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.