Hairy Situation (Liane Bonin, Entertainment Weekly)


Budget cuts and ratings woes mean a revamped ''Felicity'' . Scott Speedman and Keri Russell reveal the reasons for the show's new look and direction...


Whatever you do, don't blame ''Felicity'''s tepid ratings (season premiere Wed., Oct. 4, 9 p.m.) on Keri Russell's haircut. ''I think that's a pretty lame excuse,'' sighs the 24 year old Russell, who is growing out her heavily hyped tresses. ''I think a lot more than a haircut was deciding the ratings [last year].''

True, but show cocreator J.J. Abrams admits that Russell's clip job did turn a spotlight on the series' real problem: Felicity just wasn't herself after her breakup with commitment phobic Ben (Scott Speedman) at the beginning of season two. ''She didn't look like or act like the character you'd seen, and I think a disconnect happened for the audience,'' says Abrams, adding that viewers were disappointed to see the love affair they had been rooting for throughout the first season wither in just two episodes. ''We made a mistake when we split up Ben and Felicity, and we were recovering from that mistake the whole year.''

Okay, so the star crossed lovers are happily committed to one another at the kick off the series' third season, but that's no guarantee of smooth sailing for the WB drama. The series narrowly avoided cancellation this summer and received a 13 episode renewal instead of the usual 22. ''Felicity'' will also share its time slot with ''Jack & Jill,'' which premieres later in the season. ''They really cut our budget down, so we've had to be inventive about what we can do,'' says Speedman. ''The last few years we've had eight or nine days to shoot an episode. Now we're down to seven, and it's really hard to do.''

To pinch pennies, Abrams and cocreator Matt Reeves cleverly exploited an existing plotline involving Ben's roommate Sean (Greg Grunberg). Sean has been videotaping a documentary about his underclassman buddies since the first season, and his hand held footage will become a more prominent part of the show this season. The result? The producers can lavish time and film stock on important scenes, but shoot others cheaply and quickly on video. The show saves money using this approach, and there's always the chance that the public's post ''Survivor'' appetite for reality TV may boost ratings. ''Hey, we've been doing this since we started, so I feel like 'Survivor' stole from us,'' jokes Abrams.

Ben and Felicity may be back together, but the happy couple will take a backseat to other characters as Abrams and Reeves strive to fix another second season mistake. ''Because we had placed the burden on Felicity alone to carry the show, we got to a place where we felt like every week we had to throw her into some sort of crisis,'' says Reeves, who suspects her constant state of emotional turmoil may have made her less sympathetic to viewers.

So what can fans expect? Abrams and Reeves tell that Sean will suffer a frightening health crisis, Javier (Ian Gomez) and his lover will pursue parenthood, Elena (Tangi Miller) will be tempted to cheat on her virginal boyfriend Tracy (Donald Faison), and Noel (Scott Foley) will briefly disappear. A new character, Molly (Sarah-Jane Potts), will also join the show as a free spirited Brit, and John Ritter (''Three's Company'') will return as Ben's father. With so much going on, maybe everyone will stop focusing on Keri's hair once and for all.



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