With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.
For four seasons, viewers watched with rapt attention as a young college student was constantly made to choose between two suitors on The WB’s Felicity. To be fair, there was more to J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves’ coming-of-age drama than that, but there’s no denying that the love triangle between Felicity Porter (Keri Russell), Ben Covington (Scott Speedman), and Noel Crane (Scott Foley) dominated fans’ interest. From September 29, 1998 to May 22, 2002, ’shippers of all stripes tuned in to learn which head of luscious locks their mop-topped heroine would choose to run her fingers through. And the series delivered that dose of drama, leaving Felicity to frequently vacillate between the two men, who represented two distinct archetypes. Speedman’s Ben gave every other brooding late-’90s hunk a run for their money, while Foley’s nerdy Noel melted hearts with his unwavering affection for the heroine.
The love triangle wasn’t anything new for The WB, or the small screen in general—audiences had watched one created and rearranged on Beverly Hills, 90210, most recently (at the time). And the upstart network had also introduced a similar dynamic on Felicity’s contemporary, Dawson’s Creek, though its vertices originally comprised two bright young women and one undeserving man. With its prepossessing actors and angst-ridden storylines, Felicity, at first blush, was just another block in The WB’s teen-centered programming. Sure, the college drama had skipped the high school antics to watch its lead character wrestle with being on her own for the first time, but it was very much in line with the rest of The WB’s lineup, which included Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
Romantic entanglements and indecisiveness have always been the backbone of teen shows, though, so it wasn’t a real issue to have them playing out across multiple series, certainly not when The WB aimed to dominate that niche. The problem was that for all that Abrams would eventually contribute to the TV landscape, he hadn’t dreamed all that big for his first debut series. Felicity didn’t have the same thematic heft of Buffy, nor its patois; while Dawson’s Creek was more in line with it, Felicity lacked the same host of hyperverbal characters. It seemed the show didn’t have nearly as much to say, or even as memorable of a way to say it as its peers.
But while Felicity will remain in the shadows of The WB’s cultural juggernaut, its smaller impact on the small screen reflects the qualities and journeys of its characters. As played by Keri Russell, Felicity Porter was just as earnest as Willow Rosenberg or Dawson Leery, just more reticent in nature. She was easily the most judgmental character on the show, but she was also the most reserved. Not taciturn like Ben, the main object of her affection—she just wasn’t as quick to fire off a barb as Joey Potter. But after totally upending her life to pursue a beautiful almost-stranger to New York, some additional caution was advisable. It didn’t prevent her from making lots of mistakes and sleeping with a different beautiful almost-stranger in the first season, but it did make Felicity something of a standout among the other teen heroines. And it was the first real sign of the great things to come from Russell, who’s become a dramatic heavyweight herself on The Americans. It makes the furor over the infamous haircut in the season two episode “The List” all the more ridiculous—to think that her career suffered a setback because of a drastic change in her appearance, when her chameleonic ability is precisely what bolsters her current Emmy-caliber performance.
Felicity didn’t always show that restraint during its four-year run. The first season is its most cohesive and enjoyable, with familiar moments of adolescent rebellion and mortification. Speedman’s and Foley’s performances made the choice between Ben and Noel plenty difficult, though they each had their share of faults—Ben was, among other things, unreliable and kind of a dick, though the latter was a charge he frequently levied at Noel, who, in retrospect, was disconcertingly insecure. Along with Reeves, who went on to helm entries in the Planet Of The Apes franchise, Abrams kept the first season intimate and relatable. Their lead character had, after all, done something incredibly foolish in the first 10 minutes of the show. And at first glance, her reasons for it weren’t very feminist (not that that would have mattered as much on TV at the time). So Felicity—the character and the series—had some ground to recover, which the show did by the season-one finale, when she acted much more in her own interests instead of Ben’s.
But what followed were two seasons of increasingly outlandish circumstances and inappropriate partners for all of the characters, from Felicity’s boss at the health center to the older, married woman Ben has an affair with. Season three was the biggest offender, doubling down on the madness via more tertiary characters, including a British roommate who disappeared before graduation. By then, Abrams had begun working on Alias, whose “grad student by day, spy by night” premise was where he’d initially wanted to take Felicity. The lack of proper stewardship cooled The WB’s ardor for the series, and the fourth season became its last. The final season order originally called for 17 episodes, culminating with “The Graduate,” which offered a quiet ending to a series that didn’t kick up a huge fuss while it was on, but was still gratifying.
After filming wrapped, the network ordered five additional episodes, which allowed Abrams and Reeves a chance to imagine what life would be like for Felicity if she’d chosen Noel instead. Those episodes are better off unmentioned, so instead, we’re revisiting 10 episodes that best sum up the quiet allure of Felicity.
Felicity and Ben established a shaky friendship early on—they got along as long as he was living up to her expectations, and/or not pursuing anyone else. Being victims of armed robbery becomes a blessing in disguise for Felicity, who suddenly has a reason for frequent late-night chats with her crush. But Ben proves to be more shaken by the events than she is, admitting that he’d moved to New York to get away from his abusive father. It’s an important piece to Ben’s uncommunicative puzzle, but more than that, “Spooked” revealed what New York—a frequent cinematic beacon—represents to all the characters. For Felicity, it was freedom; for Julie, her family; for Noel, a place to fulfill his ambition; and for Ben, safety.
The obsessive shoe was on the other foot in this two-parter, as Felicity had to deal with being the object of a persistent someone’s affection. Just as Felicity quickly won everyone (except Meghan) over with her earnestness, the titular Todd endears himself to her friends and boyfriend, the latter of whom is, at this time, Noel. The blast from her past gives her more than just perspective, though; he reminds her of her passion for art, which she set aside to follow in her doctor father’s footsteps. Abrams and Reeves introduced an alternate path for Felicity through “Todd,” one that she’d return to time and again throughout the series.
The season-one finale is one of the series’ finest hours, paying homage to When Harry Met Sally while also featuring a near-complete reversal of the series premiere. Felicity, Ben, Noel, and Julie plan a cross-country road trip to celebrate making it through their first year together. But they begin dropping out for personal and academic reasons, until only Ben and Felicity are considering taking the trip. Suddenly, Ben’s the one pursuing Felicity, because he’s convinced she’s not over him (he’s right, of course). They argue over whether men and women can be platonic friends before he decides they should just kiss already and see if there’s really anything there. But finally winning over Ben costs Felicity her other boyfriend, and her friend Julie, who’s reeling from her breakup with Ben. It’s an effective cliffhanger, leaving us to wonder not just what happens between the central couple, but the dynamic of the whole group.
Nothing’s ever simple in adolescence, so even though Felicity appeared to get what she wanted at the end of freshman year, her new, sort-of boyfriend is already chafing at the collar. Things get worse when Ben listens to one of Felicity’s tapes to Sally, in which she wonders if she’s in love with him. The handsome dope freaks out, naturally, and wants to pump the brakes on what they’re not even calling a relationship. Felicity, now a resident advisor, ends up taking advice from one of her advisees, who’s relying on the romantic counsel of a magazine with sexy tips for how to win someone back. Felicity succeeds, but she knows that it’s only because she’s pretending to be someone else. Then it’s her turn to break things off. And even though it’s a hackneyed move relegated to women characters, she gets a haircut to show off just how much she’s changed. While that chop lightened her up, it almost sank the show, as viewers reacted quite negatively to the loss of Russell’s curls.
The fallout from the road trip became clear in the season-two premiere, with Noel sniping at Felicity every chance he got, while Julie just avoided her. In “The Depths,” however, Felicity learns that Julie’s turned her anger into art. A stalled train car makes Julie a captive audience for Felicity, who tries to make her case before an unsympathetic jury full of New Yorkers who don’t give a damn about the girls’ fight. The train car and the other Big Apple residents are all familiar devices, and even the confrontation is one that’s come up before—Felicity holds her friends to high standards that she’s recently failed to live up to herself. But her tunnel vision in season one led her to betray two good friends, and that’s something Felicity won’t let the viewer forget, or its protagonist live down just yet.
Not only is “Help For The Lovelorn” a delightful standalone episode, but it also was a sign of things to come for J.J. Abrams. The series co-creator wrote the script, but tapped former Twilight Zone director Lamont Johnson to helm the black-and-white episode. Johnson captures the same kind of medical paranoia here, as Felicity resorts to visiting some nameless clinic to do something about her broken heart. But when she realizes it means living without one, she decides she can deal with the emotional devastation. By then it’s too late, though, as the episode heads into “Five Characters In Search Of An Exit” territory. Because they already represent various archetypes—Felicity the true believer, Elena the skeptic, and Ben the brash hero, to name a few—they fit seamlessly into a familiar story about what we’re all willing to do for love.
After two years and numerous attempts at dating, Ben still hadn’t fully opened up to Felicity. As a self-professed “emotional person,” you could see how that would hurt our curly-haired heroine. She becomes even more frustrated in this early season three episode, which sees Julie and Ben bond over their absent fathers. Felicity doesn’t handle being shut out well, and the way Julie relishes having a secret only makes matters worse. Ben isn’t really going back to his old flame; he’s just reluctant to show Felicity how screwed up he is. But the harder she tries to get him to open up, the harder he resists. That push-pull was a constant throughout their relationship, and the kind of thing that made Felicity and fans want to tear their hair out. Of course, that was usually forgiven by all parties the moment he became vulnerable again, a shift in mood that somehow kept the show running.
Felicity, Ben, and Noel all had other romantic prospects (of varying suitability), but the love triangle remained present throughout. Just a couple episodes after considering she might be in love with Ben, Felicity would feel twinges of jealousy over whomever Noel was dating. And even when she thought she’d finally settled on (or was it for?) Noel, all she’d have to do is have a chance encounter with Ben to start questioning things all over again. So Noel tries to dismantle their love triangle once and for all in this episode, telling Felicity he doesn’t want to be the “loser guy friend anymore.” She can’t really bear to lose her friend, but, as Noel makes very clear, it’s not really her choice.
Season three had some of the series’ most ridiculous storylines: a temporary roommate’s drug addiction, a Christmas shoot-out, a romantic disagreement over phone-sex work, etc. It was also the most uneven, which meant the season-four premiere had a lot of ground to make up. “The Declaration” succeeds by getting back to basics, starting with the old tape-recording session opening. Felicity breaks down her summer for Sally, and admits to fearing her future. Ben’s on a different wavelength again—his summer EMT training inspired him to switch to pre-med (yes, during his senior year). Felicity’s surprised by his sudden decisiveness, and finds herself relying on Noel, who’s similarly adrift. We’d seen Felicity struggle with her desire to pursue art and medicine as if she’d never be able to reconcile the two before, but “The Declaration” is more than just a retread—it’s a necessary reset after a season of surrogacy, a creepy potential future-father-in-law, and numerous get-rich-quick schemes.
“The Graduate” was the ending that Felicity deserved—even J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves have admitted as much. The five-episode arc involving spells and time travel that actually closed the series was the definition of fan service, allowing Noel-Felicity ’shippers to see what would have happened if they’d gotten their way. But the 17th episode of the season was the real bookend to Felicity’s college career and love triangle. She vacillates a bit, as is her wont, but realizes she does want to be a doctor after all. And to do that, she has to break things off with Ben, who initially wants to drag her with him to Arizona. There’s a sweet tag at the end, with Ben showing up back home in California, where he admits it’s his turn to follow her. But what’s most significant here is that Felicity finally puts her own needs first.