Friday, March 12, 2004

Don't let 'Alias' slip by unnoticed

—Originally published 3.12.04

Give yourself a treat and watch ABC's "Alias" for the rest of this season.

The network is running new episodes every Sunday at 9 p.m. through May, so for the unfortunate uninitiated, there won't be a better time to catch up with one of television's best series.

A lot of you probably don't even know what "Alias" is, though, since ABC has done such a horrendous job of marketing what it fails to see as its best product. Compared to promos for ridiculous shows like "The Bachelor" or "Threat Matrix," "Alias" gets little or no publicity, despite effervescent reviews from TV critics nationwide.

ABC has botched its handling of the show, starting with last year's post-Super Bowl episode. This turning point in the series was one of the best hours of television I've ever seen -- unfortunately, no one else did because it didn't start until 11 p.m., 45 minutes after an unbearably boring game.

And don't get me started on the DVDs -- releasing seasons 1 and 2 within a few months of each other last fall was not the most brilliant of moves. Instead of releasing both during the third season, ABC should have followed Fox's game plan with "24." By releasing the first season of that groundbreaking show on disc only a few months after it wrapped in May 2002, newbies had a chance to catch up before Season 2.

As a result, "24" saw a huge ratings bump that fall.

At this rate, ABC seems to care little about its best program, and I'll be surprised if "Alias" lasts beyond next season.

Why, then, should you bother? Oh, let me count the ways.

First off, "Alias" stars the resplendent Jennifer Garner, who's turned into an Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated superstar because of her ability to showcase action and emotional depth, making both look convincing. She plays Special Agent Sydney Bristow, who began her career with the CIA working as a double-agent inside a terrorist organization called The Alliance -- and all the while going to grad school.

Working with her despondent father, Jack Bristow (Victor Garber, the class of a fine cast), also a CIA double-agent, her handler/lover, CIA agent Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), and her mother Irina Derevko (played with exquisite intensity by Lena Olin), a former Russian terrorist who turned herself into the CIA, Sydney finally brought down the Alliance during the aforementioned Super Bowl episode.

Unfortunately for Sydney, all her efforts only helped the one man she hates the most -- Arvin Sloane (a perfectly smarmy Ron Rivkin), who murdered Sydney's fiancé -- accomplish his nefarious plans. He allowed Syd to destroy the Alliance just so he could pick up the pieces and become the world's most powerful terrorist. Ms. Bristow spent the remainder of Season 2 battling him, only to be shot and nearly killed in a spectacular two-hour finale.

When she woke up, at the beginning of Season 3, it was two years later. Sloane, apparently, turned over a new leaf and became a humanitarian, her mother went back into hiding, and Vaughn married NSC agent Lauren Reed (Melissa George). Reed, we recently discovered, is a double-agent for The Covenant, the new terrorist power in the world that held Syd captive for those missing two years.

So, you got all that? Don't worry, it's not required to enjoy this show.

As you can glean from this synopsis, "Alias" is as complicated as anything you'll ever see on TV. (I haven't even mentioned the Rimbaldi mythology, which serves as the series' overarching thematic glue.) But series creator/writer J.J. Abrams probably learned from other conspiracy-theory shows -- namely "The X-Files" -- and doesn't allow a ton of plotlines to dangle around for long, choosing instead to deliver payoff after payoff. Sure, the story is far-fetched, but the actors take the material seriously, making "Alias" way better than the typical James Bond movie. Every answer leads to another (usually bigger) question, but at least you feel like you're getting somewhere.

Which brings us back to the next two months. "Alias" provides high-quality entertainment week in and week out -- an anomaly these days -- and over the past two and a half years, the show has offered up some of the best individual episodes I've ever seen anywhere on the dial. There's no reason to believe the next several weeks won't knock my socks off again.

So tape "The Sopranos" and watch "Alias" a few weeks -- you won't be disappointed.

For an "Alias" episode guide, visit

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