REALISM TV.

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AN UNLIKELY FAN'S FELICITY CONFESSION
[posted 05.22.2002]

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ALL MY FRIENDS KNOW this, but it’s time I ‘fessed up and shared it with all of you. The truth is, um … I watch Felicity. I have for four years. And I’m a grown man — a 27-year-old writer with hair on my chest, a post-grad education and an appreciation for decent bourbon. Yet each week I’ve tuned in to this coming-of-age WB show watched mostly by teenage girls. And what’s worse … I’m feigning shame for no good reason.

Felicity, believe it or not, is really well written. Even when it’s bad it’s usually a sign that it’s about to get better. You can say what you want about the Bachelor’s 25 brides or tough kids eating cockroaches for cash. For my money, Felicity just might be the most realistic show on television.

Look, I didn’t believe it either. When the show premiered four years ago I was the skeptic — Public Enemy of Felicity Number One. Before I started watching it, I knew the type — knew, I thought, what was going to happen. Some former Mousketeer (Keri Russell as Felicity Porter) goes to college, where everything is beautiful and charming, and even though it’s terrifying being away from home, her new friends make it better, her newfound independence is actually liberating, and everyone’s gorgeous and happy. Now I don’t know about you folks, but where I come from this is only realistic to Old Navy commercials; a mirror for teens who regard Stridex ads as saviors and the pages of Teen People as their best friends.

Realism for real people is something else entirely. This doesn’t necessarily mean tragedy or depression, although that sometimes helps. Rather, in my experience, and for what I know the experience of the people I know, realism is basically surprise. Thinking that you have everything figured out, and then humbly understanding that you’re wrong. This is now my experience with Felicity. Honestly, there were plenty of times in the last four years when my initial suspicion of its triviality and banality was confirmed and in the end everyone was, predictably, gorgeous and happy. And then someone got hit by a bus.

DON QUIXOTE AND THE BUS.

First season, I’m making faces to no one in particular. A few of my friends on an adjacent couch, probably assuming that my disappointment is directed at them for making me watch this pap. On the screen Felicity, of the golden locks and flawless skin, is contemplating her past and her future, thanks mostly to the recent visit of Todd Mulcahy, a stalker bearing art supplies.

Todd Mulcahy is on a new quest that’s about as old as writing itself: idealistic young man comes to the city to find the curly-haired dreamer from his past, hoping for one magical kiss that will either reveal his lost soulmate or send him home a man. Interesting enough, but also commonplace as the oft-told clash of realism and romanticism in a young dreamer with nothing more than a broken heart at stake. The writers tried to temper the obvious quixotism of the character, but it was never enough to make him human. He was a type, and all of his actions were predictable … boring. I saw everything coming, and if you were watching you probably did too.

I didn’t, however, see the bus.

At the end of “Todd Mulcahy, Part I,” Mulcahy is still hoping for that kiss. To get it, he brings his potential paramour gifts and reminds her of her long-forgotten dream to be an artist. His head is in the clouds and, while Felicity’s is craning upward toward it, she’s not quite to the point where she can reach him and so necessarily refuses the opportunity to kiss. Mulcahy is dejected, and as he backs away from Felicity and into the New York City streets, he vows that someday she will kiss him. It is at that exact moment that he is kissed … by a speeding bus. His idealism ascending quickly slams to earth.

Though it was four years ago, I still remember the gasp. I thought I knew this character, knew what was going to happen, and then God in the form of a rushing mass of steel blows it all to hell. What is there to do but gasp? True, in “Todd Mulcahy, Part II” Mulcahy recovers and everything is fine, but in the interim there is this uncertainty, this wonder about what happens next.

Without trying to sound silly or overly simplistic, this is essentially my experience with life. Every day follows every day, and what should be inductive becomes deductive. The sun always comes up in the morning, I always wake up to find myself somewhere else than immersed in scandal on the six-o’clock news. Life is predictable, and seemingly certainly so. But then something happens that you don’t necessarily expect, and you find yourself, in spite of yourself, wondering what happens next.

Even that element most typical of TV — the love triangle — has been treated more realistically on Felicity. While Ben or Noel? has been a common enough theme to merit status as a series subtitle, in truth it hasn’t been much of a contest since Ben finally saw the light and fell for Felicity, his one-time stalker.

And while Ben and Noel are the real romantic mainstays for Felicity, neither is the man with whom she first had sex. In another shocking and real turn of events, Felicity lost her virginity in a one-night stand. Ideal? No. Planned in advance? No. All too common in everyday life? You bet.

There are numerous good reasons to think Felicity should choose Noel — he’s her best friend, and in his head he’s always been in love with her — but in the big moments Felicity has always chosen Ben. Because the tired question Ben or Noel? might easily be reworded as Moment or Hindsight?, Reality or Theory?, or even Heart or Head?

And it’s that fact that Felicity is now trying to escape as she returns to a different kind of reality — her past.

LAST GASP.

True to its unpredictable form, the folks behind Felicity opted to throw in the graduation episode — a fitting finale for any season — halfway into their spring run … and then have some fun with the world they created.

Through the magic of television (and her Wiccan friend Meghan), Felicity is able to travel back in time.

It sounds outlandish, and it is, but in these final weeks the show has actually gone a step beyond the real-time realism it’s done so well for three years to make a point about the way life works. Even as a time-traveler, Felicity can’t control the unexpected.

The idea is, a few months after graduation, Felicity’s seemingly solid relationship with Ben becomes a sham, and the girl looks to the past to figure out where she went wrong. An idea creeps in that maybe she should have chosen Noel and makes her wildly determined to fix her supposed mistakes. She returns to what might have been a turning point in the series — to an episode earlier this season where, frustrated with Ben’s preoccupation with other things, she finally sleeps with Noel. But now instead of feeling weird and apologetic about the whole thing, she is consciously ignoring feelings like those — messy, unexplainable ones toward the Ben she knows will eventually hurt her — and is finally ready to choose Noel. The man who will, in theory, make her happy.

Having watched this show for years, I was almost certain that this would be a vehicle to assuage the large contingent of doe-eyed Noel fans basically quashed since the first season. At this point I guess I should know better.

Like me watching Todd Mulcahy, Felicity thinks she has everything figured out, and that her a posteriori knowledge of the future will apply when the circumstances of the past — her current present — have changed. And like me, she didn’t factor in the element of surprise, of the reality that is Felicity. She might as well have been watching Mulcahy get hit by a bus when in a recent episode she reacts to the unforeseen introduction of Noel’s ex-girlfriend Hannah into the picture. Almost gasping, she blurts out to Noel, “Where did she come from?!” — as though unforeseen circumstances like ex-girlfriends and buses were ever something that she could fully control.

In the show’s finale tonight, it’s anybody’s guess as to what will happen. Felicity might end up with Ben after all, or Noel, or no one. Though I’m disappointed that this is the end of the show, I couldn’t have picked a better ending.

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bryson meunier lives and works in chicago as a search marketing manager/seo guru for resolution media. which means he knows what you’re searching for even before you ask.