Today’s TV Birthdays: ‘Felicity’ And ‘thirtysomething’

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On this day in 1998, Felicity, the saga of the NYU student with the most sympathetic hair in prime-time, premiered on the WB (remember the WB?). And on this day in 1987, thirtysomething, the show that made yuppies sympathetic, premiered on ABC.

Felicity launched the career of Keri Russell as Felicity Porter, a smart but timid, romantic but unlucky-in-love pre-med student-turned-art major. Caught between two dudes — mumbly swimmer Ben (Scott Speedman) and anger-managing mope Noel (Scott Foley) — Felicity captured the attention of an intense cult audience that, female and male, identified with her Innocent Adrift In The Big City tribulations. By the time of the second-season premiere — in which Felicity shocked fans by entering a barber shop in lower Manhattan’s Astor Place to chop off her signature, voluminous crinkle-’do — Felicity had slowly but steadily become an obsession for a certain segment of America.

Co-creators J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves captured perfectly a precise period of growing-up, those years when you’re casting off the self-image you had as a kid and began assuming the persona you would present to the world as an adult. It was a different kind of coming-of-age narrative, and — aided by writers and directors including Elodie Keene, Joan Tewkesbury, Jennifer Levin, and Andrea Newman — one that wasn’t afraid to make its central character at various times insecure, mercurial, angry, and selfish. Indeed, while reviews at the time were simply agog at Russell’s charm, Felicity herself can now be seen as one of the most three-dimensional, complex women TV has presented.

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While Felicity struggled to break out of the WB teen-TV prison to reach a broader audience, thirtysomething was a big cultural deal even before its premiere. Its title entered the language, with endless permutations. It sparked a cultural conversation about the role of the young urban professional in society. Charting the marriage of new-mother Hope (Mel Harris) and idealistic ad-agency copywriter Michael Steadman (a “steady man”; the exact opposite of the future unsteady ad-man Don Draper), thirtysomething followed the Steadmans and their tight group of friends as they talked and worked and talked and had sex and talked and had dinner parties so they could talk more. No topic was too personal or inconsequential to debate for an entire scene or longer, from Hope kicking off a typically hope-less discussion with her husband by slowly intoning, “I’m finally taking charge of my destiny,” to the purchase of a new baby stroller (“$278 for a stroller?!” groaned Michael).

Creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick loved these maddening characters, and pretty soon, a lot of us loved them, too. Or not: decades before the concept of “hate-watching,” a chunk of thirtysomething viewers tuned in every week to cringe at the Steadmans’ self-absorption (“Why do I feel so terrible?” whined Michael in the pilot episode, adding guiltily, “I know we’re lucky”), even as the precision of the dialogue left fans wondering whether the producers had planted tape recorders in their own gloomy living rooms.

Both of these shows helped many careers. Thirtysomething staff writer Winnie Holzman went on to create My So-Called Life. Olin and co-star Peter Horton (the shaggy English prof Gary) have directed a lot of good television. Keri Russell can, of course, currently be seen on FX’s superb The Americans, and Foley beefcaked-up Scandal. Abrams and Reeves went on to create Alias and Jennifer Garner; Reeves directed Cloverfield and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, while Abrams has become a pop-culture potentate, currently presiding over the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises.

So, happy birthday to you, thirtysomething (28 years old today)! Birthday greetings to you, Felicity (a lissome 17 today)! Long may you continue to live in our imaginations, and on whatever platform you may be broadcast, cabled, or streamed.

Thirtysomething and Felicity are available for streaming on Hulu’s subscription service.