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A Felicitous Beginning

TV Reviews: WB's 'Felicity' is one of the most promising new series of the fall season. 'Vengeance Unlimited' is something else entirely.

September 29, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Call it angst across generations.

If you've wondered what ABC's old "My So-Called Life" would look like crossed with Fox's "Ally McBeal," the answer is the WB's new "Felicity."

This coming-of-age hour about an anxiety-ridden college freshman and her pals is among the most gratifying and promising new series of the fall season, running back to back on WB with that enjoyable blue-chipper "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

You'd like to see Buffy get a crack at Mr. Chapel, the loose screw of a vigilante who makes criminals suffer in tonight's other new arrival, ABC's dreadful "Vengeance Unlimited."

If anything is unlimited, it may be the future of "Felicity."

Instead of choosing premed at Stanford, indulged 17-year-old Felicity Porter (Keri Russell) outrages her well-heeled parents by impetuously enrolling in a New York City school just to be near Ben Covington (Scott Speedman), a former high school classmate she barely knows but has an intense crush on. Unfortunately for her tonight, the crushee doesn't come through quite as expected.

Thus begin the emotional ups and downs of this appealingly romantic series, whose likable heroine, played all fresh and whipped-creamy by the luminous Russell, embarks on a collegiate career full of insecurities and possibilities, in the company tonight of Ben, her new friend Julie (Amy Jo Johnson) and her dorm advisor, Noel (Scott Foley).

If her grating parents are overdrawn, Felicity and her friends seem right on the mark as works in progress. There's something genuine about their environment and their awkward adjustment. And something equally true about the selfish decision Felicity makes at her job and the way she strolls the streets in slo-mo late in the hour, deep in self-absorption, in the great mopey tradition of emotionally immature Ally.

The message being that if you're going to hybridize, do it with the best.

Well down on the food chain, meanwhile, is the violent, pretentious and preposterous "Vengeance Unlimited," whose whispery Mr. Chapel (Michael Madsen) does to criminals what they do to their victims. You have to admit it's catchy.

This heroic thug is his own three-strikes law, his cynicism fitting a growing philosophy among the multitudes that lawyer scum, a soft-on-crime judicial system and greedy supply-and-demand fanatics share guilt for what ails society. Or as he puts it, "We live in a world . . . where people can kill someone and get a book deal."

Mr. Chapel doesn't wait for clients to come to him. Feeling their pain, he goes to them, demanding only that they grant him a future favor in return for his services, which usually consist of sadistically terrorizing a rotten apple who escaped or subverted justice. Tonight that includes a shady lawyer and the guilty drug dealer he helped elude jail.

Pretty grim, ugly stuff from a twisted bogyman who is definitely not to be ticked off. It's always a tossup who's more diabolical: Mr. Chapel or the criminals he pursues. That doesn't mean we don't love you, Mr. Chapel, heh, heh.

* "Felicity" premieres at 9 tonight on WB (Channel 5). The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

* "Vengeance Unlimited" premieres at 10 tonight on ABC (Channel 7) but normally will be seen Thursdays at 8 p.m. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14).

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