If there was ever a series I never expected would turn into a roller-coaster ride, it's Felicity. When it debuted last fall, the show arrived pre-sold, pre-hyped: Here was, we were told by advertising buyers and industry pundits, a mediocre season's Sole Quality Show or, at the very least, a less-damp Dawson's Creek. Well, the season didn't quite shake down that way (I'd give current time-period competitors Sports Night and Will & Grace the edge as new-season bests). But Felicity puffery was understandable: The show looked like quality it had the muted colors and shadowed lighting of thirtysomething and My So-Called Life and, in title star Keri Russell, a real star presence. Or, at the very least, star hair.
But in its initial episodes, Felicity Porter, pre-med freshman at the University of New York, was a drip, a pill, and a bit of a dope. I remember being particularly irked during an episode in which Felicity discovers the word buttinsky...in the dictionary. And she picks up her tape recorder (she exchanges diaristic tapes with a friend voiced by an uncredited Janeane Garofalo) and says, in the typically reverent tone she reserves for talking about herself, ''That's what I am a buttinsky.'' No, kid, I thought at the time, you are a ditz.
But a couple of months into the series and probably not coincidentally, as Felicity's ratings continued to droop you began to hear that the show's creators, J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, had also come to the realization that Felicity was to use George Harrison's phrase in A Hard Day's Night a drag, a well-known drag. I spoke to thirtysomething co-creator Marshall Herskovitz recently, who said that the innovation of his show was that lead characters didn't need to be heroic they could admit to being baffled or made anxious by life. ''Indeed,'' he said, chuckling, ''these were extolled as virtues, and I can see this influence in shows now like Dawson and Felicity.'' But Felicity's confusion and anxiety over whether she was in love with Ben (Scott Speedman) or Noel (Scott Foley), or whether she should rewrite Ben's English paper because it stank has tended to be hollowly portentous, presented with the ominous gravity usually reserved for Ted Koppel's summations of the situation in Kosovo.
So, lawd-a-mercy, how nice it was when Abrams disseminated the news that he and Reeves were going to lighten up Felicity. And darned if they haven't, and danged if the show isn't now one of the zippiest, cleverest romantic comedies on the air. Just doing little things, like getting Felicity out of her gloomy dorm room and having her work at a Dean & DeLuca coffee shop, where she must interact with her delightfully daffy boss, Javier (Ian Gomez), have perked things up nicely.
A show that once seemed underpopulated now teems with interesting characters. Felicity's roommate (Amanda Forman), an amusing Goth grump, is sporting a gross, infected nose piercing that, by now, everyone's so used to, they don't even comment on it. And Ben's roommate, Sean (Greg Grunberg), the perennial inventor of get-rich-quick business scams, is a fine example of the nerd you love to hate. So is Richard (Robert Patrick Benedict), the rebellious little rat in Felicity's dorm who's always testing resident adviser Noel's rules and regulations. And the recent spat between Felicity's friend Elena (sparky Tangi Miller) and her two-timin' dawg of a boyfriend (Shan Omar Huey) was a suspenseful subplot who'da thunk this handsomely bald guy would be a bald-faced liar? It's always a good sign when regular cast members get involved in messes that reveal character facets with which we have to come to terms, as with Julie (Amy Jo Johnson) and her search for her long-gone biological mother.
Julie, against the sensible advice of boyfriend Ben, took a job in the office of the woman she thinks is her real mom, played by Jane Kaczmarek. Julie (who has become interestingly neurotic; her nose always looks rubbed red and runny, as if she's just recovering from a crying jag no one is privy to) was practically stalking this woman, who ultimately denied she was Julie's birth mom. How's that for an engagingly awkward workplace situation?
But the most cheering sign that Felicity is developing into an interesting saga is the fact that the producers are mixing things up the show's mood hasn't become so light or comically quirky that it can't support a dark surprise or two. Like when that guy who'd had a crush on Felicity since they were 12 got smacked by a bus; this was the most stomach-lurching episode ender of the TV season so far.
Satisfying, too. I mean, the guy was such a buttinsky. B+