Felicity premiered while I was in college, and my collegiate friends and I gathered to watch it on Tuesday nights (it now airs on Wednesdays). We were, in theory, the target audience for a show whose premise concerns a high school graduate Felicity Porter (Keri Russell) who chucks a scholarship at Stanford to follow her longtime crush, Ben Covington (Scott Speedman), to the fictional “University of New York.” (It’s supposedly based on New York University, but as more than one of my cynical collegiate friends pointed out, at the real NYU it would be near-impossible to assemble so many heterosexual men in one place.) Felicity quickly surrounded herself with a crowd of friends, including Julie the guitar player (Amy Jo Johnson), Elena the driven student (Tangi Miller), and Noel (Scott Foley), resident advisor and on-and-off boyfriend. Watching the show in a cramped dorm room at our Northeastern university, we wanted to know: what kind of show, exactly, was Felicity trying to be? Was it supposed to reflect our lives? Was it supposed to be a realistic coming-of-age drama like Dawson’s Creek, or a more exaggerated soap opera, like Beverly Hills 90210?
Early rumors labeled the show Ally McBeal Goes to College, and it’s taken two full seasons to grow into the designation: while on Ally McBeal, the comedy has become more and more exaggerated, with increasingly unfunny results, the Felicity writers have chosen an air of light comedy. Thus, in the first episode of the third season, Ben and Felicity’s decision to live together and Noel’s to leave college and marry crucial turns of events that would have been treated with utmost gravity in the first season are treated comically. Which is not to say that the show has given up on dramatic plotlines altogether, but the tone has definitely shifted away from the “evocative coming-of-age drama” that the show’s official website (http://www.thewb.com/felicity/) describes; these college students may be coming of age, but now it’s in zany, only-in-TVland ways, in which one couple can run off to Tuscany after sleeping together twice and another can move from fabulous dorm rooms to a studio apartment before the semester even starts.
The original premise of Felicity made it out as a drama with comic touches, a sort of 1990s The Wonder Years set at college. Thus the show presented a number of Serious Topics in its first season, and loaded them with dramatic weight: Julie was date-raped; Felicity lost her virginity; Ben suffered from a gambling addiction. (The first plotline suffered from a particularly unfelicitous bit of casting, as the date-rapist was played by Devon Gummersall, best known as terminally nice guy Brian Krakow on My So-Called Life.) The shift from drama to comedy was heralded by a second season episode in which Felicity and her friends campaigned for the morning-after pill to be available at the UNY health center, going so far as to stage a sit-in. While Felicity had to defend her political stance to her doctor father, and Julie talked movingly of her rape, the episode presented the sit-in as essentially comic a sleep-over party with an “important message” attached.
Now, “serious” issues are routinely presented as secondary to the comic or romantic plotlines. So, where in the first season, Elena’s commitment to academic study in the first season led her into an affair with one of her professors, now it’s part and parcel of her safe attraction to Tracy (Donald Faison), an equally competitive student. Felicity’s introspective taped monologues to Sally, her teacher and mentor back in California (played by an uncredited Janeane Garafalo), have been cut. In the second season premiere, Felicity’s summer-long separation from Noel was played for pathos; in the third season premiere, her summer-long separation from Ben was barely a cause for concern.
As the tone changes, the characters are presented in less nuanced, less realistic shades. Last season, Noel briefly believed he had impregnated his girlfriend, a story that might have been extremely compelling. Noel’s ambivalence about keeping the baby, and his potential role as a father, did not necessarily make him noble or likable, but it certainly made him interesting, however briefly. But the girl turned out to have cheated on Noel with her ex-boyfriend; free of the responsibilities of pregnancy, Noel has transformed himself into a ridiculous figure, renamed “Leon.” Meanwhile, Meghan (Amanda Foreman), Javier (Ian Gomez), and Shawn (Greg Grunberg) who all originally had smaller, comic-relief parts have become main characters, with Foreman and Grunberg now listed in the opening credits. While all three are enjoyable, their responses are more predictable than Felicity’s, Ben’s, or Elena’s, because they are more strictly defined: Meghan is the bitchy Goth roommate; Javier the lovable, older, gay, Hispanic man; Shawn the sometimes annoying filmmaker and entrepreneur.
It may be that Felicity simply can’t talk about the universal problems that beset a college student, because those problems don’t exist. Unlike middle and high school emotional traumas, college problems are not ingrained into the collective American psyche; no matter what happens, some portion of the audience will envy Felicity her privilege the fact that she can choose between Stanford and UNY, and that she rarely worries about money. (In the first season, this potential discontent was represented by Elena, on scholarship and fiercely ashamed of it; the rumor among Felicity‘s fanbase is that “angry Elena” will be more in evidence this season.) But it’s also true that the show has not always effectively presented serious topics. Neither the date-rape nor the gambling addiction stories were particularly believable. The Elena-sleeps-with-her-professor plotline, dropped at the beginning of the second season, served mostly to trivialize Elena’s dedication to her studies. Even though Elena told Noel the professor raised her grade after their affair, the show didn’t bother to plumb the possible ethical implications of such a relationship or even how having her grade changed might have affected proud Elena’s self-esteem.
In that sense, the change from serious drama to light comedy may be a wise move, given that Felicity currently follows Dawson’s Creek, Hour of Teenage Angst, on the WB’s schedule. But in changing the show’s tone, the creators have moved away from the concept that there are certain coming-of-age issues that can only be explored in a collegiate setting. Except for occasional references to seminar and fraternity parties, Felicity and her friends could be living in the same fictional world as Jack & Jill, another light WB comedy, whose characters are all in their mid-20s.
The most significant plotline lost in the attitude shift was the one concerning Felicity’s own academic aspirations. She originally planned be a pre-med student at Stanford and follow in her father’s footsteps, but realized, once she arrived at UNY, that she really wanted to study art. The medicine vs. art storyline, while risky it was sometimes hard to feel sympathy for Felicity was something that could actually concern a college student (I had several friends at my pre-med-intensive college struggling with the same decision). Felicity’s now in her junior year; at most schools, she’d be taking mostly classes in her major. Yet the new season shows her hardly going to class at all. The internal debate whether to follow the “sensible” path her parents expected of her, or strike out on her own creatively seems to have been solved, or at least not considered comic enough to fit in with the new tone.
In theory, there’s no reason why a university wouldn’t make a good setting for a television series, comic or serious. The endless backbiting, the ritual tensions around tenure decisions, the endless juicy plotlines that could result from a frustrated professor, a nubile student, and a sexual harassment lawsuit just read Jane Smiley’s comic novel Moo or any issue of Lingua Franca for the possibilities. But Felicity‘s main characters don’t include a single professor or administrator. In focusing solely on Felicity and her friends Felicity fits into the WB group-of-young-beautiful-people mold. It’s a cute show, with some endearing and some irritating characters, and it’s fun to watch. But it has a much richer field to till, and could become more compelling and unusual than the writers seem to realize.