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Felicity; Jack & Jill

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Well, things are certainly proceeding nice and complicatedly in the second season of Felicity, aren’t they? Keri Russell’s title character decided to deal with her sophomore (in college) slump by going to a barbershop on New York City’s Astor Place and chopping off her voluminous crinkle-‘do. As a way of jump-starting her life, it was a very girl thing to do (well, it was; even sexist cliches have truth in them — that’s, y’know, why they’re sexist cliches). But it’s also true that her existence has been a confused botch ever since (we know now from the resolution of last season’s cliff-hanger) she opted to go to San Francisco on summer break with mumbly swimmer Ben (Scott Speedman) instead of vacationing with mopey Noel (Scott Foley).

Any non-Felicity watcher who tuned in to last month’s Emmy Awards show and saw the hilarious parodies the Felicity cast and producers did of dramas like NYPD Blue and ER had to have been impressed by their razor-sharp execution and the deadpan comic timing of Russell. The stunt may not have done much to boost Felicity‘s ratings (its season-premiere audience was two thirds that of last year’s), but it confirmed among the Felicity faithful that this is a series to champion.

That said, I still have my work cut out for me. First of all, forget last year’s premature, misguided hype, which positioned Russell as a radiant Pre-Raphaelite ratings goddess who was going to be the nation’s new teen-audience sensation — Britney Spears with sandals and acting chops (a not-so-far-fetched comparison, given that both Russell and Spears are Disney Channel’s Mickey Mouse Club alums). Anyway, this isn’t your little sister’s Felicity — it’s a crackling comedy-drama, a caffeinated soap, and Russell is just one now-sleekly shorn member of a vivid, quick-witted ensemble.

Cocreators J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves have known just what to fine-tune about the show. For instance, rather than mope, Noel went to Berlin, met a new gal, and has come back to New York with a new attitude: He’s a bitterly angry man, and he really let Felicity have it for keeping him hanging last season with her dithering affections. Episode writer Abrams has done Foley a service by giving him backbone in the new season. Felicity herself — now a dorm-room resident advisor — is also showing some gratifying spunk, dropping premed (could you have imagined a Dr. Felicity? ”Well, um, it’s like, you see, you have, like, oh-my-gosh, cancer…”) in favor of art classes, where she’s being entertainingly ridiculed by a flouncy but firm art teacher played by Sally Kirkland. And back at the dorm, Felicity must fend off flaky, unwarrantedly self-confident freshman Brian Burke (Michael Pena).

Best of all, at least for dramatic purposes if not for Felicity’s always-fragile mental health, her romance with Ben is already rocky. (Speedman is the best actor in television for the very particular ”Oh, I Really Don’t Know What to Say in Response to What You Just Said, So Can I Leave, Because You’re Making Me Uncomfortable” scene.) No, I take it back, the really best-of-all thing about the new season of Felicity is that the most adorable gay comic-relief character on TV (sorry, Will & Grace‘s Jack) — coffee-shop manager Javier (Ian Gomez) — is back, showing no lack of sprightly energy, even as he continues his dull-as-dirt role on Norm. With Javier around to watch, dewy-eyed, as Felicity weeps and reaches up to the nape of her neck to pull at her now-phantom mane of hair, all’s right in Felicity-land.

Unfortunately, the poor girl is getting ratings-hammered in the week’s fiercest pileup of successful shows, including CBS’ Touched by an Angel, Fox’s Simpsons and Futurama, along with NBC’s new Third Watch. And it doesn’t help that Felicity is preceded by a 7th Heaven rerun and followed by Jack & Jill, a far-too-slow romantic drama whose central conceit (he’s named Jill, she’s named Jack) is rapidly proving to be as clever as this show is ever going to get. It’s not for lack of effort on the part of the two stars, Ivan Sergei (who plays Jill as a likable boy-man who invents toys) and the almost ridiculously beautiful Amanda Peet as Jack.

Since we know from the title that this couple is made for each other, why are we spending weeks getting to know Jack’s philandering ex-fiance (Vincent Ventresca)? More important, what’s with the black doo-wop singers who serve as a Greek chorus for J&J‘s minimal action? They are, aside from the rude TV anchor for whom Jack works as an intern, the primary faces of color on the show. (Gee, gratuitous singers and an obnoxious guy — think that’ll get Jack & Jill crossed off the NAACP’s list of shows that need minority characters?) I have sympathy for Jill and Jack, but if I want to watch a couple of hotsy bickerers on Sundays at 9, I’ll tune in to Mulder and Scully.
Felicity: A-
Jack & Jill: C-