It occurred to me, as the third season of Felicity wraps up this week, that Keri Russell’s title character is one of the few interesting characters on television who’s also purely good: All of her actions are generous ones, mindful of the well-being of others, selfless even when her kindly deeds are inconvenient or troublesome to herself. It’s not going too far to say that when her boyfriend Ben (Scott Speedman) gets a hug from the controversially nimbus-haired girl, he’s been touched by an angel.
This is the part of the review where I’m supposed to say that this New York college junior isn’t so noble that her character becomes sappy or sentimental. But in fact, it is one of the great strengths of this series that sap and sentiment are explored with varying degrees of realism, humor, and seriousness that lesser shows shrink from even attempting. As part of Felicity‘s valiant effort to attract a bigger audience this season, a frisky new theme song was introduced, in which a reedy male voice poses the musical question ”Can you become a new version of you?” — i.e., can Felicity, as she proceeds through tumultuous moments of young-adulthood, change (that is, mature) while remaining her essentially good self?
The answer, it would seem, is ”Yes.” Felicity is an irresistible show about goodness that’s never goody-goody. After all, the season’s high point may have been a raucous frat party that found Felicity playing Strip Ping-Pong after downing heaven knows how many Jell-O shots — an evening resulting in a morning-after hangover in which Our Angel found herself in bed next to a stranger with whom she may or may not have had inebriated intercourse. There are limits to goodness; even naughty, banished Mary on 7th Heaven — the Anti-Felicity — never had that much fun, or trouble.
If the ratings for Felicity have perked up in recent months, the improvement should be ascribed to a few things:
— The story line in which Noel (Scott Foley) fell for a student played by model Tyra Banks. I know, it sounds like a shameless ratings stunt, and on one level, bless the desperate hearts of creators J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, it was. But the subplot was also sly and funny; Banks was surprisingly adept at blending in to the show’s light, wisecracky tone, and she furthered the season’s determination to make Noel something more than Felicity’s perpetually baffled ex-boyfriend: He’s now TV’s only hunky computer nerd.
— Casting John Ritter as Ben’s not-quite-recovering-alcoholic father was creative money-in-the-bank. The way Abrams and Reeves conceived the story arc, Ritter’s fearlessly creepy performance forced Ben to take the full measure of his dad’s addictions while compelling Speedman himself to open up as an actor, pushing past his woofly-TV-sex-symbol status to become an interestingly troubled character with a bad temper.
— Goodbye, Julie (Amy Jo Johnson); hello, Molly (Sarah-Jane Potts). This was a blast: exchanging one good three-named actress in a going-nowhere role (Julie had become a guitar-strumming melancholic, a drag on the show’s momentum) with another three-named actress with a juicy role (to boil it down: My boyfriend’s a crack fiend and I’m heading that way too; may I be your new roommate, Felicity?). Viewers of Friends who don’t watch Felicity, take note: Rachel’s recent crush, Tag, played by Eddie Cahill, assumed this more malevolent boyfriend role with a glowering vigor.
— Goodbye, testicle; hello, romance. Don’t mean to be crass, but giving hustling filmmaker Sean (Greg Grunberg) testicular cancer, even as his unlikely love affair with Amanda Foreman’s wiggy Wiccan Meghan was heating up, created some poignant warmth. Again, new aspects of previously one-dimensional characters added a great boost.
I don’t have room to amply praise star Russell for the way she prevented Felicity from becoming too drippy by plunging into scenes of lovey-dovey or hugger-mugger with a fine comic deadpan, or Ian Gomez’s hilarious ongoing performance as Felicity’s language-mangling gay coffee-bar boss, Javier (imagine Norm Crosby as a chubby queen with better punchlines), or to detail the most fully explored romantic relationship between two black TV characters, Elena and Tracy, superbly played by Tangi Miller and Donald Faison.
So I’ll just say this: Sit out the 13 episodes of the returning Jack & Jill, and pelt The WB with notes saying you’d really rather not have to wait until April for some new Felicity episodes. You’ll be almost as good as Felicity herself if you do. A-