What does it say about network television that this year's best new show - "Felicity" - comes to us from producers with very little television experience?

Co-creators and executive producers J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves have worked almost entirely in feature films. Reeves co-wrote "Under Siege II" and "The Pallbearer"; Abrams' screen-writing credits include "Regarding Henry," "Forever Young" and "Armageddon."And now they're bringing viewers a show about an 18-year-old girl who travels cross-country to attend college and embark on a voyage of self-discovery.

"Matt and I have never done this before. We never even watched a TV show before," Abrams joked.

"Felicity," which premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. on WB/Ch. 30, is, quite simply, marvelous television. It's touching, charming and believable - even when Felicity herself decides to chuck her carefully planned life and Stanford to follow a boy she barely knows across the country to college in New York City.

The actors are as good as the writing. And Keri Russell, who has the title role, is going to be the break-out star of the season.

"Felicity" is a big accomplishment for a pair of 32-year-olds who've been friends since they were kids.

"Matt Reeves and I have known each other since we were 13," Abrams said. "We're just best friends. We made student films together and stuff - incredibly embarrassing movies."

"Mine were good," Reeves interjected with a laugh.

"And one night, having dinner, I told him this idea that I'd had about this young girl who makes this crazy mistake and follows this guy. And ends up realizing that there are much bigger things out there in this world. Anyway, we started outlining this idea and because our experience has been in feature films, we never approached this as, `Hey, let's do a TV show.' We thought, `Let's do this as a movie.' "

But that didn't work out.

"Every time we tried to figure out how to do it as a movie, it felt phony," Abrams said. "Like the things you'd have to impose on the story. Like the Mafia don sending the kid through college or the student who has four years to live and she has to finish. Everything sounded lame.

"So we thought, `Let's just do it as a TV show.' That way, it will allow us to have a lot of fun with the minutia of life and things that are more honest and small - that might not be as exploitative as you'd have in a film."

So Abrams wrote the script while Reeves offered input and planned to direct. Then the two of them took it to Imagine Entertainment - to Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Tony Krantz, who jumped on board.

After an abortive attempt to place the show on ABC, Imagine sold the show to the WB.

"We thought, `Well, maybe here is a place that will really give us a chance to grow.' And that if we can start sort of in this place and sneak up on people, that maybe over time we'll be given a chance to really do something," Reeves said. "And so we actually consciously chose the WB because we felt like it was a place where we could actually possibly survive."

"In fairness, ABC passed," Abrams added. "We asked them if they could promise us that they wouldn't put us in a time slot that was devastating. And they said they couldn't promise anything. And so it didn't work out there."

(And that sort of demonstrates just how new they are to network television. Network programmers are not in the habit of guaranteeing time slots to much of anybody, let alone producers without a track record in TV.)

On the other hand, a quality drama about college students is just the sort of thing that should be a perfect fit on the WB - an emerging network that caters to a younger audience.

Which is not to say that the show won't appeal to older viewers as well. The idea of being sort of new and out of place is something just about anyone can relate to.

"As much as possible, we're not writing the show to people in college," Abrams said. "We're trying to write the show so it appeals to us, and it happens to sort of take place there."

The show actually opens at a high school graduation in California. Felicity's father intends for her to follow his footsteps to Stanford and then to medical school, but she is so taken with what a boy (Scott Speedman) writes in her yearbook that she announces she's going to New York instead.

"She makes this one decision that's crazy," said Russell, who, at 22, is only slightly older than her character. "I mean, it's ridiculous that she makes this choice for a boy that she doesn't even talk to. That's absurd. But when she does, it instigates this whole new outlook in her being. She's away from everyone, and for the first time really seeing things through new eyes. It becomes less about the boy, but more about herself."

And, according to the producers, Felicity isn't through making mistakes.

"She's going to make a lot of mistakes," Reeves said. "That's the drama of the show. She will be making different mistakes because she's still becoming a formed person and she's going through all these things, and that's how she learns.

"The show is about her discovering who she's going to be and what she's going to do with her life."

The show isn't only about Felicity, however. It's also about Ben (Speedman), the boy she follows to New York; Julie (Amy Jo Johnson), her new best friend; Noel (Scott Foley), the dorm adviser who has a crush on her; and Elena (Tangi Miller), a no-nonsense classmate.

"The thing is, all of these people are in this time of their lives when they're just starting to find themselves and trying to find their voices," Reeves said. "The interesting challenge for us is trying to figure out what these stories are. This is a relationship show. It's about how these people all get to know each other. . . . These are all people who don't know each other at all.

"And the first year of college is a period when there's very heightened stakes because everyone jumped into this pool and they're all going to swim or sink together."

And, like so many shows that turn out well, the producers aren't spending a lot of time worrying about how to please the audience. Which hasn't stopped a lot of TV critics across the nation from naming "Felicity" as the season's top new show.

"We are blown away by the fact that people have responded positively to this show because, truly, it's something that Matt and I are just doing because we love it," Abrams said.

"Ultimately, the only reason we wanted to do this show was because we liked it," Reeves said. "And we cared about it. And we didn't think that there would necessarily be an audience for it because we had no idea that any of this would be happening. And we still don't know if there's going to be an audience for it."

Sink or swim, Abrams and Reeves are doing "Felicity" their way.

"When we went to the WB and said, `This is how we want to tell the story, using longer lenses and more dramatic lighting and montage and music in a different way,' we really didn't know what they'd say," Abrams said. "And not only were they accepting of that, they were wildly enthusiastic about it. And what's incredible about the WB is they have really given us license to sort of realize this vision that we have for this show.

"And even if the show ends up not working out and we don't find an audience . . . we'll know we've done the best we can."