Television: Felicity: Great Expectations

Felicity, the fall's most frantically hyped new series, can't be much good, can it? Yes, it can

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What's in a name? If the name is Felicity, then a television show is in it--and not just any show, but the most highly anticipated new series of the season. J.J. Abrams, a screenwriter whose credits include Regarding Henry and Armageddon, was sitting on a beach in Bali on his honeymoon a couple of years ago, and mentioned to his wife that he wanted to write about someone called Felicity. He had also been thinking about a girl he admired from afar in high school and was mulling over a coming-of-age tale. The name pulled these musings together, and all at once Abrams had a character, a story and even a tone--bright, delicate, pleasing. Felicity.

In an otherwise fairly dismal season for new shows, the WB's Felicity, which debuts at 9 p.m. E.T. on Sept. 29, is the one that stands out and has been preceded by the most hype. It's a drama about a college freshman, played with glowing naturalness by Keri Russell, who has impulsively chucked aside the plans her parents made for her in order to follow a boy she hardly knows to New York City. Anybody who has ever fallen in love with a stranger and wondered what might have happened if the infatuation had been acted on will find Felicity's premise tinglingly evocative. That, combined with polished execution and an enormously appealing cast, may make the hype prophetic rather than a curse.

It will be an especially remarkable feat if the show turns out to be a success, since the two people who put it together each week are new to television. The experience of Abrams and his fellow executive producer, Matt Reeves, is almost entirely in film. While Reeves, who recently co-wrote and directed The Pallbearer, has directed episodes of network dramas, neither he nor Abrams has ever worked regularly on a show before, much less run one. Ultimately, their backgrounds have helped Felicity, giving it a movielike look and pace, but the challenge has been forbidding.

Even a good idea, of course, must make one or two stops on its way from Bali to prime time. A few months after his honeymoon, Abrams was eating dinner with Reeves, an old friend. Both 32 and both from Los Angeles, they had met when they were 13 and already making student films. During the meal, Abrams told Reeves of his idea about a girl who disastrously moves across the country to go to college. At first the two thought the story would work as a movie. "But every version seemed stupid," says Abrams. "We realized the thing that felt inspiring was this character, the voice of this person who was taking a huge risk and experiencing what it is to make a mistake for the first time and take the consequences." With a TV show, they could explore this person's life without having to reach a resolution in two hours.

Borrowing a pen from the maitre d', they began scribbling on napkins. In a few weeks Abrams had written a pilot, and he and Reeves had developed about five years' worth of story lines. They brought Felicity to Imagine Entertainment, the production company headed by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, and Imagine took it to the WB, which, with series such as Dawson's Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has become the home of the teenage hit. Suddenly Abrams and Reeves were TV producers.

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