There will never be another show quite like Felicity, whose unique emotional intelligence still sets itself apart from the pack 20 years later.
On Sept. 29, 1998, an ambitiously simple show called Felicity premiered on The WB and would last for four seasons, 84 episodes, and one ridiculously over-hyped haircut.
Twenty years later, we’re still talking about that haircut, even though Keri Russell has made far more impressive changes to her hair on six seasons of The Americans. But the series that propelled Russell into fame remains deeply ingrained in pop culture, never leaving the hearts of the millions that debated Ben vs. Noel for the better part of the new millennium. As influential as Felicity might have been in its prime, would the show’s honesty and earnestness work today?
Felicity signed off the air in May 2002 with a space-time continuum-bending series finale, and television has bent in million of its own directions since. For starters, straightforward teen dramas like Felicity dried up into extinction as anti-heroes, superheroes, and binge-watching became the new black. There’s little room for small but mighty, character-driven explorations of young adulthood anymore. Well, at least those without the allure of darkness.
Most of the series currently targeted to the 18-34 demographic are as dark as the prestige series crowding our Netflix queues. Riverdale finds teenagers grappling with serial killers and deadly maple syrup-related drug trafficking rings. 13 Reasons Why could otherwise be classified as a teen trauma, given its graphic subject matter. Even Lifetime’s new series You features a college student, not unlike Felicity Porter falling under the lure of a dangerous stalker.
By 2018’s standards, teen shows (or any show, really) must have a binge-able hook, a mystery to keep viewers pounding “next episode” into the wee hours of the morning. Today, Felicity would have to fend off a murderous classmate or track down a serial predator, which would be entertaining, but it would rely too intensely on a plot-driven narrative that TV’s not lacking. And besides, imagine what Sally’s reaction would be getting those tapes.
The closest modern show in DNA to Felicity might be Freeform’s The Bold Type, but even that series, centering on a trio of working women in New York City, reads more like a millennial take on Sex and the City. Both shows tackle feminist issues and women’s stories with grace. But Felicity zeroes in on the emotional experience of those four confusing years of college, where you’re on your own, falling in love, and changing your look for the first time.
Call it the Gen X ethos, but the college kids on Felicity wrote songs and made documentaries. (Excuse me, docu-vent-aries. Sean wasn’t Jughead). The series, with a touch of WB-style melodrama, magnified the minutiae of young adult psychology, though not as exhaustively as Dawson’s Creek. Felicity showed that it’s okay to feel your feelings and with them. It’s okay to talk about them ad nauseam, even if it’s into a tape recorder for your former French tutor. It’s okay to follow your own whims, take risks, and make mistakes.
Above all, it’s okay for these themes to have a place without darkness. Netflix’s latest original romantic comedies have proven that there’s a hunger in pop culture for the stripped-down, coming-of-age character pieces Felicity once helped to streamline. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before borrows a similar page from the honest and earnest playbook, taking its characters and their stories seriously. We need more entertainment that’s purely human, not less.
Honesty and earnestness can still thrive on television today, but not with the same luxury of freedom allotted from 1998 to 2002. Twenty years have shifted the mood of television, yet the little show that could hasn’t waned in impact. Keri Russell’s hair gets more per-year shout-outs than anyone else’s (except, maybe, Connie Britton). If only we could change the conversation to what made Felicity a household name on the inside rather than the outside.
All four seasons of Felicity are available to stream on Hulu.