If TV critics tend to be in agreement this fall that the crop of new network series is uncommonly crummy — a drum-beat seemingly parroted annually — the critical community is also fairly unanimous in its view that “Felicity” is the only pilot with anything resembling real magic. It hits the air with that assessment still intact, emboldened by a heavy buzz that bestows imminent greatness onto both the show and its angelic star, Keri Russell. One will find no dissenting opinion here.
It is impossible, however, to avoid comparisons between this show and “My So-Called Life” and “Ally McBeal.” So strong are the parallels that the following tags have already been affixed to the new WB drama: “My So-Called College Life,” “Ally McFeel” and “My So-Called Strife” (Felicity is, after all, just a college girl, and one with well-off parents at that). Shows that are this shamelessly imitative aren’t supposed to be this good.
Credit an involving opening script bursting with honest sentiment from co-exec producer J.J. Abrams (“Armageddon”), tight and stylish direction from Matt Reeves and, most of all, a star-making turn by 22-year-old Russell that garnered her massive national TV and magazine exposure as tubedom’s new “It” girl months before her show even premiered.
Russell is Felicity Porter, a mass of frizzy hair and insecurities who doesn’t much know what she wants to be when she grows up, or even where she wants to attend college. That all changes at her high school graduation when classmate Ben Covington (Scott Speedman), on whom she’s always harbored a crush, writes something unusually deep in her high school yearbook.
That clinches it. Felicity will attend college wherever Ben does, which turns out to be in New York City. She follows the guy 3,000 miles to enroll, infuriating her doctor daddy (nice work from Erich Anderson). No Rhodes scholar in the making, Felicity quickly discovers that Ben has no interest in her. Whoops. Time to strike up that doleful music.
“Felicity” thus turns into a coming-of-age soap. Russell does a sparkling Claire Danes-like turn as the hypersensitive college freshman caught between liking a dreamboat who just wants to be friends and deflecting the charming advances of Noel Crane (a terrific perf from Scott Foley), the resident student adviser at Felicity’s dorm. Then there’s her new friend Julie (Amy Jo Johnson), to whom Ben seems to have taken an instant liking.
Yes, it’s all pretty sudsy stuff. But the introspective “Felicity” carries massive appeal nonetheless, an emotive tour de force that can’t help but stand as this fall’s “Dawson’s Creek,” roping in teens by the bucketful. Through the radiant Russell, the show astutely transmits the conflicting blend of giddy anticipation and neurotic dread that defines the early college experience.
If this is a “My So-Called Life” knockoff, then Brian Grazer and Ron Howard have obviously done their homework. All glorified clones should be so fresh and enchanting. Tech credits sparkle.