Seventeen-year-old Felicity Porter (woofly-haired Keri Russell) makes a mistake only slightly smaller than the one the 18-year-old Joyce Maynard did when she ran off to New Hampshire to eat frozen peas with J.D. Salinger: At the last minute, California high school grad Felicity ditches plans to go to Stanford premed and heads for the fictional University of New York. Why? Like Maynard, to be near a guy. But at least with Felicity, it's a guy her own age, the sharp-cheekboned Ben (Scott Speedman), whom she believes is interested in her.
Whoops. Turns out Ben makes goo-goo eyes at all the girls, and so Felicity quickly finds herself alone in big, bad Manhattan, with her career-minded parents all mad at her wayward ways. Felicity is shrewdly designed to make its teens-to-20s viewers feel at once sympathetic with and superior to its doe-eyed protagonist. It's a young-adult romance-novel premise: Felicity follows her heart only to have it crushed, but she picks herself up, meets a cute student resident adviser (Scott Foley), and slogs on. I predict an upcoming episode in which Felicity is empowered by mastering the subway system.
As on Party of Five and Dawson's Creek (but unlike the superior My So-Called Life and Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Felicity too often makes the extreme existential crises of school life seem like the end of the world rather than the beginning of a new, difficult, but exciting one. When her pal Julie (Amy Jo Johnson) confides her own extracurricular reasons for being in New York (adopted, she's traced her birth mother and is bracing herself for a meeting), Felicity accepts this news only insofar as it reflects upon herself: ''God, I feel all grown up!'' she gushes.
Felicity would be a lot more difficult to bear were Russell not so committed to her gushiness alert and registering every emotion on her face, she has none of the affectless cool that makes the Party of Five clan such poker-faced pains. And exec producer-creators J.J. Abrams (Armageddon) and Matt Reeves (The Pallbearer) keep the story from bogging down with briskly paced scenes and vivid characterization. If Felicity doesn't quite live up to its hype as the season's niftiest new show, it's on its way to being a solid weekly soap opera. B