Thursday, April 11, 2013

Felicity: Pilot (1.1)

Felicity is probably the one series in the history of television more famous for its hair than anything else. For modern audiences going in blind, including myself, it's the one strange point of reference that has kept the show somewhat relevant to this day. That and the fact that it's regarded as "that old J.J. Abrams show", or the one that he got so bored of that he came up with the anti-Felicity in the form of the college-gal spy series Alias. But going into it with these scant preconceptions ("Hair? Seriously?") actually makes this pilot a genuine surprise -- a tender, small-scale drama about a girl going to the big city and growing up.

It helps that Keri Russell's titular college freshman is aware of her own failings. As the show opens, she's a high school graduate hopelessly infatuated with popular himbo Ben Covington, played with dreamy lunkheadedness by Scott Speedman, though they've never actually had a real conversation. Until he writes a heartfelt yearbook message for her, enough to encourage her to tail him to Manhattan and enroll in the same college, going against her parents' wishes in the process. Shortly after does she thankfully realize she's basing huge life decisions on a guy she barely knows, who doesn't seem all that into her anyway.

It's a frustrating premise to hinge so much of the show upon, but J.J. Abrams' TV debut doesn't falter as much as its potentially regressive premise seems to indicate. Felicity Porter herself is navigating young adulthood, doing stupid things and trying to figure out her own emotions all by herself for the very first time. She's a captivating lead, somebody strong enough to recognize her faults and realize the importance of making them, if only to evolve as a result. It's an idea that meshes well with the show's college setting. Unlike so many of Felicity's WB contemporaries, this is a teen drama opening up with its foot already stepping into a wider, more adult world, instead of having its protagonists experience high school problems up until its third or fourth season.

New York is an easy representation of that adult world, something so large and intimidating, director Matt Reeves frequently photographing Keri Russell drowned out in swarms of metropolitan crowds, a somewhat directionless young woman engulfed in a city wherein its easy to find yourself lost. To nicely contrast the scope of the city and the terror of moving out on your own, Abrams keeps a lot of the drama small and intimate. The cast is low-key and smoothly introduced, Amy Jo Johnson's Julie a flawed opportunist trying to balance out her own desires with the desires of her new best friend, and Scott Foley endearingly nerdy as Noel, the perpetual 'other guy', the one so obviously pining over the pretty girl but so casually passed over time and again.

There's also a nice rhythm to the show's dramatic stakes. Abrams avoids bombarding his audience with plot (a welcome reminder of Felicity's '90s pedigree), instead making his pilot all about choice: whether Felicity should stay in New York or transfer to Stanford, and if her ultimate choice is dictated by her own passion or the romantic longing for another. It's an adult idea, one just as absorbing as it is sympathetic. I've think we've all pretty much been there. Finally, the framing device involving Felicity corresponding with her old French tutor over cassette tape is particularly strong in its lyricism, Janeane Garofalo's melancholic tones adding this quiet tenderness to an already poignant hour.

Felicity doesn't strike you as the loudest of shows, but beautifully works on its own terms in spite of that. It's a genuine surprise, and I hope the rest of the series maintains its sense of understated melodrama. A

Guest stars
William Monaghan (Professor Rogalsky); Darnell Williams (John Papaleno); Erich Anderson (Edward Porter); Eve Gordon (Barbara Porter)
Writer J.J. Abrams Director Matt Reeves


  1. Glad to see you're blogging again, especially since you're writing about shows I love. Really enjoyed your review of the Girls pilot, and even though I just finished watching season one a few days ago, I don't really have much to say about it, except that I pretty much agree with your assessment of the pilot. I find Lena Dunham strangely adorable, and I love how high her voice gets when Hannah is surprised or whatever. Just an all around great character, but anyway...

    Nice to see that you have started watching Felicity. Half of the shows on the WB were so much better than they had to be to gain an audience, even if something like Felicity is more famous for a haircut than the actual content of the show. That being said, and I hate to even go there, but Keri Russell's long curly hair was beautiful. She was distractingly pretty, particularly in that screencap.

    Even with the thin 'I'mma follow that dude that I had a full on thirty second conversation with' premise, the pilot introduces the story so well. Felicity herself is one of those earnest, intelligent tv characters that somehow does not realise when she is crossing a line that most sane people would spot immediately, but it never really matters because you can see that her heart is in the right place (as cliched as that saying is). Keri Russell herself was a great find for the WB, she's just excellent, and I'm so glad her new show has already been renewed.

    Interesting that you should note that Felicity was surrounded by people because in later episodes, run of the mill conversations will be taking place, while extras/strangers casually block the characters from view, which probably helps to recreate a busy city like New York, but it sometimes bugged the hell out of me. Episodes directed by Matt Reeves are usually very well shot, though.

    There's a bunch more I could say, but, y'know, spoilers and stuff. Not sure how much you're going to watch, but the rest of the show is worth the commitment. Season one is my favourite by far, though.

    Again, nice to see another post from you! Sorely tempted to read your Mad Men review but I'm watching so much at the minute that I haven't seen it yet.

  2. Thanks for the comment, tvfan. Missing your blogging, though! Been way too long, heh. I'm taking most of these shows pretty slow from now, instead of trying to burn through stuff in order to keep a posting schedule up to date, but I'm hoping to have up a decent amount of stuff every week from now on.

    I'm finding Girls incredibly relatable right now, and likewise Felicity. Both are shows full of people who frustrate you constantly, but it's a very human type of frustration, wherein you can recognize yourself in their negative behavior. And agreed about Keri Russell. She just radiates this warmth on-screen, and has a presence very similar to a bunch of WB girls from that era, the SMG's or the Katie Holmes's. She's also brilliant in Waitress, if you haven't seen that.

    So, yeah, I'm planning on doing the first season for now, and will probably pick up the rest of the DVDs at some point down the line. I hate abandoning stuff anyway, so they'll definitely go up eventually.

    Thanks again for reading.