It’s the 20th anniversary of the classic WB series “Felicity,” but creator Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield,” “War for the Planet of the Apes”) doesn’t think that it’s the kind of show “that could happen today.”
That’s because “Felicity,” the college-set drama starring Keri Russell, was too simple in concept when compared to recent new shows, Reeves told IndieWire. “I think that you need, in today’s world, a kind of access point that allows for a shell, that is the big, bright, shiny thing,” he said “I feel like that in our current cycle, that you almost need that big billboard signpost that genre allows you to have — and if you have the approach to character, which I think is the most important thing, it grounds it. That mix becomes very exciting, because you’re taking something fantastical, and finding a way to ground it in something relatable.”
Reeves spoke to IndieWire during the Television Critics Association summer press tour, where he was promoting the upcoming sci-fi drama “The Passage.” The upcoming Fox drama invokes more thoughts of the apocalypse than college drama: Based on the books by Justin Cronin, the series focuses on Amy Bellafonte (Saniyya Sidney), a young girl under the protection of Agent Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) after being targeted by the government for potential experimentation, as the world braces itself for an epic pandemic.
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It’s a huge premise, but Reeves did feel that “The Passage” had at least one strand of connection with “Felicity” in terms of “the tensioned character, the intimacy between characters.”
He added, however, “There’s something enormous, the canvas behind it, that makes it a show.”
“Felicity” did lack that fantastical element (at least at the very beginning). Instead, he said, “the thing that excited us the most was about doing the tiniest moments in these character’s lives, and how those tiny moments could be huge. I think, even in the past, the tiny moments are huge, but there is also a huge stakes, and canvas behind that. It’s a lot of what genre does. I think that our aims are the same, but that show, at that time, I think it was a time where you could do a show where just having those little moments was enough. That was kind of that period.”
“Felicity” came about at a fascinating time in television history, which might be considered the dawn of TV’s new Golden Age. “The Sopranos” and “The West Wing” were just about to debut, and future Emmy nominee Russell was charming fans as the titular college student, whose decision to follow a boy across the country launched not just her career, but that of co-stars Scott Speedman and Scott Foley.
Reeves co-created the show with J.J. Abrams, and Reeves confirmed to IndieWire a story about how Abrams created another show thanks to inspiration from “Felicity.”
“We were in the writer’s room, and we were trying to crack stories,” Reeves recalled. “We were following the minutiae of these characters’ lives, and we reached a place where we were going like, ‘Gosh, what should the stakes be for this next episode be?'”
Reeves said the relationship dramas had begun to feel a bit stale: “They had broken up. They’d gotten back together. They’d switched partners. We’ve had her parents had taken all of her money away, and all of these things,” he said. “There was a moment where, as writers, we were all looking at each other going, ‘What are the stakes? What’s happening, as she approaches the real world?'”
So then this came up, courtesy of Abrams: “The idea was like, what if all along she’s been a secret agent? She’s been in the CIA… We were all going, ‘Oh my God, that’s crazy. That would be amazing.’ And [Abrams] goes, ‘No, no, but I mean it for real!’ We really sat in there a moment going, ‘Oh my God, that’s a crazy idea.'”
And then enter fate: “[Abrams] goes, ‘You know what, I’m sorry, that’s my pilot.’ That’s literally the pilot that he wrote that season. That was the birth of ‘Alias,’ absolutely,” Reeves said. The five-season ABC drama, which premiered in the fall of 2001, starred Jennifer Garner as the college student living a secret life as a spy.
It’s a funny story, but it also speaks to the point that Reeves was making before about “Felicity,” that a show focused on an 18-year-old girl who changes her life plans for love would have a hard time getting made in the current TV era, one that was just beginning at that time.
“I also do feel like, when you’re talking about doing something like a broadcast show, or a big movie, the idea of being able to have that access point that is the right fantasy that feels grounded, that you can then explore those little moments — that’s the gift of that kind of thing,” Reeves said. “When I do all of the ‘Apes’ films, those were very personal to me. Yet, because I had photo-real, emoting, feeling, human-like apes, I was able to tell a story that, otherwise we never would have been able to tell those stories. The surface of it allowed us the opportunity to do it.”
Reeves has been working in the realm of genre for quite some time now, but in some ways the most exciting part for him are the tiny moments that spotlight the characters. “You always try to find that thing you relate to,” he said. “Everything I’ve done — ‘Cloverfield,’ it’s a giant monster movie, but that had so much for me, as a director, it had very much to do with my own anxiety. I try to take that approach to every single thing that I do. Even something that outwardly seems like, well, that’s one you just did for fun, well that is fun. Genre is a lot of fun. But for me, it’s about grounding into something that feels real. It feels personal, and relatable, and human.”
All four seasons of “Felicity” are streaming now on Hulu. “The Passage” will premiere early 2019 on Fox.