Friday, September 14th, 2012

"Felicity" And The Joys Of Decent TV

Dear Sally,

Without quite meaning to, I spent a good deal of this TV off-season watching a show in which I had no interest whatsoever when it was actually on the air. Thanks to the miracle of Netflix Instant and a slight compulsive streak, I watched all four seasons of "Felicity" this summer—that's 84 episodes, 63 hours. Every breakup and reconciliation, every Christmas break and dorm-room confrontation. This sounds, as I type it out, like a bizarre thing to have done. Neither intriguingly campy (my summer of watching soap operas) nor admirably highbrow (my summer of watching the entire AFI greatest films list). Just sort of… there. Like a summer of eating spaghetti with Prego tomato sauce.

However: I'm convinced (and not just, I don't think, to retroactively justify all those hours) that this was a good use of my time—and even that you should, if you happen to find yourself with a months-wide gap in your entertainment calendar, consider doing the same. Allow me to explain.

First, and maybe least importantly, "Felicity" turns out to be a surprisingly decent show—intermittently moving, reliably involving, more self-aware than it's usually given credit for. To the extent that it has a premise, it's that a pretty, young woman named Felicity Porter (played with career-imprisoning memorable-ness by Keri Russell) goes to college in New York City and grows up.

It's of that genre of shows with predominantly white casts—also included here is "Brothers and Sisters" and "Parenthood"—that I've come to think of as "pink noise." Meaning: there is, at one level, a great deal of drama, crisscrossing currents of love and betrayal, crisis and resolution, but that if you take even the slightest of steps back—if your attention wanders even for long enough to think about what you'll have for dinner tomorrow—the entire thing dissolves into a blur of attractive white people making problems out of nothing. It's compelling and embarrassing in more or less equal measure.

The more important reason I'm glad to have gone on my "Felicity"-bender, though, has less to do with the show itself than it does with a cultural conservationist streak I've been surprised to discover in myself. I would, in a way, be just as glad to have watched "Murder, She Wrote," or "The Real World: Season 1," or "Ally McBeal," and perhaps next summer I will.

There's a strange convention, in both the consuming of culture and the writing about it, to pay attention only to that which is new and that which is classic. It's either the absolute present (see Slate's Talmudically reverential weekly discussions of "Louie) or that which is firmly in the canon (see Dave Kehr's very good weekly column about which decades-old movie is now being restored to Blu-ray). This is the underlying logic of the two types of cultural lists that appear throughout each year as reliably as holidays: 11 books we can't wait for this fall! The 10 greatest heist movies ever made!

The art that has the misfortune to be neither brand new nor brilliant—which is to say, the vast majority of all art ever created—is relegated to an enormous coastal reef of forgettability. The three seasons (!) of "Parker Lewis Can't Lose." Arthur Conan Doyle stories about Brigadier Gerard. The John Hughes movies that didn't make it into career retrospectives. Countless hours of work, millions of pounds of film equipment and carefully revised drafts and audition tapes, forgotten on the ocean floor like so many old subway cars.

Now, most of the stuff in this cultural reef—like most of all stuff—deserves to be forgotten. "Saved by the Bell: The College Years"; all novels based on movies, (except, strangely, 2001: A Space Odyssey); Michael Jackson's Invincible. These things can, for all I care, remain entombed until the explosion of the sun.

The things that I take pleasure in exhuming are the works of reasonable quality, created in at least relatively good faith. I'm talking about the books and movies and shows that did their job—causing some number of minutes of your life to pass with a minimum of fuss—with a certain soldierly sense of responsibility. Someone once took care to construct a plausible plot by which the character of Ben Covington could make the turn from an aimless slacker to an aspiring doctor. Some group of (deeply misguided) people once sat around a table and decided that, beginning with season three, "Felicity" needed a a new theme song and credit sequence. This care, this effort poured into something so soon forgotten, is oddly moving to me, in the way that watching monks work on a sand mandala is moving.

Our ordinary treatment of reef-material, after all, is maddeningly sketchy and reductive. The 109 episodes of Ellen Degeneres' sitcom have decomposed entirely except for the fact of Ellen kissing a woman. "Murphy Brown"—all 247 episodes of it—survives as nothing more than something about Dan Quayle and single motherhood. And "Felicity"—the many hours of parallel plotting, the court-of-Versailles-ish loyalties and rivalries—has been reduced to no more than a haircut. Years of peoples' lives have been compressed into a thing to say when you walk past someone curly-haired going into a barbershop.

But it isn't out of respect for J.J. Abrams (who has, after all, done fine for himself) that I'm glad to have rehydrated the essence of "Felicity." There's a pleasure, and even a certain mental importance, in periodically reminding oneself that the past—personal, cultural, and planetary—was as finely grained as the present. It's an exercise not unlike reading one's own old journals. You might think, casually, that you have a fairly good handle on what your life was like in, say, 2002—that job, that apartment, that relationship. But you discover, upon actually wading into the line-by-line dailiness of it, that you'd forgotten entire plot arcs, characters, preoccupations that at the time seemed of vital importance. There's so much missing texture in one's feeble notions of the past. The years were made of months which were made of weeks which were made of days which were made of hours. The dinosaurs spent much more time scratching themselves and turning over in the sun than they did posing like the skeletons in the Natural History Museum. And "Felicity," it turns out, contains a lot more than a haircut.

To re-experience "Felicity" in its entirety is to wander through a kind of living museum of turn-of-the-millenium-Manhattan—look how people still used pay-phones! look at those carpenter jeans! look at Keenan Thompson and John Ritter and Tyra Banks! Watching the show occasionally gave me a feeling like Emily in Our Town: "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?" I found myself feeling an odd affection for the actors, the writers, even the original viewers—all collaborating on this snowman at the end of winter.

So: in between reacquainting yourself with the gang from "Happy Endings" and finally finishing off The Dekalog, make a little time this fall for "The Wonder Years," or Uncle Buck, or even "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." Your options are endless: even at this late, post-Quikster date, the offerings on Netflix Instant resemble nothing so much as a delightfully bizarre shelf of VHS's you might find in the TV cabinet of a beach-house. You might not be able to keep up with your colleagues' conversation about "Boardwalk Empire," and you might not have an opinion about the novel that's suddenly in every bookstore window. But you will, in squandering a bit of the present, have regained even more of the past. Like Felicity herself in one of Season Four's more regrettable developments (and here I offer an embarrassed, decade-belated spoiler alert), you'll have learned to time-travel.

Ben Dolnick is the author, most recently, of Shelf-Love, a Kindle Single about Alice Munro.

17 Comments / Post A Comment

deepomega (#1,720)

That said, I'm never gonna let you guys talk me into liking Cheers.

taigan (#11,267)

@deepomega Hear, hear!

Mr. B (#10,093)

So, watch a lot of Nick at Nite, is what you're saying.

If someone had told me this show involved time travel and witches I probably would have watched it before now!

On a related note, I did this with Buffy two summers ago and it was pretty great ("why don't they just use cell phones! Oh right, it's 1998…")

bee1000 (#237,956)

A. I'm not the only person who watched all of Felicity on Netflix!
B. Wouldn't it have been so much better if Felicity chased Ben to college, but ended up falling in love with Julie instead?
C. Time travel! When the show originally aired I gave up on it long before the time travel, and I'm not sorry about that now.
D. If you watch Ally McBeal, which I also watched (I don't have cable, okay? I've watched your Mad Men, Weeds and Breaking Bad, too – don't judge.), skip season 3 and anything after Dame Edna shows up. Just watch the first 2 seasons is what I'm saying. There's good stuff in there.
E. The Wonder Years hasn't aged well for me, especially with the substitute music. More in line with Felicity is My So-Called Life, which is awesome on its own as well as as a time capsule.
F. Your idea of pink noise describes far too many of my favorite TV, movies and novels.

checkonetwo (#3,234)

@bee1000 100% agreed on The Wonder Years. Watched a few episodes on Netflix and completely expected it to have held up well, especially given the fact that I was 7 or 8 when I watched it and didn't remember very much. I was sorely disappointed. Boy Meets World, on the other hand, has aged fabulously (for me, at least). I completely expected it to work the other way around.

Also, the pink noise thing describes perfectly what I'm looking for most of the time when I'm consuming media– something that I don't have to be embarrassed about watching, so no reality shows, but also doesn't require that much thought or close attention to understand. I'm currently wondering whether Dawson's Creek fits into the "acceptable pink noise" or "embarrassing" category.

bee1000 (#237,956)

@checkonetwo I've been watching Dawson's Creek since AV Club started writing (way too straight) recaps of it this summer. It's not a good show. I'd say it falls pretty deep into the embarrassing end of the spectrum (if you're one to be embarrassed by your TV-watching choices, that is). If you like Boy Meets World you're probably 10 years younger than me and Dawson's Creek might feel nostalgic and much more forgivable.

Jay (#10,046)

This is a much better articulation of the kinds of things I was thinking as I watched "The Edge" (1997) last night, or "The River Wild" (1994) a couple weeks ago. Earnest, unpretentious, two-and-a-half-star cultural detritus that hardly anyone remembers or talks about, much less watches.


samantha_s (#238,004)

northern exposure.

fantastic forgotten 90s series!

bee1000 (#237,956)

@samantha_s A great show indeed, but another tragic victim of music-licensing issues! Add it to the list with Wonder Years and Dawson's Creek.

curlysue (#34,091)

Felicity was my favorite show when it was on. It premiered shortly after I graduated from college, and I always loved how each of Felicity's years in college mirrored my own in terms of drama, personal growth and development. I also loved how Felicity was allowed to be smart and a bit dorky and overly self aware, and how she was an only child with over-protective parents–just like me! I watched it again on Netflix, and it seemed a bit overwrought, but that's college for you. Sadly, my 35 year old self didn't love Ben as much as my 22 year old self–way too wishy-washy for my taste. It's interesting how that sort of behavior struck me as tortured and romantic when I was younger, and now just seems a little douchy.

stealthkitten (#238,003)

I have fallen hard for this show in the past week! I'm about 8 or 9 episodes into the first season. You are totally right, I think it's because it feels like a time capsule of this really wonderful time in my life– I fell in love with my boyfriend in 2001 in New York City. We were both college freshman and he was going to NYU. Watching Felicity has opened this flood of memories — the colors and clothes we wore, the haircuts that were popular, and being so happy and nervous about being on our own and together in this amazing city. Maybe that's cheeseball, but man I am in love with watching this show!

lolijayne (#238,005)

I actually spent a good chunk of time this summer, watching Felicity. It was the most random thing to stumble on this post and see that someone else had done so. Maybe I'm not so crazy after all.

Aggro-Pina (#234,841)

A few summers ago I had a crush on Brit actor Colin Buchanan and through amazon dug up an old three-season series on dvd called "All is quiet on the Preston Front", about a bunch of people all in the Territorial Army. No subtitles, so I improved my English skill quite a bit. All sorts of unexpected good things can come out of watching old tv.

Annie Walsh@twitter (#238,030)

1. I love Felicity.
2. "..he entire thing dissolves into a blur of attractive white people making problems out of nothing." This. Yes.
3. I have the DVDs because they were gifted to me from my mother as I graduated high school..Felicity's in college, I was in college, yay, haha. But I've listened to a lot of the voice over commentary and it's THE BEST. Because I'm pretty sure they made the actors come back and do it at least a couple years after the show was over. And they just make fun of themselves and all the weird things (giant dorms, saying "hey" all the time, how Ben always whisper talks..) they had to do. Anyway, they are hilarious and made me feel really fond of all the actors.

charlsiekate (#231,720)

My first year home after law school, I didn't have cable, and I watched all nine seasons of Northern Exposure on netflix. It was fascinating. My parents lived half a mile away and had real cable with a DVR, so I did watch other shows on Sunday afternoons, but at my house, I was fully immersed in Cicely, Alaska, population 815, and John Corbett's voice narrated my life.

SuzzyRoche (#238,212)

1. I have been watching Felicity.
2. I have been watching Ally McBeal.
3. I have been watching Murder She Wrote (and bought a shirt inspired by Angela's fashion, for the occasion of visiting my grandmother who loved that show).
4. I recently watched all of Dawson's Creek.
5. Buffy does not go in that category. Buffy is timeless and ageless and yes, why didn't they use cell phones?! But Cordelia did, remember, season 1 episode 1 "I have to call everyone I've ever met, RIGHT NOW."
6. The Wonder Years, it turns out, is mostly about how everything was better and wholesome in the fifties (before all this war-resistance, homosexuality and racial integration took hold). I rewatched two episodes, carefully selected and seasons apart, and my crush on Winnie instantly dissolved along with my nostalgia for that show. Only the title sequence remains in my heart.
7. I often watch things that are about college students living in dorms because I'm 29 and it's too late for me to live in a dorm, and I never did. I dropped out of high school and had excellent adventures and went to college non-traditionally (will graduate before I'm 30! Psyched!) but the vicarious nostalgia for dorm life, it's something specific that I crave. So I watch all these shiny white children go on to college where, like you said, they make problems for themselves (except when they get mugged… Felicity and Joey Potter, very interesting mugging sequences). I never had cable so in a way I'm catching up on all the TV I didn't watch as a child.

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