TELEVISION REVIEW: Back to the '50s With "Felicity"

Source: New York Times, January 21, 2000
By Anita Gates

The haircut probably started it. Keri Russell, the young star of the WB network's "Felicity," cut her hair last year, just in time for the new season. That glorious head of voluminous golden backlit hair. (If you are older and unfamiliar with "Felicity," think back to the week Mia Farrow turned up on "Peyton Place" with her hair scissored away.)

Some commentators were so upset about Ms. Russell's new style that they suspected it was affecting the show's ratings. The only setting that cut would work in, they may have said aloud, would be the 1950s, when all the chic young women were getting the "Italian boy" do. So naturally they decided to turn "Felicity" into a '50s drama on Sunday.

To be specific, they turned it into "The Twilight Zone." Which is a completely off-kilter idea for a one-hour drama about earnest, lovesick, beautiful college students in New York. But the all-black-and-white episode is so expertly done that it is almost fabulous.

It may not capture the "Twilight Zone" magic, but it does a great job of paying homage.

Felicity (Ms. Russell) is at work at the coffee shop when the strangeness begins. A well-groomed, thin-lipped woman walks up to the counter and addresses her: "I don't mean to intrude. Only I saw you staring at that boy at the table." When Felicity says, "May I help you?" the woman answers, "I think I might be able to help you."

And she hands Felicity a card for a place called the Clinic: "Help for the lovelorn," she explains.

Everything about the woman is on target. Wearing a hat and noticeable jewelry, she's just a little more dressed up for everyday than women are in 2000. Her language is a little more formal and a little more polite, in the ways of four decades ago.

Then the voice-over introduces the story: "Witness Felicity Porter. In many ways your typical 19-year-old college sophomore. Studious, dedicated, kind. Felicity Porter, who serves coffee and pastries to nameless patrons." It ends, "Felicity Porter, making a phone call that will change her life forever."

It's not Rod Serling's voice -- it's a woman's, in fact -- but it has the tingly-eerie rhythm and tone of Serling's unforgettable introductions to the old series.

Felicity goes to the Clinic, where, she assumes, the treatment will be some sort of psychotherapy or hypnosis to help her get over her romantic troubles with Noel (Scott Foley) and Ben (Scott Speedman). But something is very wrong, and by the time the harshly lighted blond nurse brings out a syringe the size of a rolling pin, Felicity is running for her life. Then things get even stranger.

She finds herself talking to a man in the college library who isn't really there.

Her tape recorder calls her name in the middle of the night, even though there's no tape in it. When she takes a night job in the biology lab where the cadavers are kept (naturally), one of the deceased starts talking, warning her of what really lies ahead for her at the Clinic. (Let's just say it's a drastic approach to dealing with a broken heart.)

Most horrifying of all, people she knows, trusts and loves have been transformed in some horrible way. Even Noel. You can tell when he says, with an odd lack of affect, "If that's what you want, we'll report the Clinic to the police." Right after that, he takes off his shirt, and he and Felicity have a strange Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois moment. Maybe a preview of the show's next homage?

An hour is a little too long for this sort of game. (The writers end up tacking on a second mystery to keep the plot going.) They once tried expanding the original "Twilight Zone" to an hour, too (in 1963); that idea lasted half a season.

For most of the hour, the exposition hits just the right note and the camera angles are perfect copies of what "The Twilight Zone" used to do. The students wear period clothing, but very subtle period. Felicity's friend Elena (Tangi Miller) is reading The New York Gazette with the headline "Russia Fires Rocket Toward Moon."

But Felicity's tape recorder is a modern compact model, not the bulky reel-to-reel kind you'd have seen in the "Twilight Zone" era.

It's just enough to keep viewers off balance, wondering if this is supposed to be 1960 or 2000, just as the characters wonder if the things that are happening are real or part of a dream. And even if "Felicity" had gotten everything else wrong, W.G. Snuffy Walden and Danny Pelfrey's plot-enhancing music would have been worth tuning in to hear.


WB, Sunday at 8
(Channel 11 in New York)

Tony Krantz, J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, executive producers; Nick Smirnoff, co-producer; Lamont Johnson, director; Ted Kaye, vice president for production; Victoria LaFortune, production executive.

WITH: Keri Russell (Felicity Porter), Scott Speedman (Ben Covington), Amy Jo Johnson (Julie Emrick), Scott Foley (Noel Crane), Tangi Miller (Elena Tyler) and Amanda Foreman (Meghan Rotundi).