Photo: The WB
Photo: The WB

By Meghan Lewit

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:

Photo: FanPop
Photo: FanPop

“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.

Photo: Tumblr
Photo: Tumblr

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.

Felicity’s Ben or Noel Conundrum: How The Side You Took Predicted Your Entire Love Life 29 April,2014KQED Pop

  • Laur Schultzy

    I love this. After chasing down Bens for most of my 20s and dealing with all that drama, I found a Noel. Three years strong, and no complications.


    • Elaine Stackhouse


  • Beth

    Love this. I was all for Ben during the first run of the show, but I re-watched the entire series last year and I found myself wondering why Felicity kept making stupid choices that didn’t seem so stupid when I was 19. Hindsight really is 20/20. Fortunately, I’m now married to a Noel. =)

    • Elaine Stackhouse

      I have to agree. I was in my late 20s with small babies when the show came out and I wanted Felicity with Ben. A divorce (to a bad boy sort of Ben type) and 15 years as a single mom changed that opinion. I finally met my Noel at 46 years old. My now husband is a Noel, definitely a Noel. Reliable, very in love with me. After being married to a Ben type (and he cheated… ending a marriage) and raising two sons alone I’d take a Noel every single time. Ben’s are very attractive to younger women.. I was very much into the Bad boy at that age. Although I will say Ben wasn’t really a bad boy. He was just more unavailable. Felicity had to pursue him through the beginning of the series. I’m only rewatching season 1 right now. My thoughts are. Ben is not a bad guy. Immature, emotionally unavailable. He and Julie were total snore fest together. Loved, loved Noel and Fecility at least Season 1. Tons of passion. She was the love of his life you could tell. He was her first real boyfriend. There was something really sweet and real there. But I think she was like many young women. Not ready for that type of relationship and that crush on the unobtainable Ben just wouldn’t go.

  • countmerovingian

    Appearance can be so deceiving. People who think Noel Crane is the “better” choice for
    Felicity either didn’t watch the series or are too blind to see that Noel is in
    fact a pathetic, needy and selfish hypocrite who can get really judgmental, passive-aggressive and spiteful. I just find that he is the embodiment of so many qualities that I find unbearable in a man. So I simply can’t, for the life of me, understand why people would find him desirable.

    • Cassie

      I agree, Noel could be a whiny and vindictive jerk as well. I would ditch both of them and find someone else.

  • Lauren

    I loved this article! And the fact you linked to my photoshop of choosing Noel over Ben!

  • Wendy Bird

    Dated a series of Bens but married a Noel. Still happy after 35 years.

  • CJP Dequeen

    I understand the appeal of Noel in some ways, but for me he was never the ‘right/perfect choice’. I didn’t see him as the sweet, nice guy (because he wasn’t always this) or that Ben was the bad, aloof guy (which yes he could be sometimes). The only differences between them for me was that Noel being older and from a more settled family life, knew what he wanted to do with his career while Ben was searching for what he wanted for a while when he started at UNY.
    The Ben that started out on the show was not the Ben that we knew when it was four years later and he had finished at UNY. While with Noel, he didn’t have to do much growth as a character because he was more or less what he was from the beginning. Felicity came at a crucial moment in Ben’s life where he needed someone who believed in him that in turn that made him believe in himself.
    And also I believed that once Ben gave into his feelings for Felicity and stop running from them, he never fell out of love with her. Yes Noel loved Felicity probably more stronger than any of his other loves, but three of them came pretty close to what he felt for Felicity and I can’t say this ever happen to Ben. Yes he went out with Julie first but I think that came about because of Felicity being with Noel and all the other girls, (Avery and Lauren) were distractions and did not develop into anything major.
    What annoys me somewhat is that Ben is seen as a cheater when really until the ridiculous SL of Ben cheating on Felicity for a month?! (sorry but that is not what Ben could ever do to Felicity), he hadn’t cheated on her the way she did with him in regards to Noel and at least he was honest in his confusion about what he was going through with Avery.
    So yeah Team Ben/FaB always because I just love the growth of Ben throughout the years and how in particular that Ben handled finding out about what happen to Felicity and Noel and how he didn’t knock Noel head off (which he would have had every right to!) because that is so what he would have done if it had happened the year before, however it just showed Ben being more mature and doing things differently and not being all hot headed. Yes of course there were still some elements of the Ben who we first met still in him but I as a fan still loved and appreciated the man he was becoming. So while I love/d Felicity so much as a character, Ben is the one person who I love/d just a little bit more. Indeed my favourite character out of the whole series.
    So in conclusion, it wouldn’t matter to me if I settled down with a Noel kind of man, for Felicity, it will always be Ben.

  • Gizem

    I totally agree with you. And im so glad that you have written about this. Ive just finished the series and i consider myself as a Noel-girl. But than i realize im now with a Ben and made my Noel go away. I really wonder how will i end up in years. Its hard when it comes between your heart and brain in real life.

  • Kimmy L. Davis

    I just re-watched the whole series. I was always team Ben but though Noel was the smarted choice back in college. The re-watch showed me that I missed all of the nuance in ben’s character. Ben loved Felicity and wanted to be with her from almost the beginning. He has his weaknesses but they’re based in empathy, being too trustful and a serious lack of will power – not any bad boyness.

  • Kay

    Date all the Ben’s in the world but marry a Noel–that’s what happened to me. Sorry, but I don’t need to ‘fix’ a guy–not even when I was 17 & Ben’s usually need some ‘fixing’–usually emotionally–which is what gives them that bad boy appeal. Uh, thanks but no thanks…we do need more Noel’s in this world–there’s just way too many Ben’s throwing us off…

  • dilwazr

    Why does every Noel advocate forget that he gets totally rapey after Felicity swipes her v-card with Simon Rex??

  • hithere55

    Totally Team Noel here! He’s kind, smart, passionate, and cute!

  • fucking_classy

    this is brilliant.

  • Britta Carlson

    I’m sorry, but wasn’t the point of this article to say that you can tell everything about a person by their choices in these situations… So… What exactly CAN you tell about a person based on whether they would choose Noel or Ben? I feel like I missed something here…

  • Anonymous

    Team Ben always!!



KQED Pop is a daily blog edited by Emmanuel Hapsis that critically examines the social and cultural impact of music, movies, television, advertisements, fashion, the internet and all the other collective experiences that make us laugh, cringe and cry. We focus on local, national and international experiences with a Bay Area lens. We don’t do reviews.

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