When they sold “Felicity” to the WB network 20 years ago this weekend, J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves had only previously worked together on the 1996 film “The Pallbearer.” Their subsequent work included genre series like “Alias” and “Lost,” scary films like “Cloverfield” and “Let Me In,” and big-screen reboots of popular franchises like “Star Wars” and “Planet of the Apes.” A modest character-driven television drama, “Felicity” was about an introverted high school student (Keri Russell) who follows her dream guy Ben (Scott Speedman) into college in NYC in the opposite direction.
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The show’s premise sounded like a soapy teen melodrama, but that was far from the case thanks to the sharp writing and stellar cast. Despite the fact that this is a densely plotted, serialized show that merits a close, in-depth look, these ten episodes from Hulu will suffice to give you a general idea of what’s going on.
1. ‘Pilot’ (Season 1, Episode 1)
When you look back, it’s kind of unsurprising that the pilot episode looked so much like a movie. It’s a great little 45-minute film about breaking away and taking a chance. As a result, the show’s bizarre premise appears credible and emotionally logical at the same time. While Speedman is perfect as Felicity’s love interest, Scott Foley is instantly endearing as Noel, the nice guy resident assistant who rounds out the show’s romantic triangle. Speedman and Foley both have an easy, breezy charm that belies their maturity and complexity. This show’s aesthetics have been set from the start: evocative slow-motion photography, thoughtful voice-over, silhouetted compositions, and carefully curated music. Many shows struggle in the first season to find their voice. There are so many references to “Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes” that it’s easy to forget it’s in “Say Anything.”
2. ‘Thanksgiving’ (Season 1, Episode 9)
When Noel’s long-distance girlfriend visits New York for Thanksgiving break, things get complicated in their rapidly developing relationship. It was Jennifer Garner who played the girlfriend in “Alias,” and we were treated to two amusing bathroom scenes between her and Russell, two future television super spies. But it’s not the romance in “Thanksgiving” that makes it so memorable; rather, it’s the way author Andrea Newman manages the changed plans, missed connections, and emotional emergencies that result in a makeshift holiday dinner for friends, roommates, and ex-lovers. It’s as if you’re standing in this new city with nothing but your suitcase when all of a sudden, you realize: You’re surrounded by family.
3. ‘Felicity Was Here’ (Season 1, Episode 22)
When Ben and Julie’s (Amy Jo Johnson) breakup and Noel’s unexpected internship opportunity in Berlin cause the “Ben or Noel?” conundrum to come to a head early in the Season 1 finale, plans for a couples road trip for Felicity and Noel and Ben and Julie (Amy Jo Johnson) implode. It’s clear that Ben still likes Felicity and wants her to join him on the road trip, and he’s putting pressure on her to see it too. We have our sympathetic heroine, Russell, doing something unsympathetic and unlikable while her own almost-boyfriend is unaware. Russell does some of her best acting yet in this episode. But for some reason, we’re still rooting for her, thanks to Russell’s careful portrayal of Felicity’s self-awareness and guilt, as well as Abrams’ gentle reminder that, despite the circumstances, Ben is the only reason she’s there in the first place.
4. ‘The List’ (Season 2, Episode 2)
Relationships that take an eternity to develop and then end before they even begin are among the most aggravating things in the world. Ben chose Felicity, but the discovery of a tape she should not have left lying around puts an end to their romance prematurely. Felicity chose Ben. There will be a day when you wake up and realize what you’ve missed, and it will be too late,” Felicity warns him, but her words are tinged with sadness rather than anger or spite — a risky move that pays off beautifully. One of the show’s most endearing friendships (Noel and Elena) and most doomed crushes (Sean on Julie) bloom in this episode, as well as Russell’s flowing hair being controversially shaved. Keep an eye out for one of the few times a young Michael Pea appears on screen.
5. ‘The Depths’ (Season 2, Episode 4)
Many scenes were shot in California, but “Felicity” gets the details of city life right (University of New York notwithstanding), in sharp contrast to other contemporaries like “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” which had vague signposting and unconvincing references to the city that never got their due. Even the garble coming from the subway car’s loudspeaker lends authenticity to this episode’s central premise: Felicity and Julie must resolve their conflict while trapped in a stalled subway car for several hours. When an African-American fellow traveler arrives late for a loan meeting and tells them: “These aren’t problems. They’re just inconveniences,” Abrams (who wrote this episode) slyly acknowledges the show’s inherent First World Problem-ness. They’re expensive “luxury” goods.
6. ‘Help for the Lovelorn’ (Season 2, Episode 11)
Most of the episodes in Season 2 of “Felicity” followed the aesthetic established in the pilot, so this out-of-left-field gimmick episode is a welcome change. When it came to directing “Lovelorn,” Abrams chose Lamont Johnson, who had previously worked on eight episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” because of his familiarity with that show’s distinctive style (including the sharp, black-and-white photography). In addition to having a distinctive look (complete with eerie lighting and period costumes), the actors also attempt to deliver their lines in a manner reminiscent of “Twilight Zone”-era shows, with Amanda Foreman (as Felicity’s goth roommate Meghan) and Tangi Miller (a as her friend Elena) standing out in this regard. They are both excellent. There’s a great Rod Serling voiceover by Janeane Garofalo at the beginning and end of the film.
7. ‘It’s Raining Men’ (Season 3, Episode 16)
It’s a shame that Season 3 is the weakest of the series, as it’s riddled with ridiculous plots (such as a shooting at a Christmas party) and the unfortunate resurgence of hand-held camerawork following “Blair Witch” (Ben’s roommate, Sean, played by Greg Grunberg, is filming a documentary about his friends). The tension between Noel and Felicity finally comes to a head in this episode, when he goes too far with her and the two exchange words. It’s also worth noting that future “Saturday Night Live” cast member Kenan Thompson makes an appearance in this episode as a self-conscious potential love interest for Elena. When it comes to relationships, it’s important to protect yourself from being hurt. Teri Garr makes a one-time appearance as Sean and Meghan’s couples counselor in this episode.
8. ‘The Declaration’ (Season 4, Episode 1)
Season 4’s premiere has the distinct impression that it was intended to be a fresh start following Season 3’s missteps. Even the film’s opening sequence, which features a classic “Dear Sally” monologue, is a return to form for Abrams and Reeves. After Felicity’s dad declares the previous three years “a waste of money and time” and refuses to pay for school any longer, the episode ends with an awkward dinner scene. She, on the other hand, confronts him about it this time. Because it’s her life, she insists, “even if it’s a mistake,” she must make her own choices. There are more desperate situations for the characters at the start of Season 4: Noel, a recent college grad, struggles to find work; Felicity is unable to get into a prestigious honors art program; and Ben’s switch to pre-med puts him in conflict with Felicity due to his incredibly busy schedule. After a kiss, she and Noel find themselves vulnerable and alone once again.
9. ‘The Graduate’ (Season 4, Episode 17)
To wrap things up, the series returns to its roots and embraces its unapologetic heart in part one of a two-part conclusion (more on that later). A short-lived relationship of Ben with another woman resulted in a baby, and Ben wants to move to Arizona to help raise the child. Ben asks Felicity to marry him after graduation and she enthusiastically agrees. However, there is a complication. Not without reason, Felicity’s father asks her, “Isn’t following Ben Covington around for four years enough?” This is a viewpoint that she eventually comes around to (though we all know things will eventually turn out). Despite this, the final episode is exemplary: We learn about the characters’ past, we cry, we say our goodbyes, and the final moments and dialogue are perfect. Then, in a strange way, there was more.
10. ‘Back to the Future’ (Season 4, Episode 22)
Five episodes followed what appeared to be the series finale (and was originally intended to be, before an error in the programming left WB executives asking for more episodes), which brought the characters back together after an unexpected death. Feeling betrayed by Ben, Felicity allows Meghan to cast a spell that sends her back in time to the beginning of senior year, where she made the decision to choose Noel over Ben. So it’s an alternate timeline, which wouldn’t be out of place on another J.J. Abrams-produced show, “Lost,” but it’s out of character for “Felicity” to use. Some fans want to pretend that the second season finale never happened, but it does provide a different kind of closure, aided by (of course) snippets from previous seasons. Clip shows are notoriously tedious, but this one works as both a victory lap and a time machine, highlighting the characters’ progress as well as the actors’ personal growth over the course of four years.