A note of joy in new season Preview: 'Felicity' -- and its star Keri Russell -- will make you happy, indeed.

September 29, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

I have now seen the pilot for "Felicity" four times. The first two times were just for enjoyment. The last two were reality checks to see if it is really as good as it seemed during the first two viewings.

It is.

"Felicity" is the story of Felicity Elizabeth Porter, 17-year-old freshman at the University of New York. The story opens in her dorm room. She's alone and talking into a recorder, taping a letter for her friend and former French tutor, Sally, who now lives in New Mexico.

In voiceover and flashback, we hear the story of a boy who wrote something in Felicity's high school yearbook a few months ago on graduation day and how she bolted from the pre-med path at Stanford that her parents had made it oh-so-easy to follow and instead came 3,000 miles to be at the same school as that boy.

"So. basically, I've given up everything my parents ever planned for me, everything I've ever expected -- all for a boy I don't even know," she confides to Susan and the tape recorder. "I guess what I'm saying is [that] this all might be a colossal mistake, as my dad would say. But, on the other hand, it might, well, maybe it will save my life or something, I don't know. Please respond ASAP. I miss you. Love Felicity."

The tape-recorded exchanges between the friends are a wonderful narrative device that instantly involves us in Felicity's inner life. Creators J.J. Abrams ("Regarding Henry") and Matt Reeves ("The Pallbearer") use it as perfect bookends for their inspired coming-of-age soap opera saga.

There is so much to recommend in "Felicity." There are great scenes, like the one with Felicity sitting in freshman English staring at the boy it appears she will never have, silently crying her eyes out as the puffed-up toad of a professor drones on about "freshman questions, or what I call FQs," as he pretentiously puts it.

There is also exceptional acting. Newcomer Keri Russell ("Mad to Mambo") plays Felicity with a range that encompasses both the incredible exhilaration and the dark loneliness of that first year away from home. Her performance is the most exciting small-screen debut since Claire Danes in 1994 in "My So-Called Life." Russell is better than Danes, especially in her moments of silence. She is not afraid to work without words, to let her face and body tell us what's happening inside her heart and head when she needs to.

"Felicity" is not just the best pilot. It is the one joy of the new network season.

Quick takes

Quick-hit guide to new series premiering tonight:

**** Must-see. *** Has promise. ** Worth a look. * Forget about it.

"Vengeance Unlimited" (ABC) * -- Here's a lovely little family hour show for the kids -- a dark, menacing drama about a guy who kidnaps, beats, shoots and otherwise terrorizes persons whom he has unilaterally decided beat the system of justice (yes, the connection to O.J. is clear.). Even dumber than last year's crackpot vigilante entry from CBS, "Dellaventura," which at least aired at a later time. Sneak preview tonight at 10 on WMAR (Channel 2). Thursday at 8, the series takes up its normal spot in the ABC schedule. (10-11 tonight, WMAR, Channel 2.)


What: "Felicity"

When: Tonight at 9

Where: WB (WNUV, Channel 54)

Pub Date: 9/29/98

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