There's a rather famous deleted scene from the film Pulp Fiction in which Mia Wallace quizzes hit-man Vincent Vega on whether he's a Beatles man or an Elvis man, whether he prefers The Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family, and other character-defining questions. “My theory is that, when it comes to important subjects, there's only two ways a person can answer. Which way they choose tells you who that person is,” she states.
I’ve always found this to be a profoundly wise observation. My own cultural litmus test revolves around the love triangle at the heart of the late '90s college drama Felicity. Or, more specifically, Ben or Noel?
The show, which first aired on the now-defunct WB network in 1998, starred Keri Russell (currently kicking ass on The Americans) as a good girl who thwarts her parents' expectations by following her high school crush to college in New York City. (Also worth noting, Felicity was the first foray into television for a then-unfamous J.J. Abrams.) The show became a watershed cultural moment for me -- partly because I was, at the time, at home in Illinois plotting my own escape to an East Coast university, but mainly because Felicity cemented my attitude toward romance for my entire adult life.
As heroines go, Felicity wasn’t particularly cool. She studied a lot, clothed herself in an unending parade of giant fuzzy sweaters, and recorded long, embarrassingly earnest messages to her absent friend Sally on a voice recorder. For a smart girl, she made the dubious choice to follow an 18-year-old boy across the country. But viewers who saw themselves in Felicity understood that the move to New York was about much more than a guy -- it was about making a brash stab at independence, about carving out a place in the world where her uncoolness and her romanticism and penchant for oversized wool could flourish. In her insane, ill-considered moment of bravery, Felicity became the patron saint of nice girls who got good grades, followed the rules and more or less listened to their parents, and sometimes wondered what the hell it was all for.
And in the halls of the fictional University of New York, she found love in the form of two appealingly floppy-haired choices: Ben Covington (Scott Speedman), the mumbly, emotionally inscrutable crush she followed to college; and Noel Crane (Scott Foley), the charmingly geeky, nice-guy resident advisor. Although the Felicity love triangle came along before fans identifying themselves as “Team X” or “Team Y” had entered the vernacular, the Ben vs. Noel question became the basis of a four-season love triangle, the outcome of which can still spark heated debate among those who came of age at the turn of the millennium.
As Felicity Porter felt like my fictional spirit sister back in 1998, so her love life has provided the framework of a theory that has guided my beliefs about romance for the past 16 years: that every straight woman in the world is either a Ben-girl or Noel-girl.
Noel established his good-guy cred early in the show when he became Felicity's confidante and Boggle partner. In the pilot, when Felicity is close to throwing in the towel on her New York adventure, he makes an endearing plea for her to stay:
“You'll be the fancy doctor, with the fancy practice. You’ll be married and you’ll have like four phone lines in your home. And then, boom, it’ll grip you like a blast of freezing cold air. You know, ‘what the hell is my life?’ And you’ll be able to trace it back to this instant...when that geek RA gave you [these] words of advice: stay in New York or perish.”
From that moment we knew that Noel understood her particular brand of romantic idealism, and that he would have her back. And throughout their first season courtship and over the course of the show (with the exception of an out-of-character quickie marriage and divorce to the Doritos Girl in season 3), he remained a steadfast presence in her life.
The Noel/Ben choice reached its most dramatic climax fairly early in the show’s run, at the end of the first season when Felicity has to choose between spending her summer break in Germany with Noel, or on a cross-country road trip with Ben. The season ends on a cliffhanger with Felicity -- in slow motion of course -- getting into a cab en route to an undisclosed destination.
“I didn’t have to make a decision between Ben and Noel,” she tells Sally in voiceover. “But I did.”
A decade and a half later, it’s not a spoiler to report that she chose Ben, and that in season 2, just a couple of episodes into their nascent romance, he broke her heart. This event launched the infamous hair chop, and a series of forgettable romances with randoms until Ben eventually wins her back by tracking down a copy of the movie that had been playing when he stood her up (Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush). In his most swoon-worthy moment, he describes the film canister as a time machine that would allow them to rewrite their history.
And that was the trick with Ben. He wasn’t a bad guy. He wasn’t cruel or dismissive, although he could often be thoughtless. He was a little too good looking; a person for whom things had always come a little too easily. He was someone we have all known, and probably dated at some point. Even in the midst of their on-and-off coupledom, he remained, on some level, tantalizingly unavailable.
“You want something with me, but you’re not strong enough to have it,” Felicity tells him at the beginning of their relationship.
She had a point because in the fourth season -- after Felicity and Ben have graduated and moved to Palo Alto together for grad school -- Ben cheats. This earnest and heartfelt drama then takes a bizarre turn into the supernatural when Felicity’s former roommate, Meghan, casts a spell that allows a devastated Felicity to travel back in time and live out an alternate reality where she chooses Noel instead. The storyline, which is just about as absurd as it sounds, sets off a sequence of events that results in Noel’s tragic death in a fire on campus, but Felicity is ultimately able to make things right by reversing the spell and returning to her life with Ben.
It’s a deeply unsatisfying conclusion to a show that had dealt so thoughtfully with the college experience. At the end, we’re supposed to accept that she made her choice not necessarily because it was the right one, but because choosing Noel would directly lead to his untimely demise.
But the fact that the Ben/Noel question still lingers is a testament to the viability of both characters. Unlike some other notable pop culture love triangles involving young people, Felicity’s choice never felt like a foregone conclusion. (By the end of their runs, was there anyone left who was still hoping that Joey would choose mopey Dawson over Pacey; that Katniss would pick volatile Gale over gentle Peeta; or thought there was a chance that Bella would end up with the werewolf instead of her creepily possessive vampire beau?) Felicity, for all its '90s trappings, holds up as a contemplative and authentic portrayal of the coming-of-age experience and the choices that it presents. The power of the Ben/Noel divide was that neither felt like a plot device, but rather a choice between two valid real-life archetypes: the nice (albeit somewhat predictable) guy who adores you, or the soulful sort-of bad boy you’ll never be quite sure of.
It’s also important to note that the choice between Ben and Noel has less to do with the guys themselves than it does with the girl doing the choosing. Each type has its own distinct appeal, perhaps depending on where a woman is in her life. A Ben who seems irresistible at age 20 may feel like more trouble than he’s worth at 30. A friend of mine recently noted that, if she were going to write a memoir of her dating life, she’d title it: Too Many Bens, Not Enough Noels.
Although a staunch Noel devotee, when I rewatched the entire show recently, it was easier for me to understand the Ben appeal -- possibly because I’m less self-serious about love now than when I was 17. Still, when I reached the end of the series, I had to conclude that my fundamental preference hadn’t changed. While Ben-girls will always crave the challenge and unpredictability, Noel-girls just don’t need that noise.
It may seem like an over-simplification of the vagaries of love and attraction, but some things really are that straightforward. Just like with the Beatles and Elvis, at some point you have to make a choice. You can like both characters -- think they’re both cute, admire their overlapping taste in flannels -- but no one likes them both equally. And the one you choose says everything about you.