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'Felicity' nostalgia pilot recap: Welcome to New York

Season 1 | Episode 1 | “Pilot” | Aired Sep 29, 1998

If there is one television character who is known for her universal relatability, it’s Felicity Porter of The WB’s Felicity. She might have chopped off her hair and shot the show in the foot (or so the legend goes), but who can blame her for shedding that weight? Curls as voluminous as hers take a lot of maintenance, and when your life is as stressful as Felicity’s, who wants to worry about hair care?

Like all of us, Felicity (Keri Russell) is just trying to find her place in the world, wherever that may take her and whomever’s heart she has to break—even if it’s her own.

Felicity’s troubles begin the second the pilot fades in. She’s graduating high school and not enjoying her accomplishment. Because her father has had her “life planned since she was a zygote,” she feels nothing but dread for her future. She feels nothing about graduating with honors or studying medicine at Stanford. She should feel joy … and she does when she catches a glimpse of Ben Covington (Scott Speedman).

Felicity and Ben don’t know each other. They have never spoken, never shared more than a fleeting moment together. Although Felicity has held a pint of Ben’s blood (don’t worry; she was volunteering for a blood drive). They spent the four years of high school watching each other from afar, Felicity probably more so than Ben. For this reason, it comes as a shock when she approaches him to sign her yearbook.

Ben accepts Felicity’s request, going so far as to sit down to compose his message. It’s a rather long message for two relative strangers, the thesis of it being: “I don’t even know you, but I admire you.” Felicity calls after him and asks where he’s going to college. “New York,” he says, and returns the question. “That’s pretty unclear,” she replies with an inspired smile. Suddenly, Felicity’s future doesn’t seem so dreadful.

Felicity arrives in New York.

After the “It’s my life, not yours, Dad!” fight that ends up in most teen dramas, Felicity lands in New York. But unlike Taylor Swift, she doesn’t find the rhythms of the city to be a beat she could dance to forevermore. She hasn’t met her roommate, whose half of the room appears to have been decorated by a character from The Craft, and she’s still suffering push-and-shove from her parents about her decision.

While recording a diary entry for her friend Sally on tape (one of the biggest reminders that we’re in the ’90s), she fears that following Ben was a misstep. “But on the other hand,” she says, “maybe it’ll save my life or something.”

Unfortunately, her confusion doesn’t end, especially not when she spots Ben with another girl at orientation. “Is my hair a disaster?” she asks the upperclassman taking ID photos. It’s not only hilarious foreshadowing, it’s the wrong question to be asking. Heartbreak is the disaster, not her mop. She had no claim over Ben, or even a smidge of hope that he’d do cartwheels upon seeing her at NYU, though her optimism can’t be blamed. During poetry class, which Ben also happens to be in, she nearly breaks down at the sight of him. However, there is more than a handsome blond man causing her torment.

Ben represented much more to her than a potential relationship. He was her escape route from an ordinary life of ticking all the necessary boxes. And now that there doesn’t appear to be room for her in his life, she is overcome with regret.

Beside her, Julie (Amy Jo Johnson) notices her distress and passes her a note. Yes, the “check yes or no” note that predated the text message. They share a laugh over their teacher’s awful hairdo and after class, they grab coffee and vent about the terrors of college.

Julie passes Felicity a note.

Later, Felicity musters the courage to tell Ben that she came to New York for him. He tells her he’s flattered, and in the name of being friends, they let it lie. But because Felicity is Felicity, during work-study in the admissions department, she breaks the rules and reads Ben’s application essay. She learns about his brother who died of cancer, a deeper understanding of his character that she should have gotten from the source.

Back in her room, her R.A., Noel (Scott Foley), stops by to offer his assistance for whatever she might need. What does she need? Help dissecting Ben’s essay, which she has photocopied. Noel helps her sort through her feelings with Ben, all the while forming their own brand of sparks.

And thus opens the book on one of television’s most notorious love triangles. No other show did the love triangle with as much depth and truth as Felicity. We don’t get the full experience in the pilot, but when Felicity helps Ben with his poetry paper, Noel makes a tense cameo. And to make matters more complicated, Ben tells Felicity that he likes Julie. In case it wasn’t clear before, this is a teen drama.

Felicity and Ben talk on the roof.

The metaphorical dam breaks when Felicity confronts Ben and the truth comes out: He was uncomfortable with her reason for coming to New York. Adding insult to injury, Julie materializes and rushes out, effectively ending the interaction. Felicity talks to her advisor about admitting defeat and heading back to Palo Alto. There goes her resolve to forge her own path and become an artist.

Ben takes her to the roof and he admits that he lied in his essay. He doesn’t have a brother, much less one who died of cancer. He simply wanted to get away from the pressure of his family and crafted a great piece of fiction. She doesn’t fault him, because she was doing the same thing by following him. It’s far and away the most touching scene of the pilot, the one with the most emotional heft and the one that separates the Ben fans from the Noel fans. Because while Noel pleads for her to stay with emotions he can vocalize, Ben says it all with his unspoken connection with Felicity.

When her stuffy parents come to New York, she’s ready to board the next flight home with them. Her dad lays out the plan for her life. Strings have been pulled, calls have been made, and the keys to mom’s car have been handed over, all of which offends her. But Sally supports her impulsive independence, and she has found a true companion in Julie. Leaving loses its luster, and Felicity realizes she needs to choose passion over principle.

All four seasons of Felicity are available to stream on Hulu Plus.