(Written for the "Deeply Superficial" Blog-a-Thon at South Dakota Dark)
"We take full responsibility for the idea of cutting her hair." -JJ Abrams (NY Times, 12/4/00)
It's amazing what a cable outage can do. Last week my cable was out and since I was busy with an acting job I didn't have time to call for service for a few days. The time without TV - which I didn't miss due to the dearth of new episodes - prompted me to dig into my DVD collection. It's amazing how many episodes of The O.C. or The West Wing you can fly through while you're cleaning your apartment.
But the forgotten treasure that I enjoyed reconnecting with was, of all things, the second season of Felicity. A quick review: Felicity (Keri Russell) comes to college in New York on a whim in pursuit of her crush Ben (Scott Speedman). The first season is a protracted dance between Felicity, Ben, and Felicity's RA Noel (Scott Foley). Felicity becomes involved with Noel but eventually decides to spend the summer on a road trip with Ben rather than going to Berlin with Noel.
But of course, season 2 is about the haircut. In a media firestorm that probably wouldn't last more than 24 hours today, Keri Russell's haircut ignited fan controversy and actually dropped the shows ratings for a time. Russell is beautiful no matter what the length of her hair is, but it's easy to see why fans might have been disappointed by the tonsorial move. Viewed from a creative angle, can the haircut be defended?
I think it can. The best teen (and I'm extending that to cover early-20s) series, no matter how long their ratings-driven life span, are the ones that come the closest to getting the emotional nuances right. Consider: Veronica Mars was set in a town and a school divided along economic lines and V's personality and attitude in the first season was in large part about resentment (and of course the murder of her friend). The O.C. played with class and status in a much splashier and more general way but at its best succeeded thanks to humor and the fantastically awkward Adam Brody. The great, forgotten, Once and Again got plenty of mileage out of stories involving the teen characters' maturation. A plot about Jessie's (Evan Rachel Wood) lesbianism got the most attention, but I maintain that Julia Whelan's Grace is one of the most underrated TV teens of all time. Whelan could convey amazing amounts of self-consciousness with just a look.
By contrast, the (until this season) teens on the ridiculous One Tree Hill have never laughed, told a joke, or had a moment where their lives didn't feel as weighty or predetermined as the those of the members of the House of Atreus. By this standard I think Felicity's haircut is perfectly defensible. She returns to school, a deeply indecisive Ben, and an angry Noel in the season 2 premiere. By then end of the second episode, Ben and Felicity have fluttered around their (unconsumated) realtionship to the point that Felicity has realized she'll have to change herself to a ridiculous point to be the kind of girl that a not-ready-for-something-serious Ben will want. This watershed moment comes after one of Felicity's advisees uses a magazine article's tips in an unsuccessfull effort to keep a boyfriend.
So when Felicity walks into that hair salon and asks for the works, the result is a woman shorn both of her most arresting feature and the emotional immaturity of a young girl. I don't think it's an accident that the cut made Russell look older. Of course Ben and Noel still are major players in Felicity's life, but I'd argue that there's a self-assuredness and outlook in Felicity post-trim. Felicty's reaction to a kiss with Noel during a calamitous Thanksgiving a few episodes later is played much more subtly than it would have been a season earlier.
Obviously the hair grew back and the rest of the series features plenty of social and romantic turmoil for Felicity. But it was those early episodes of Season 2 where Felicity stopped being the girl who followed Ben to New York and became someone much more worthy of our attention.