'Alias' revisited

'Alias' will return with a new strategy to attract viewers

"Alias," which begins its third season Wednesday, stars Jennifer Garner as superspy Sydney Bristow.

Published: Tuesday, January 4, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 3, 2005 at 9:56 p.m.
"Alias," which begins its third season Wednesday, stars Jennifer Garner as superspy Sydney Bristow.
Last season, J.J. Abrams' TV world was wobbling. "Felicity" was in the past; "Alias" had a shaky future. The hot producer had cooled off.
Now the heat is back. Abrams' new "Lost" is a new ratings blockbuster. When "Alias" starts its fourth season (9 p.m. Wednesday on ABC, behind "Lost"), big things are possible.
"I never know what to expect," Abrams, 38, insisted.
Still, he grants that this may be the year that "Alias" gets a big audience. "We've never had a compatible lead-in. This is the first time that we've followed a series that has mystery and intrigue."
Those are things "Alias" has in excess. On the surface, it is a show about Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), a beautiful superspy. Beyond that, are endless tangles within the CIA and within her family.
Critics raved, but casual viewers had trouble jumping in, especially during reruns. "'Alias' has not been a good repeater for us," says ABC President Stephen McPherson.
His solution was one used by Fox's "24" and NBC's "The West Wing": Start late and then run new episodes weekly without reruns.
"The late start . . . allows us to give the audience an uninterrupted viewing pattern," McPherson says.
It also brings a bonus: During the interim, "Lost" has soared. It trails only ABC's "Desperate Housewives" as a new, breakout hit.
Now "Lost" might bring fresh viewers to "Alias." Abrams says the two-hour "Alias" opener will be easy for newcomers to follow.
"We're not going to have any reprise (of previous seasons)," Abrams says. "We're not going to have any explanation . . . In no way is this first episode imposing or convoluted."
That led to rumors that "Alias" would be confined to self-contained stories, in the style of "CSI" or "Law & Order." Fans grumbled.
Especially early in the season, "There are a number of episodes that very much have a beginning, middle and end," Abrams says.
As the season goes on, he says, "Alias" will move back into larger schemes. "Hopefully, people will be so invested in the characters that they'll enjoy the ride."
As the third season was ending, Abrams says, he realized the show needed a makeover.
"Alias" had taken a daring route: Sydney woke up in Hong Kong. There was a two-year gap in her life and everything had changed. It was a clever idea, but Abrams said the result had flaws.
  • Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan) was married. "That precluded any relationship with her."
  • Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), Sidney's scheming ex-boss, had been moved to the sideline.
  • Marvin Dixon (Carl Lumbley), once her understanding partner, had been promoted and distant.
  • Sydney had no personal life. "We need to see her at home," Abrams says. "Sydney at rest was just her in a suit at the office."
    Some changes started late last year. It turns out that Sydney has a sister, now a key part of her life. More specifically, she has a half-sister. Nothing in "Alias" is simple.
    Growing up, Sydney didn't know that her father, Jack Bristow (Victor Garber) was a spy. She didn't know that her dead mother, Laura Bristow (Lena Olin) was actually alive and named Irina Derevko and running an evil agency.
    Now Sydney has half-sister Nadia Santos (Mia Maestro), the daughter of Sloane and Derevko. No one said spy life would be easy.
    Whatever happens, "Alias" should look great. It uses some of TV's top directors, including Abrams (set to direct Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible 3" soon), Ken Olin, Mikael Salomon and Jack Bender. "A lot of these are visual stories," Abrams says.
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