Oh, No! Not Ben! (review)

From: Slate, Sept. 29, 1999
By: Judith Shulevitz

There was endless hype for the premiere of Felicity’s second season–tapes of which had been withheld from the press–because it was to provide the answer to last season’s Perils of Pauline-like cliffhanger: Would the New York City college freshman Felicity fly to Berlin with her handsome and intelligent though overly chatty boyfriend Noel or drive home to California with the exceedingly handsome but markedly less intelligent Ben, an ex-crush who had become her best friend’s boyfriend?

As Felicity fans know by now, she chose Ben. This was disastrous for Felicity personally, of course, but also, surprisingly, for us. Felicity didn’t just alienate Noel and her best friend and land herself a boyfriend who gives every sign of being a sleazebag (and whom one hopes she’ll slough off within an episode or two). She set herself back to exactly where she was last year. As a freshman at the beginning of the show’s first season, Felicity rushed to New York to follow Ben, on whom she had a goofy unrequited crush. (She had been planning to enroll at Stanford and become a premed student.) She spent the rest of the year getting over it and growing up, so convincingly that one speculated she might have become too sophisticated even for the neurotic brainiac Noel.

All of which brings up a troubling fact that the WB, the network-wannabe that became a network last year on the basis of its hit teen shows, will be forced to face more and more in coming years: Adolescents grow up fast. This gives network executives three choices: 1) They can keep coming up with new shows but risk losing the audiences from the last ones; 2) They can find a way to retard characters’ development; or 3) They can figure out how to let characters grow without abandoning of original concept for the show. Many television series face this quandary, of course; how they respond is one measure of their merit.

The sight of Felicity choosing Ben is the sight of the WB flunking that test. It’s as if Marjorie Morningstar had gotten back together with Noel Airman–your classic if Anglicized Luftmensch–once she had come to her senses. But then, Herman Wouk didn’t write his classic coming-of-age novel on the basis of female teen-age focus groups. (Culturebox can’t help suspecting that Ben, being cuter, tested better than Noel.) Like Marjorie, Felicity was a sweet romantic heroine, alternately flaky and smart. Plus she had the best curls on television. The curls are still there, thank God–they won’t be sheared till later in the season–but everything else on the show now seems like a grim and ugly parody of itself. Felicity has become hangdog and whiny. Her and Noel’s banter has soured into spite. “I can’t believe how horrible it is that we’re speaking like this to each other,” she tells him quaveringly, as he punitively regales her with details of sex he had with another woman during the summer. Felicity is again paired unhappily with her bitchy punk roommate, only this time the roommate is less amusing and more scarily invasive. Ben’s ex-girlfriend has moved back in with him and his roommate, which has the effect of turning a hitherto delightful character into something just short of a stalker.

And on it goes, in details too creepy to enumerate. You’d think that all this would just add interest–who needs more artificial sunniness from television, anyway?–but Felicity, alas, is no Ingmar Bergman movie, or even a Quentin Tarantino one, and the darkness just turns some delightful teen-age fare into an exercise in viewer masochism. If you’re a WB character, it seems, growing up is impossible to do.