked as a consulting producer on the show before she went on to helm the classic romantic drama Love and Basketball. The episode is very Elena-centric and touches on her Black identity and her friendship with Felicity with a subtlety that glows.
When Felicity tells Elena that she saw her boyfriend kissing her good friend, Elena refuses to believe it because of the stronger bond she has with her BFF. Later in the episode, Elena learns the truth and the story becomes less about “identity” and more about sisterhood and trust.
Throughout its run, Felicity was peppered with a potpourri of guest actors you may recognize — and it was a wildly inclusive roster! This includes John Cho, who popped in as one of Noel’s advisees whose roommate dreamt of murdering him. Oscar-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson also makes an appearance as an RA at Kelvin Hall. Ant-Man‘s Michael Peña also appears in several episodes as a obnoxious advisee with a heart of gold and R&B singer Monica competes in a beauty pageant alongside Felicity later in the series.
Gilmore Girls MVP Keiko Agena appeared in a handful of episodes including the “morning after pill” one while Donald Faison eventually becames part of the gang as Elena’s primary love interest and almost-husband, Tracy. At one point during their on-and-off relationship, Elena dates Deforest played by the one and only Kenan Thompson of Saturday Night Live fame.
On top of the guest cast list was Janeane Garofalo as Sally, Felicity’s seen-not-heard confidant. The roster also includes the late, great John Ritter as Ben’s father — and guess who plays his mother? Dee Wallace. We see acting legend Sally Kirkland drag the fuck out Felicity as her hypercritical art professor as well as the “Doritos girl” herself Ali Landry played Javier’s wild child cousin who ends up marrying Noel at one point.
Other actors that got to play in the Felicity sandbox included Magic Mike and Criminal Minds star Adam Rodriguez, the late Alexis Arquette, American Born Chinese creator Kelvin Yu as well as Jane Kaczmarek, Marissa Jaret Winokur, among others. And I saved the best for last: Tyra Banks. The America’s Next Top Model empress played a dance major that Noel stalked. Literally. (I never said that everything about the series aged well.)
The joy of college life melodrama
So yes, Felicity had a lot of drama going on. Maybe a little too much at times…but it was done well. It was also done in a mature way that was probably too mature for college-aged students. For example, freshmen in college aren’t usually able to communicate their emotions in such an emotionally mature way in the way Felicity often does. In fact, the way these “college” kids talked was way more philosophical and existential than I ever was at 19 or 20 years old. For example, in one of the first times Felicity breaks it off with Ben, she recites the following beautifully-worded, yet shading soliloquy to him:
The truth is I can’t be with you like this. I mean, I know I said that I could, but I can’t. I just can’t compromise myself like that. I mean I’m an emotional person. I feel things and I need to be able to get upset and talk about how I’m feeling. I mean that’s just…that’s who I am and I can’t change it. I don’t want to. And the thing is you know that, you knew it and you still pursued me because you want something with me, you just aren’t strong enough to have it which…in a way makes you a coward. And the saddest part is that…one day you’re gonna wake up and you’re gonna realize what you missed and it’s gonna be too late.
This heightened maturity might explain why the show resonated so deeply with those who attended college during the late ’90s and early 2000s, including myself. Felicity articulated the unspoken emotions and experiences of that era’s college students. Many of us were away from home from the first time and we were building our own communities, adult lives and friendship circles from scratch. We were shedding our high school personas and navigating through love, loss, joy and pain in settings where we didn’t have a parental system of authority to guide us. For many of us, it was the first time we had to be accountable for actions. We had to figure it out life without training wheels and trying to do all of that while trying to maintain a decent GPA was wild journey.
Felicity’s character resonated with audiences due to her genuine empathy, endearing nature, and good intentions. However, she was far from perfect, exhibiting flaws, occasional annoyance, and overbearing tendencies. She made mistakes, experienced failures, heartbreak and at times, treated others like shit without realizing it. Yet, she also possessed a willingness to help those in need, even those who disliked her. Her victories and successes were balanced by her honest self-reflection and acknowledgment of her shortcomings. While she learned from some experiences, others left her unchanged. It was this blend of imperfections that made Felicity so relatable and authentic.
My personal connection with Felicity stems from my own experience of following a group of friends to college, specifically one girl. However, when I got to college, it wasn’t what I expected. I realized I wasn’t following anyone but rather latching to a high school life that needed to be left behind. Felicity reflected the college experience of a particular era that I lived through. It captured the awkwardness of social interactions, the quest for finding one’s identity and career aspirations, being wildly horny and hormonal, the drunken nights, and the stress-fueled adrenaline rush of finals. Felicity spoke to a specific time yet managed to remain timeless in its portrayal of these universal experiences.
The first two seasons is finely crafted and coated with a Sarah McLachlan sheen and gentle swaying music that feels like premium hold music. It drips with angst and although it occasionally it flirts with wandering into navel-gazing territory, the grounded and relatable characters keep us invested in their journeys, regardless of their choices.
Still grasping on to the breathiness of Lilith Fair energy, season three introduced a new mid-tempo theme song and brightened up (literally) from the shadowy soft-spoken “heys” of the series’ humble beginnings. Then there was season four, a post 9/11 time-traveling season that wasn’t the best, but was satisfying.
The series gave Russell, a Mickey Mouse Club alum, a Golden Globe and pretty much launched her career into the stratosphere. She soon became a muse for Abrams and has since appeared in many of his projects including the third installment of Mission: Impossible and more recently, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. She also starred in the acclaimed indie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes which was directed by co-creator Matt Reeves. And let’s not forget her role in The Americans as well as the destined-to-be-camp-classic Cocaine Bear.
As we are in the swing of autumn, Felicity is like my pumpkin spice latte. For me, fall time is for Felicity In a world ablaze with turmoil and unrest, this series offers a soothing respite. Set against the backdrop of college life, it presents relatable characters who navigate the complexities of human relationships, mirroring our own experiences.
From the underrated Twilight Zone episode to Sean’s (Abrams’s real-life BFF Greg Grunberg) “Docuventary,” the series creatively imparts valuable lessons on love and self-discovery. It’s no surprise that Abrams and Reeves, the show’s creators, crafted other characters they’ve directed in the same vein as Felicity Porter. In Abrams’s Mission: Impossible III, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) feels more human than ever rather than super spy. He has a wife and a suburban life beyond espionage. Like Felicity, he embarks on a new chapter, facing trials and errors before ultimately reuniting with those he loves – a Spielbergian touch. Similarly, Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne in Reeves’s The Batman is a novice vigilante, grappling with the complexities of Gotham crime-solving, yet determined to learn, avenge and succeed. Felicity, in a way, serves as the blueprint for Abrams and Reeves’s iterations of these hella extra, unhinged men.
Felicity reminds us of the duality of human nature – the capacity for both kindness and hurt. Its characters push the boundaries of unconditional love with raw honesty, reminiscent of an era of WB dramas where teens and twentysomethings spoke like philosophy scholars, making us cry tears into our bottles of Fruitopia. The series advocates mindfulness, encouraging us to embrace our imperfections and learn from them – a universal message that resonates deeply.
We’ve all been Felicity at some point, venturing into the unknown, making mistakes, yet driven by love, curiosity, and a cautious yearning for new experiences.
And for the record, I’m Team Noel.