Remembering 'Felicity,' 15 Years After the Series Finale
By Philiana Ng
Photo: Getty Images
On May 22, 2002, Felicity ended its four-year run on the now-defunct WB network, a channel hailed for its knack for breeding nuanced teen dramas in the late ‘90s and early aughts. The one-hour series, which debuted four years earlier in the fall of 1998, was an introspective and melancholic take on the trials and tribulations of Felicity Porter (Keri Russell), a wide-eyed, curly-haired California girl who impulsively follows her crush, sensitive jock Ben Covington (Scott Speedman), to the hustle and bustle of New York City for college.
Coincidentally premiering the same year as Sex and the City, another female-driven coming-of-age story set in Manhattan, and fielding welcomed comparisons to Ally McBeal, a popular dramedy at the time, Felicity shied away from the glitz and glamour of living in the big city -- instead focusing on the often uncomfortable and agonizing journey of being a young woman searching for her place and purpose in the world.
But well before the series aired its first episode, buzz was already building around the fresh-faced cast, led by Russell, Speedman and Scott Foley, who played the older college R.A. Noel Crane, and creators, two unknowns at the time, J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves. “We kept describing it as ‘our little secret.’ It was like we were all in the same boat,” a then 22-year-old Russell told ET during her first WB Upfront in July 1998, two months before the show premiered. Speedman echoed his leading lady’s sentiments later that year, telling ET, “There’s a very youthful energy about the show. Matt and J.J. have never done a television show, so we’re kind of figuring out what’s going on and figuring out what the show is."
“We didn’t set out to do a show, we wanted to do this show and we felt like if we couldn’t find the right Felicity…,” Reeves told ET in 1998, implying that the show never would’ve come to fruition without Russell. “She’s elevated this whole thing,” Abrams agreed, telling ET at the time: “She’s allowed us to bring Felicity to life in a way that we hoped for, but didn’t necessarily think we could do.”
Finding the Big Three
Right around the time Felicity came along, Russell was feeling disheartened. Her biggest claims to fame at the time were a stint in the early '90s on Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club, opposite fellow unknown youngsters Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and a starring role in the short-lived teen soap from Aaron Spelling, Malibu Shores. “I was a little bit discouraged at that particular time of available projects,” Russell admitted in 1998, saying she “got halfway through [the Felicity script] and was blown away.” “This show, for me anyway, it’s escapism emotionally. I was so touched; ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe that she’s saying that! I’m dying for her!’ I went in [and] auditioned; I never thought they would pick me for it -- never in a million years.”
“It was hard. We saw a lot of people with some really nice performances. Then Keri came in,” Abrams recalled in 1998. “The first thing we thought was ‘She’s so gorgeous, she can never be Felicity.’ How can you believe [she’s] someone who had any problems ever? Then she started doing the reading and what was amazing was, despite her looks, she was able to be heartbreaking and vulnerable and funny without being whiny or complaining. She was brave and you rooted for her. She was so winning, it was a remarkable thing.”
Russell remembered finishing the network test and not wanting to go home that day, after being told she’d get a call, "whether you got it” or not, that night. “I drove to this little spot I always hang out at and breathed for a little bit and I had dinner by myself. Then I got back and I had, like, 13 messages from my manager and friends all going, ‘Um, Keri, people are looking for you and want to know are you OK?’ And J.J. and Matt left this big, long message saying, ‘You’re great! We love you! This is going to be so cool!’”
When the opportunity to play Ben became a realistic possibility, Speedman -- who had dropped out of school in, ironically enough, New York, run out of money and was without an agent -- had been living on his mother’s couch in Toronto and not interested. Persuaded by an agent to take a chance, the Canadian native put himself on tape and was immediately cast. “I found out on a Wednesday and I flew down on a Thursday night,” said Speedman, then 22, during ET’s first visit to the Felicity set in August 1998.
While Foley’s Noel represented the charming, geeky (and sometimes awkward) guy next door, Speedman’s Ben was in stark contrast -- the initial object of Felicity’s desires, quickly billed as the show’s brooding hunk with some serious father issues. “It’s a weird thing,” Speedman confessed of being called the “hunky guy of Felicity," uncomfortable with the label. “You get a role like this and everybody says, ‘This guy, you’re the hunk’ or whatever. I don’t know -- it’s a very weird thing. It’s a really good role for me. I can identify a lot with him, what he’s going through, what he’s doing and what he’s trying to do.”
“There’s definitely some of me in Noel,” Foley said to ET in July 1998. “He’s a likable person, I just don’t know that he’s fully aware of that.” Then 25 years old, Foley keyed in on what would become the series’ blossoming love triangle between Felicity, Noel and Ben. (Over the course of four seasons, the love triangle would often morph into a love square or hexagon, but always returning to the main trio.) “There’s definitely a Ben camp and a Noel camp. Ben has the upper hand in that Felicity wants Ben. Noel may be pining away for her and have interest, but he is the reason,” he observed, referring to Speedman's character.
The cliffhanger at the end of the freshman season was the ultimate culmination of the love triangle, where Felicity was presented with a romantic choice of Noel or Ben. "It was written both ways," Russell revealed in 1999 before second season began. "When I left for the summer, J.J. and Matt told me it was one way [Felicity choosing to go to Berlin with Noel] and I reacted as I would react knowing it was that way. Then, before we came back, they told me that it was completely changed and that they changed it to the other way [Felicity ends up going cross-country with Ben, sparking an off-again, on-again romance through the rest of the series]. It's really great the way it is now. It allows for a lot to happen."
A Breakout Hit
Felicity was a breakout hit.
Barely into its first season, Russell won the coveted Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Drama Series, in 1999. (“That was completely overwhelming and amazing and so good for the show,” she marveled during an ET set visit that September.) “We all knew it was different, but the fickle part of this industry is something can be great and no one responds to it. People, a lot of the time, like more of the eye candy, cotton candy for the mind-kind of shows,” Russell acknowledged during an ET sit-down in May 1999. “It’s a smart, true show that it attracts those kinds of people -- thank god -- versus if I was running around in my swimsuit, it’d attract different sort of people.”
“I definitely wasn’t prepared for [the show’s success] at all,” Foley admitted. “Being recognized is a bizarre occurrence. The fact that I cut my hair now and I have glasses and people still recognize me... It’s changed my life but it hasn’t changed me as a person, I hope. I’m sure there are some people who are like, ‘He’s an a**hole now!’ S**t! I think I’m dealing with it OK.” Speedman, in 1998, was already feeling the pressures of his likely stardom. “I’ve never been in this position before, so I don’t know what’s going to happen, but if it gets to the point where it’s a big show, that’s scary,” he said at the time. “Not being able to walk around? That’s nuts.”
But what became bigger than the show was a dramatic change in Felicity’s hair. “It’s a little depressing when your haircut makes the news,” Russell said in September 1999, already rocking her short curly-haired bob. In the second episode of season two, titled “The List,” Ben breaks things off with Felicity, prompting her to spontaneously cut off her famous long locks, quite literally representing a new chapter in her life. The controversial haircut almost didn’t happen -- it began as an inside joke between Russell, Abrams and Reeves when Russell jokingly sent a Polaroid of her short hair before summer hiatus. Abrams and Reeves later incorporated it into the canon of the show, for better or worse.
“I’ve had long hair forever, so it’s just nice to have a little change. Now I’m the one OK with it and [J.J.’s] freaking out now,” Russell said with a laugh, adding it’s been “a whole different attitude adjustment.” Recalling her co-stars’ reactions to her short ‘do, she shared, “Scott Speedman’s reaction was pretty rehearsed. He was like, ‘It looks good.’ And I was like, ‘Take two! Give me another one!’”
There couldn’t have been any preparing for the outcry over Felicity’s new look once the episode aired on Oct. 3, 1999. “Even if it looks horrible, that’s great, because it’s such what a college girl would do. Cut her hair and then she’s stuck with this decision she made that might have been horrible, but what she felt [at the time]. They’re instinctive; they go for it and I love that,” Russell said. “I hope [fans] like it, otherwise, we’re in big trouble.”
It would become ingrained in the pop culture lexicon, becoming a joke of a major life gaffe in future TV show references. In the Gilmore Girls season three episode, “Here Comes the Son,” in 2003, for example, the character of Paris debates whether she should follow her beau to Princeton instead of attending Harvard, quipping, “Suddenly, I’m Felicity without the hair issues.”
As Felicity began to age, rumblings that the show may be nearing its end began to surface. In early 2002, the decision to close up shop after the fourth season, Felicity’s senior year at the fictitious University of New York, was made official. “It’s done. It’s bittersweet,” Russell told ET in February of that year, reflecting on her time on the groundbreaking college drama. “I’ve loved my experience so much and it’s kind of like being in college because you’ve spent so much time with these people. You love them and you hope that they love you. Four years is a long time in your life, but it’s time.”
But the legacy of Felicity lives on, nearly two decades after it first graced TV screens. “Keri Russell makes the show work and I like to think that we help her,” Foley foreshadowed back in 1998. “If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t be here talking to you. She has really made it what it is. America is going to fall in love with Felicity and Keri Russell at the same time.”
They certainly did.
All four seasons of Felicity are available to stream on Hulu.