Talk about teacher's pet: The WB's angsty college drama 'Felicity' — and its main star — already at the head of their class. Quite an accomplishment considering the fall TV season hasn't even begun!

September 04, 1998 at 12:00 PM EDT

Every winter, the migration begins. flapping to the beat of an intricate Darwinian dance, Hollywood producers and agents flock to the six networks uttering the mating cry: We’ve got your next hit show! After listening to 1,000 or so pitches, execs scoop up the 300 best. These ideas grow into scripts, from which 120 pilots are hatched in the spring.

Eventually, the strongest 40 are placed on the nets’ fall schedules. Out of those, half perish within months of hitting the screen. Of the remainder, maybe one or two find an audience to nest with for seasons to come, earning the networks and studios the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to repeat the ritual the following year. This is the tale of one such fledgling — a show that’s emerged as the fall’s brightest hope.

THE LIGHTBULB Felicity was born on a Bali beach in the fall of 1996. Honeymooning 32-year-old screenwriter J.J. Abrams (Regarding Henry, Armageddon) marries two thoughts — the name of a girl he knew in high school with the desire to do a coming-of-age drama. He later shares this slip of an idea with 32-year-old childhood bud Matt Reeves (The Pallbearer‘s director), and the two begin brainstorming a movie. Realizing the plot subtleties would play better over time, they instead sketch an outline for a TV series: The show will begin with Felicity asking the School Stud to sign her yearbook at their California high school graduation. When he adds a flirtatious note, this normally solid, bookish young woman impulsively withdraws her Stanford acceptance and follows him to New York University — a hotbed of life-changing possibilities.

Abrams writes the script, and his agent at Endeavor slips it to a key client, David E. Kelley. Busy developing a female-in-transition project of his own, Ally McBeal, Kelley passes. Abrams then sends it to Tony Krantz, CEO of Imagine Television. Good news: Krantz wants it. Bad news: The ’97-98 pilots have already been ordered, so they’ll have to wait six months.

THE PITCH Krantz shops the show around Hollywood in spring ’97, and The WB bites. After an enthusiastic morning meeting with team Felicity at Burbank headquarters in July, the top WB execs cancel meetings to read the script, and by 1 p.m., Abrams has this message at his hotel: We love this show! We want this show! While Abrams and Reeves are thrilled, they have concerns about a small-fry, buzz-free (pre-Dawson’s Creek) network bankrolling their pilot. A few days later, they meet with ABC suits, who also like the show but are apprehensive about the viability of a project geared toward young women (again, it took Dawson to cement the appeal of that demo to advertisers). Fearing that Felicity might wind up on ABC’s weekend slate — where a similar young-skewing relationship show, Relativity, had died during the ’96-97 season — Krantz steers Abrams and Reeves to the frog net.

Oh, yes, and Felicity is rejected by New York University. NYU, wary of issues such as drugs and suicide being covered, declines to lend its name to the show. Felicity will attend the fictional University of New York.

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