It’s Sunday night, and you’re settled in to watch Felicity. You wonder what lies ahead for the show’s sensitive heroine, played by Keri Russell. Will she drop her dorm key off a subway platform—and have to stay with Noel (Scull Foley)? Will Ben (Scott Speedman) be jealous?
But then you notice something strange. The color has drained front your TV set. Felicity has somehow turned her angst level up a notch. Julie (Amy Jo Johnson) seems to think she’s on The X-Files, as Agent Scully—only evil. And Noel—well, he’d best be described as a Stepford Noel, Elena (Tangi Miller) secret oddly different, too. There is no logic, no reason, no explanation. Because this is…the Twilight Zone.
Actually, there is an explanation. Turns out J.J. Abrams, an executive producer behind the soft-lensed ardor of Felicity, is also a fan of the spine tingle. It seems the late Rod Serling, who created The Twilight Zone, is his idol. Abrams, 33, brought in one of that series’ original directors, Lamont Johnson and guided the Felicity cast through “Help for the Lovelorn,” an episode based partly on the Johnson-directed 1961 Twilight classic, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” which starred William Windom as one of a diverse group inexplicably trapped in a room together.
I felt like I was indeed talking from a Twilight Zone,” says Johnson laughing. “I’m 77. and the actors are [in their 20s]. We’re talking about a different style of playing—with a theatrical aspect.” In other words, words, subtlety wasn’t prized. As Russell says, “Felicity is very frightened, so there are many scenes of the over-breathing.” She feigns an asthma attack to demonstrate.
Asked if this episode’s otherworldly feel came out of Buffy envy, Abrams replies “I am enormously envious of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its life or death issues. No one’s necessarily trying to kill you on Felicity.” Still, he wasn’t solely out to summon goose bumps. “Serling created The Twilight Zone so he could tell stories as analogies. There is something underneath this story about this girl’s search for love and her frustration in doing so.”
Last year, critics quickly tired of Felicity’s search-and-frustration operation and her weepy rants about Ben, Ben, Ben. When they screamed a collective “Lighten up, already!” Abrams heard it. In Season 2, Felicity has sharpened her trademark self-analysis with sly inside jokes (I’m the Ben in this situation!”). With this episode, Russell admits, “We’re making fun of ourselves. But,” she adds, “it is a really spooky show.”
Case to point: Abrams claims he asked his photograph of Serling, who died in 1975, for help with the plot. “Literally 10 minutes later we [he and series co-creator Matt Reeves] figured out the story.” Cue the music. Is that a signpost up ahead? Your next stop…Felicity’s Twilight Zone. —Jennifer Graham
This article appeared in a March 2001 issue of Variety.