Not since NBC's The West Wing staged an assassination attempt on President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in last May's season-ender have critics been so bent out of shape by a cliffhanger: On Felicity's winter finale last month, Molly's (Sarah-Jane Potts) strung-out beau, James (Eddie Cahill), crashed Felicity's (Keri Russell) Christmas soirée and shot one of the partygoers. However, before the identity of the victim was revealed, the screen went black and this message appeared: To Be Continued April 2001.

"An otherwise excellent episode of Felicity came to a bad end," writes critic Matt Roush in this week's TV Guide. "The stunt was a real letdown for a show that usually avoids such hokum." Adds Ed Martin, editor of The Myers Programming Report, an industry newsletter: "It was entirely off base for this thoughtful, character-driven series. It played like a desperate publicity stunt."

Felicity executive producer J.J. Abrams defends his decision to go out on a bloody note. "If there [was] a random act of violence that came out of nowhere at the end of the year, I would feel that that was unearned and silly," he says. "But we were strategically working on [the shooting] for months; I don't think it felt like it came out of nowhere. There have been hints at what's going to happen for quite a while.

"Some of my favorite cliffhangers are clich&#233s, but they don't feel like clich&#233s because they're honest and organic," Abrams adds. "They work because you've seen them coming."

Indeed, James's obsessive behavior towards Molly intensified with each passing week, culminating in his pre-Christmas showdown in Felicity's dorm. Still, Abrams concedes there was an ulterior motive behind the plot device. "We're off the air for three months-plus, [so] we needed something that would remain in the back of people's minds during our hiatus," he says, referring to Felicity's scheduling swap with Jack & Jill on Wednesdays at 9 pm/ET. "I don't think our show could afford to end its first run without something that raises the question, 'What happens to these people that I care about?'"