''Felicity'' gaining acclaim in its first season -- The WB's new show proving itself successful
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”Ooooooooooh, fortune cookies!” exclaims Keri Russell, pushing aside her plate of chicken satay as a waiter slides the final course in front of her. ”This is the best part!”

Pausing momentarily during an interview at a low-key Santa Monica Thai restaurant, the 22-year-old star of The WB’s Felicity grabs her prize and cracks it open with eager-beaver eyes: THE STRENGTHS IN YOUR CHARACTER WILL BRING YOU SERENITY.

As Russell slowly recites these words, one of her character’s Dear-Sally-let’s-microanalyze-every-little-thing-to-death gazes crosses her porcelain face. But just before the scene turns too Lifetime-y, she slaps the scrap of paper on the table and busts out laughing: ”Oh, God, I hope so! Soooon!! Puh-leeze bring it soon!!!”

And how.

To those familiar with her TV incarnation — a virtuous college freshman eternally tortured by one false move after another — peace of mind would be some kind of wonderful. The same goes for Russell herself. The chaos kicked off last spring, when TV critics (including EW’s) and ad execs anointed the Fountain of Curly Blond Hair as this fall’s Shiniest New Star, then labeled Felicity the most promising thing to hit the tube since color. Bootlegged copies of the pilot snaked their way through Hollywood. Rival networks publicly flogged themselves for not having the drama. Hell, the show might as well have been called Publicity.

Then came show time — and so did the answer to the fall’s most burning question: Would Felicity live up to its billing? (Envelope, please.) Yes! And no.

Three months into the season, the series averages 5.5 million weekly viewers and ranks a modest No. 99, just behind its time-slot lead-in, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and more than a stone’s throw from Dawson’s Creek (averaging 6.3 million folks per week). So no, it’s not the breakout smash predicted. But here’s the yes part: Felicity is a hit with a very powerful demographic. Among all prime-time broadcast network series, it boasts the highest concentration of 18- to 34-year-olds in upscale households (people making $75,000 or more). A narrow niche for sure, but one that has khaki-clad Gap execs swinging from the chandeliers. ”If you’re one of the advertisers who want to target young affluent women,” says David Marans, senior partner at ad agency J. Walter Thompson, ”this is your baby. It’s a marketer’s dream.”

”Keri has been a great poster child for us,” says WB programming president Garth Ancier, who is equally jazzed about his net’s 19 percent growth in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic (making it the only broadcast net to see gains in that demo this season, thanks to its scalding-hot roster of teen shows, including Felicity‘s frosh mate Charmed). ”We hoped Felicity would be one of our first adventures in branching out to [young adults], and it’s been doing just that.”

For those not yet enrolled at the University of New York, here’s a quick orientation: Ultra-idealistic Felicity (Russell) follows aloof crush object Ben (Scott Speedman) cross-country to college and gets entangled in love triangle with dorky-cute dorm counselor Noel (Scott Foley) while juggling friendships with artsy Julie (Amy Jo Johnson) and anal Elena (Tangi Miller). Sample plots include — hold on to your laptops — cheating on term papers and date rape.

Hardly fresh territory in the teen universe, yet somehow this stylized college drama — teeming with self-conscious angst, moody slow-mo direction, and fuzzy-hearted emoting — has permeated the zeitgeist: The show has already been parodied on SNL and MAD TV. And on the Internet, it generates more message postings and websites than any other new series. (For an electronic nod to the underground 90210 I Hate Brenda newsletter, check out the Contemptuous Sardonic Felicity Watchers Society.)

Russell doesn’t need any cyberproof to recognize her show is touching a nerve, for better or worse: ”When I talk to my friends, they either so don’t like my character and list all these reasons — or if they love the character, they say, ‘You know that one scene where you do that one thing where you look up?’ And I’m like, ‘I can’t believe you pay that much attention to the show, you sickos!”’

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