Monday, July 7, 2014
I first became aware of the existence of this person J. J. Abrams when I heard the name mentioned in association with the television series Lost (2004-2010), my favorite show on TV at the time, for which Abrams was credited as co-creator. Looking over his filmography, I can see that he had earlier established himself as a successful Hollywood screenwriter, having written the screenplay for the 1998 summer blockbuster Armageddon. Yet there is little doubt in my mind that the legend of “J. J. Abrams,” as we know the man now—go-to guy any time you need a new genre show to fill a TV time slot, or a geek-friendly director to helm the relaunch of a franchise with a fanatical following—began with the cult yet mainstream Lost.
How curious it was, then, to learn that, by all accounts, his active involvement with Lost barely extended past the pilot—well before any of the distinctly zany twists for which the show is mostly remembered. Since Lost, his name has been used to try to sell at least one new show every season, usually unsuccessfully so, as nearly all these shows have been rightfully short-lived, though he has shouldered little of the blame for these failures, since, again, he has been, by all accounts, barely involved with these productions in his role as executive producer. So it would seem that his reputation was built largely off works that couldn’t actually tell us very much about J. J. Abrams as an artist, since he wasn’t truly the guiding visionary behind any of them. Contrast this with another geek idol, Joss Whedon, a writer who maintains an unmistakable voice and recurring themes through his works, such that, when people say "a Joss Whedon show," that tends to mean something, in a way that, say, having Steven Spielberg's name attached to a TV series means far less (though this too has lately been muddled by Whedon handing off projects to his brother and his sister-in-law). Meanwhile, J. J. Abrams is more often recognized by his technical signatures (e.g. lens flare)—an unlikely basis, you’d think, for the cultivation of a devoted fan following.
I decided, at last, to look into the shows that were actually run by the man now directing Star Wars. I began with Felicity (1998-2002), J. J. Abrams’s first TV series, which was not a genre show at all, but a rather straight young adult drama, like so many of its contemporaries on The WB Television Network. What perhaps distinguishes Felicity from the lot of its peers is that, rather than being set in high school, it is set in college. I’ve mentioned previously how, while high school has provided the backdrop for a great many worthy shows (Friday Night Lights, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars), I could think of no great series about the college experience. Watching Felicity has not altered that opinion.
I’m not sure whether a show like this is targeted primarily at actual college students, at teenagers expectantly looking ahead to college, or at adults looking back nostalgically. Felicity originally aired when I was in high school, and I had no interest in watching it then. Now that I am well out of college, I find there is little to recommend the show today. Partly that is because it is simply dated in a lot of ways. For example, the characters don’t really start carrying around cellphones until toward the end of the series, and there are so many nowadays unimaginable crises that arise just because the characters couldn’t instantly reach one another by phone. Watching it on Hulu Plus, it’s also neither widescreen nor HD, which makes it look even more aged than it really is.
But, mostly, the show is just kind of dumb, which may not actually be a fault, depending on one’s interest. In my case, I recollect college as an especially idiotic period in my life, which I have no interest in revisiting. To its credit, Felicity actually represents it fairly accurately, hence why it holds little interest for me.
The whole crux of the story is that, coming out of high school, awkward and naive protagonist Felicity Porter has no idea what she wants to do with her life. She begins by abandoning her plan to study pre-med at Stanford, instead deciding suddenly to follow some unsuspecting boy she has a crush on across the country to the fictional University of New York. In her studies, she continues to drift between medicine and art, much to the chagrin of her parents, who are funding her education, and who show up about twice a season to put the gloom on the holidays by reminding her of their disapproval. Her love life is similarly wishy-washy, although this is as much due to the two male leads, who, over the four years that this love triangle persists, continually fall in and out of commitment.
Keri Russell as the title character is surely the best thing about Felicity. She manages to portray Felicity as innocent yet staunchly upright, without being insipid, because her heart is transparently earnest, as is the show as a whole. The rest of the cast give forced performances conforming to type (e.g. passionate yet unreliable hunk, steady nerd always quietly angling to move from platonic male confidant to romantic lover, white girl with whom the protagonist suddenly becomes best friends immediately after meeting, black female friend who curiously hangs out almost exclusively with young white people), and are all barely tolerable, with the notable exceptions of Amanda Foreman and Ian Gomez, who have more minor recurring roles, before earning promotions to series regular status in later seasons. Foreman plays Felicity’s goth roommate, Meghan, who begins as a sort of adversary, but gradually becomes Felicity’s most fiercely loyal ally, their friendship the best and most rewarding relationship in the entire series. Gomez, as Javier, Felicity’s gay Spanish boss at Dean & DeLuca, as well as her most unconditional supporter, provides a perhaps over-the-top portrayal of both gay men and Spaniards, but he is nevertheless one of the more entertaining and likable characters.
If Javier comes across a bit of a caricature today, Felicity was nevertheless a fairly politically progressive show for its time, positively featuring multiple gay and bisexual characters, and also including a same-sex wedding between two males (hardly the first on television, but this did come not long after the passing of the Defense of Marriage Act). The show also comes out unambiguously in support of both women’s right to access to birth control and also increased gun control, two lately high-profile issues on which our justices and legislators have proven themselves woefully antediluvian.
For the most part, however, Felicity plays out now as a generically predictable young adult melodrama, rarely profound, but for the occasionally eloquently expressed observation on young love or youthful ambition. If a self-serious adolescent soap about angsty good-looking white people and their on-and-off (and on again) romances sounds like a good time to you, still there are probably any number of more current shows to recommend that operate the same way while feeling less dated.
More than a decade removed from its conclusion, perhaps the series’ most notable episode now is “Help for the Lovelorn” (Season 2, Episode 11), an unexpected tribute to Rod Serling’s classic The Twilight Zone. J. J. Abrams wrote the episode, but they actually enlisted Lamont Johnson to direct. Johnson directed several episodes of the original The Twilight Zone back in the ‘60s, and this episode of Felicity goes far beyond a simple black-and-white aesthetic to capture the look, sound, and feel of the classic series. Characters adopt vintage attire, the environments all inexplicably regress to sets out of a previous era, and even the dialogue is written and delivered with an old-fashioned theatricality. And, of course, the cinematography, editing, and scoring are all spot-on.
One of the more half-baked ideas in the series is a framing device that has Felicity narrating early episodes to a tape recorder, the intensely personal cassette tapes intended only for the ears of her old mentor, Sally. Sally never appears on the show, but occasionally Felicity receives back audio tapes in response, where Sally is voiced by Janeane Garofalo. The device is mostly dropped without remark, once it becomes clear that this unseen mentor character serves no purpose, since Felicity finds a new female best friend, a male confidant, and eventually even a school therapist to consult whenever she is in need of guidance. It does feel rather unresolved—the way the Sally character just disappears from Felicity’s life—but perhaps this realistically reflects how a teenager’s relationships can fade, once they move away to college and form new ones. It’s just very odd whenever the recordings occasionally return later on (but Garofalo doesn’t), and Felicity opens an episode by addressing seemingly the audience (or perhaps the unresponding ether) with “Dear Sally.”
The narrative device is partially replaced by mockumentary interview segments. One of Felicity’s friends, Sean (Greg Grunberg), is a would-be entrepreneur, who comes up with a different harebrained scheme almost every episode, among them a documentary focused on his college friends (even though he himself is not a student), which forms the basis for the episode “Docuventary” (Season 1, Episode 17). The episode is not especially remarkable, but then Season 2 brings a sequel (Season 2, Episode 17 “Docuventary II”). By Season 3, the mock interview segments just become a regular part of Felicity. Sean is an obnoxious and overbearing idiot, and his subplots are the worst part of any episode. It is clear that Abrams and crew increasingly revisit this concept, not because it is a compelling subplot unto itself, but because, three years before Ricky Gervais’s The Office, they stumbled upon the discovery that reality TV-style interviews and confessional segments could be adapted to add a surprisingly effective new narrative dimension to scripted television. I’ve never heard Felicity credited as such, but, in this way, it may actually have prefigured all the mockumentary sitcoms that are now commonplace.
Despite its place as one of The WB’s first critical successes, Felicity was canceled after four seasons. In hindsight, this was probably a fitting place to end, as each season corresponded to one year in Felicity’s undergrad experience, making it, from beginning to end, “the college drama.” And it is bittersweet but true how nothing is settled by the time Felicity graduates. It is not to diminish the significance of the college experience; it is only to show that, for a great many people, college is NOT where you discover who you are, as everybody claims, but, for some, it is only that time in our lives when we are permitted the time and the vanity to devote to the pursuit—to try different things, to change our minds (and change them again), to actively wonder.
That said, it is what happens after Felicity graduates that is, in my opinion, the best and most remarkable part of the entire series. You see, as the story goes, the network had the consideration to inform the crew early on that they were being canceled, thereby allowing the writers the chance to script a proper ending. Then, at the eleventh hour, the network decided to grant the show an extension and ordered a few more episodes, AFTER the writers had already plotted out their season based on the shorter schedule. So the writers found themselves in the awkward position of having graduated Felicity, thus bringing the story to its appropriate conclusion, only to end up with five more episodes they needed to fill somehow. What to do? The answer, on this drama that had theretofore aspired to present a realistic portrayal of the college experience, was apparently to introduce the insane twist of TIME TRAVEL VIA WITCHCRAFT.
Having ended up with one guy in the “first ending” to the series, Felicity afterward has reason to regret her decision, and so she travels back in time to a point when, she thinks in hindsight, she should have chosen the other guy. I had actually heard about this twist before I started watching Felicity, and it was definitely something that motivated me to check the show out. Now that I’ve seen the entire series, I can’t say I’d recommend it, but Season 4, Episode 12 “Time Will Tell” might actually be worth watching just on its own.
When Felicity goes back in time, the results are hilariously mad. Once she herself comes to grips with the realization that time travel is actually possible, she determinedly sets to work on her mission. She quickly dumps the one guy and insists on getting together with the other guy. For her, these decisions are informed by the last regrettable dead-end year she has had to mull over. But none of the other characters have lived out that year yet, so her actions come across rash and inexplicable, which is perturbingly out of character for her. And Keri Russell is fantastic as she finally gets to have fun on this show. Granted the advantage of prescience, the typically uncertain Felicity becomes terrifyingly resolute in the decisions she makes for herself and for others. On the other hand, when she has to lie to her friends (to the extent that she must withhold from them what she knows about the future and how), her natural integrity (and persistent awkwardness) makes her a terrible liar, and so she’s continually making cryptic allusions to a future she intends to change.
The time travel gag is good for about two episodes, but has a hard time sustaining five, even with them calling back to long forgotten Felicity history by bringing in Jennifer Garner (pre-Alias) and Amy Jo Johnson (yes, the original Pink Power Ranger herself) for substantial guest parts. The last three episodes see Felicity settling back into more standard melodrama, albeit still with the bizarro twist that Felicity has traveled back in time via witchcraft, before everything wraps up (for real this time) with a clip show episode of all things.
The one other Felicity story worth mentioning is the two-part “Todd Mulcahy” (Season 1, Episode 13/14). Part 1, in particular, might be the best non-gimmicky episode of Felicity (although it’s still pretty gimmicky), and while it’s hardly a must-watch, all-time great hour of television, this relatively self-contained story, wherein Felicity is confronted with the male version of herself—a minor acquaintance from the past, who, at a crossroad in his life, has decided to journey uninvited across the country for the slimmest chance to be with her, much in the same way that she herself, in the absence of any clear direction, basically stalked the boy she had a crush on all the way to New York—rather concisely captures the core narrative of the entire Felicity saga, and does so simultaneously with good-humored self-awareness yet also sincere reverence for the material. These also happen to be the only episodes that J. J. Abrams himself directed.
Abrams was heavily involved in the first two seasons of Felicity as co-creator (together with Matt Reeves), writer, and show runner, then considerably less involved during the last two seasons. I wouldn't say the earlier seasons were noticeably better or worse than the later, nor is there anything in the series that stands out to me as distinctly reflecting the hand of J. J. Abrams at work (indeed, I’m still not sure what that would mean). Well, actually, Abrams does loudly leave his mark in one area, ironically on the last two seasons most of all.
Beginning with the third season, Felicity gets a new opening credits sequence, which lasts through to the end of the series. And it is accompanied by a brand new, singularly atrocious theme song—truly, the worst I’ve ever encountered across all the television shows I’ve ever watched in my life. After a few episodes of it bringing me close to retching, I had to look up who was responsible for this offense. Lo and behold, the song, “New Version of You,” was written by none other than J. J. Abrams himself! A regular Hollywood renaissance man, this one.