The kids are alright

May 5, 1999 at 12:00 am

A few weeks ago, viewers discovered that WB-20’s favorite baggy-sweatered virgin freshman, Felicity, actually "did it" with a sensitive and alluring art student named Eli. And everybody gasped, especially her wishy-washy sophomore boyfriend and resident adviser, Noel, who may have rested a little too confidently in the idea that – even after a brief reunion with his ex-girlfriend, Hanna – he would be Felicity’s First.

Noel is angry and hurt after Felicity’s "Look, I have to tell you something." But when he blurts out that he fears she "wasn’t even safe," you almost want to bust out laughing. Of course she was safe, you ninny; this is Felicity we’re talking about. When Noel storms out, leaving her with that calmly crushed look on her face staring off into the distance, you don’t know who to feel sorrier for. After all, one of the charming things about the show is the absence of good guy-bad guy dichotomies.

Despite the men-are-jerks-anyway speeches she hears from the hard-line, savvy and recently cheated-on Elena, Felicity is thrust into guilt and contemplation. Can Noel forgive me? Can I forgive Noel? Am I really in love? Do those cosmetic nose patches really remove blackheads?

Shuffling around campus and the streets of New York in a disoriented, hyperconscious haze is no big change for this confused freshman who often tapes her thoughts and sends them to her former French tutor (the voice of Janeane Garofalo). Last week’s taping revealed Felicity’s alarming sense of "schizophrenia" about Noel because she felt apologetic and sorry one minute, and angry the next. Hurry, get this girl some Prozac before she does something outrageous.

Of course, you’ll find plenty of introspection, heroics and consciousness on other youth-oriented shows such as "Dawson’s Creek" and "Party of Five." But there is something especially utopian about "Felicity" in all its high stakes and moral ambition. Maybe it’s the fact that, much like the old Charlie Brown cartoons, the parental figures are merely out-of-touch visitors or unheard voices on the other end of long distance phone calls. And the kids do just fine, if not better, without them.

Last week’s subplot revolved around Julie’s meeting with the biological mother who gave her up at birth. Good old "Mom" wants to reunite with Julie, but only if their relationship is kept a secret. Mom, a fashion designer with a family that looks like they just stepped out of the Spiegel catalog, turns out to be a lying jerk. Meanwhile, the vulnerable yet self-actualized Julie composes a Jewel-esque song about deserving more in life, which she sings in front of her mother at a local bar. The two part ways and Julie chalks up another lesson in life learned, on her birthday no less. As if she needed to get any wiser ...

Watching "Felicity" is a great way to imagine a world run by gentle, hopeful 20-somethings who move around in shoe-gazing slow motion shots with poignant pop music playing in the background. They are still too young to be totally jaded, but have grown up in a world that can no longer afford to run on moral superstition, blind political correctness and sexual taboos. And instead of taking honest living to rebellious extremes or getting stuck in the creative paralysis of self-parody, these kids do bizarre things like telling the truth, thinking before having sex, braving emotional crises, falling in love, searching the soul and taking responsibility. It almost makes adulthood seem like a tempting alternative to the new norm, which is: the more bizarre and dysfunctional the better.

"Futurama" (on Fox) it ain’t. Since "The Simpsons," we all know that animated characters – maybe because of their less than 3-D format – can get away with murder (literally) and not turn a single American stomach, which is no small feat. Characters like Fry and Bender make circus clowns out of our monsters and offer brand-name relief brought to you by Dark Humor and Bored Satire.

On last week’s "Futurama," a robot oil company mogul, who calls herself "Mom," hatched a fiendish plot to inject a batch of Third World children with extinct anchovy DNA, then harvest a super lubricant that would knock out competitors’ products. Nice lady.

The oil mogul mom, who normally appeared in an ill-fitting body suit and jack boots, went as far as wearing the talking head of Pamela Anderson to seduce Fry, owner of anchovies in question, into giving up his secret PIN number so she could wipe out his bank account – millions of dollars in interest that had accrued over a millennium. This makes Felicity’s art student indiscretion seem like a Beaver Cleaver mishap, nothing a family chat and slice of warm apple pie couldn’t fix.

Granted, the apple pie tin is empty and the question mark that hangs on Generation Next is a curled finger, leading into stranger days as fast as it hurls reliable, traditional templates into the past. And that makes Self-Fashioning 101 – college kids hacking out their own identities and values in a nebulous setting – a core requirement for life.

With the fun moral abandon of sitcom cartoonland as its backdrop, a show like "Felicity" is all the more a sign of hope that most of its generation is going to pass the course, maybe not with flying colors, but at least with an honest and complex, if slightly offbeat effort.