WWFD (What Would Felicity Do?)

Lessons from Felicity and the red-hot heart on her sleeve

By lily crandall


I was introduced to Felicity during my junior year of college. A friend had told me it was her second time trying to watch the TV series and asked if I wanted to join her in the journey. She told me something like, “It’s hard to watch a lot of it at a time.” I didn’t really know what she meant by that. Was she saying it was too sad? Too corny? Too scary? None of these were the case. I quickly learned that it was hard to watch a lot of it at a time because it was simply too frustrating, too emotionally exhausting to subject ourselves to for more than an episode or two at a time.

In the pilot, Felicity (played by Keri Russell in her breakout role) graduates high school and ditches her plans to attend Stanford. She instead decides to follow her longtime crush Ben (Scott Speedman) to the “University of New York” after she asks him to sign her yearbook and he writes a—to her credit—strangely intimate note.

The show ran from 1998 to 2002 and depicts the ups and downs of Felicity’s college experience. It was co-created by the one and only J.J. Abrams, who went on to produce other soapy, emotional college dramas like Lost (2004-2010) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). The first time I started Felicity, I completely missed this bizarre, surprising name in the credits. That was probably because I found the opening theme mesmerizing—a collection of black and white photos of the main characters on the move set to a relaxing, acoustic-guitar-forward tune with dreamy vocals to accompany it (a series of “ooh-way-ohh” and “ooh-way-ahh”s). Throughout its four seasons, we follow Felicity as she makes friends, falls in love, gets her heart broken, is betrayed, gets humiliated, and, every once in a while, finds a small success.

Felicity opening credits

As juniors in the real life-version of the University of New York (NYU), my friend Maria and I saw parts of ourselves in Felicity. We had bad (weird) roommates, attended terrible dorm parties, and wandered around Washington Square Park in the fall. Sometimes, things hit a little too close to home, and that was the point when we’d have to stop watching for a few weeks. And other times, there wasn’t a clear reason for stopping; we just needed a break from the secondhand embarrassment. After all, we were dealing with our real-life problems in the real-life version of Felicity’s world.

Even so, about a year ago, Maria and I decided to rewatch Felicity. We had both recently started grad school and were looking for an escape; we often joked that it was nice to watch the show to stress about someone else’s life for a little while. We thought, hey, we’re older, wiser, a few years post-grad, and ready to give it another go.
A sampling of texts Maria and I have sent to each other

Within the five or so years between our first watch together and the rewatch we are currently embarking on, a lot has changed. Maria and I graduated college, moved to new apartments, started new jobs, left those jobs, and started grad school. Instead of watching episodes together in one of our East Village apartments on Sunday mornings while hungover, eating bagels, and getting crumbs all over the couch, we watch separately on our laptops via Hulu Party. These watches can take weeks to plan. Instead of squeezing each other’s arms and crying out, “Felicity, what?!” we instead commiserate in the chat sidebar. And while my physical reactions to watching Felicity pour her heart out to anyone who will listen have not changed (recoiling into my couch, covering my eyes, etc), I think I get her a little better now than when I was twenty.

When I first watched her fumble through relationships and college life, her actions felt embarrassing and cringey. At twenty-five, I have a little more compassion for her. I remember feeling so old at twenty. After all, I had been living in New York for two whole years and I was way past the chaos of being a college freshman. I didn’t think I knew everything, but I knew more than I did at eighteen. Now, at twenty-five, I see in Felicity a girl who was trying and figuring it out the best she could, stumbling clumsily through friendships, romance, and young adulthood.

When I describe the show to people who have never seen it, I usually say, “It’s about this girl who goes to NYU and makes terrible decisions.” By terrible, I don’t mean physically dangerous or careless—I mean that in all instances, no matter what, she says how she feels.

Sometimes her heart leads her to do things that Maria and I considered to be crazy, such as stealing Ben’s application essay from the school records office in an effort to get to know him better. And then it leads to her deciding to tell him what she did. It’s not so much these acts themselves that are shocking to me—it’s her casualness in doing so. Sure, things might be awkward between her and Ben for a few days after she tells him that yes, she did follow him across the country for college because she is in love with him, but what was the alternative—to just not tell him?

Ben signing Felicity’s yearbook

Even when I want to bang my fists on my coffee table and say, “Felicity! Some things are okay to keep to yourself!”, there is a part of me that knows this is because I wish I could be more like her—more heart-on-my-sleeve, more willing to lay it all on the table. Her unapologetic approach to relationships—platonic, familial, and romantic—is chaotic and messy and frustrating to watch, but at the end of the day, she is the truest, realest TV character I have ever seen. Maybe there’s something Felicity can teach us (or maybe just me, and not you) about brutal, unrelenting honesty without fear of consequence.

I wish I could say that, with all of the maturity I have gained between watching Felicity at twenty and twenty-five, I’ve been inspired by her to go forth with confidence, but that’s just not the case. At age twenty, I watched Felicity with eyes wide open, shocked at her frankness because I felt that the world would end if I did something that could lead to embarrassment and/or rejection. At twenty-five, I am still shocked, and I still fear those things, but I know the world won’t end if I do it. That’s not to say I started going up to strangers in bars or confessing feelings for crushes after a short period of time (or any length of time, really), but it’s not as far out of the realm of possibility as it used to be for me. Every once in a while, I surprise myself. I made a New Year’s resolution to be more earnest, bold, and vulnerable, à la Felicity. So far, it’s resulted in a few new friends, a few unlikely connections with strangers, and definitely some minor embarrassment.

So maybe you’ll watch Felicity and feel comforted. Maybe you’ll be wrapped up in the warm tones that envelop this depiction of late-90’s Manhattan and find it to be a relaxing watch at the end of the day. Maybe Felicity’s constant outpourings of absolute honesty and affection are not strange or uncomfortable for you to watch. I haven’t finished the series yet, and I don’t know if I ever will. As Maria and I rewatch the first season (her third time watching it, my second), we are both stunned by the number of side plots we had forgotten—events that, if they happened to us or even a friend or merely an acquaintance, would be the subject of late-night gossip sessions and never-have-I-evers for years to come. But in Felicity’s world, they are simply the makings of an average afternoon. She’ll be over it by tomorrow, or at least she’ll pretend to be.

Felicity confessing her feelings for Ben, probably