College is a time when youthful exuberance meets unprecedented freedom – sounds like great TV to me. For some reason, however, television tends to avoid series which focus on the college years. While there are an abundance of shows depicting the awkward angst of high school and the existential crises of post-grad life, TV has largely steered clear of the magical four years in between.
Even the few current shows which have gone the university route haven’t figured out how to traverse the beer-tainted waters of collegiate life, usually relegating college to either a stereotype – ABC Family’s Greek – or an afterthought – the CW’s Gossip Girl.
As with many aspects of entertainment culture, however, things were looking up during the 90s when Felicity debuted on The WB, now The CW. Before Oceanic Flight 815 was a glimmer in his eye, J.J. Abrams co-created this college-centered teen soap.
With a dramatic tone surely influenced by Dawson’s Creek, the series revolves around Felicity Porter’s (Keri Russell) time at the fictional University of New York (UNY). During its four-season run, the show fully embraces its collegiate trappings – its season one DVD set, for example, is labeled “Freshmen Year DVD Collection.”
The series begins on high school graduation day, when shy Felicity makes an uncharacteristically rash decision to follow popular Ben Covington (Scott Speedman) across the country to UNY after he writes a thought-provoking note in her yearbook.
Shirking her own plans to follow the pre-med track at Stanford University and ignoring the wrath of her strict parents, Felicity enrolls in UNY only to discover she misinterpreted Ben’s “special” note, and she is stuck 3,000 miles away from home at a school she didn’t choose.
Luckily for Felicity and the viewer, the show is about much more than her romantic entanglements, although a love triangle between Ben, Felicity and her unassuming resident advisor Noel (Scott Foley) is a major plot point in the series finale.
The strength of Felicity is the self-reliance of its heroine and the complexity with which Russell portrays her. Felicity genuinely cares about her grades, often stressing about her sophomore-year decision to become an art major. She is genuinely loyal and caring to all those around her, even when her best friend Julie (Amy Jo Johnson) starts dating Ben and, perhaps most endearingly, she has a number of glaring flaws ranging from naivety to indecisiveness. Her rapid-fire shifts between self-assurance and self-doubt make for a wonderfully relatable representation of the average college student.
As realistic a protagonist as Felicity is, the series still falls into some familiar traps with its depiction of the college lifestyle: dorm rooms are three sizes too large, parties are either way over-the-top or far too tame, sex is treated – for better or for worse – as a much larger deal than most modern co-eds consider it to be.
But what the show gets right outweighs its misrepresentations: Its characters actually study, they actually have financial troubles and they often worry about their futures. In Felicity, college is not a yearlong party, but a delicate time for young people on the brink of adulthood to develop their identities. The majority of us do not live like those on TV; the best television recognizes this disparity and reflects it. Kudos to Felicity for handling college with class.