All the color is drained out of Felicity's face tonight. And her body. And her fellow college students and their surroundings. Why, it's as if they've entered "The Twilight Zone" or, more accurately, Tribute to "Twilight Zone" Land.
Today's "Felicity," airing at 8 p.m. on the WB (WCWB, Channel 22), is an homage to the landmark sci-fi series created and hosted by Rod Serling.
All of the usual suspects - Felicity (Keri Russell), Noel (Scott Foley), Ben (Scott Speedman), Elena (Tangi Miller), Julie (Amy Jo Johnson) and Meghan (Amanda Foreman) - are here, but they have been transported to a retro setting, complete with early '60s furnishings, costumes, hairstyles and props.
And, more important, they are placed into a story with a pair of "Twilight Zone" twists, one easy to predict and another one not quite so obvious. The black-and-white episode, titled "Help for the Lovelorn," was the brainchild of J.J. Abrams, creator and executive producer of "Felicity" and a devout "Twilight Zone" fan.
In a letter accompanying a review copy of "Felicity," Abrams says: "I'm sitting here, writing this to you, with an autographed photo of Rod Serling hanging on the wall behind me. I feel now, as I have in the past, that he's watching. Saying to me, as he used to say to the writers who worked for him, 'Write your dreams.' "
So he did, and he got one-time "Twilight Zone" director Lamont Johnson, now 77, to direct. The cast and crew dressed in period clothing, and old cameras were unearthed for the shoot. The result is worth watching or taping, as novelty and reverential throwback.
For those too young to recall, CBS aired the original "Twilight Zone" from October 1959 to September 1964 (with a three-month break in late '62). Episodes, which ran 30 or 60 minutes depending on the season, were known for Serling's slightly belated introduction and surprise endings.
Typical was one called "Time Enough at Last," starring Burgess Meredith as a bookish bank teller who just wanted to be left alone to read. A nuclear disaster seems to grant his wish; he is the last man on Earth. But, and there's always a but, he breaks his eyeglasses. He has time enough at last, but no way to see the words that await.
Tonight, Felicity (Russell, clad in an uncharacteristic Oxford cloth shirt and pearl earrings) is approached by a woman in the coffee shop where she works. It's not the Dean and Deluca we've come to recognize; it has customers wearing hats, white socks and Kennedy-era haircuts.
The customer asks Felicity if she's lovesick and refers her to a place in New York called, simply, The Clinic. "For the incurable romantic, The Clinic is the cure," the patron assures her. "If you're romantically frustrated, lonely, dejected, you owe it to yourself to call."
As regular viewers know, Felicity has had more than her share of relationship troubles, with secret-crush Ben, one-time boy-down-the-hall Noel and a grad student who was the son of her art instructor. As Felicity picks up a phone with a rotary dial, the narrator intones: "Felicity Porter, making a phone call that will change her life - forever."
When she goes to The Clinic, she opens up about her heartbreak. "For some horrible, annoying reason, love matters to me. ... I'm sick of caring so much, of feeling torn and wanting that connection, that soul mate." She wants that feeling to go away, although no one will specify exactly how The Clinic can make that happen.
Later, spooked by the place and people, Felicity informs the nurse she's changed her mind. But the clinic won't take no for an answer, and Felicity is soon approached by another stranger, this time a man, warning her: "Don't let it happen to you. Find a way out." And we'll leave it at that, for fear of ruining the episode.
This story about tell-tale hearts gets the details right: the black-and-white photography with harsh, ominous shadows in The Clinic; the behavior of friends that is both familiar and odd; the appearance of strangers with urgent messages; the sudden attention to a detail that sheds new light on everything. The show does include a few nods to the present, including an answering machine and Felicity's ever-present tape recorder.
Although Russell is very much a creature of her times (mainly because of short hairdo), her co-stars recede into the past quite nicely. Like the "Twilight Zones" of old, "Help" poses some questions and quandaries about love and feeling and existence itself.
Television has become a far different medium in the past four decades, and we're reminded of that watching this homage. The scenes seem strangely underdressed - no profusion of people and props and noise and distractions as you find today. It's a cleaner look, veteran director Johnson has said.
While "Help" will never replace the classic episodes of "Twilight Zone," it gives "Felicity" a chance to acknowledge its television past, to answer a question that's been nagging regulars (you'll have to watch) and to step outside the box. Figuratively and literally.