The premiere episode of “Alias” — running in a 69-minute, ad-free block — is an intriguing melange of double-dealing and counter-spying, with gunfire and twisted allegiances. But at its core is the splintered relationship between father Jack Bristow (Victor Garber) and daughter Sydney (Jennifer Garner). Even with confusing, out-of-sequence torture scenes, “Alias” looks like it has potential. However, the second week’s episode, which will contain commercials, cashes in the conniving for cartoonish violence, implausible spy games and a most impenetrable super-agent in young Bristow. If this is a sign of its direction, one wonders how long it will be before Bristow is captured by a Penguin-like villain and dunked into a cake made of quicksand, like Batman back when Adam West wore the tights and cape. Holy plot twist, Sydney, we’re going campy!
The “Alias” premiere, sponsored ad-free by Nokia, brings us into Bristow’s dilemma-filled world: She’s in grad school trying fill the void left by her mother’s death; her med-student boyfriend has just proposed to her; dad is keeping his distance; and she’s torn as to whether to continue what she believes are her CIA activities. And there’s still 30 minutes to go.
In that final half-hour, the fiance is murdered and Sydney becomes a double spy for the CIA and archrival SD-6, flies to Taipei and kicks her way out of every jam, disarming trained assassins, even when she’s handcuffed to a chair. And this has none of that “Dark Angel”-bionic humans stuff — she’s all flesh and blood.
Episode two stretches the far-fetchedness: She fluently speaks what must be her fourth and fifth languages, deals in arms in Egypt after jetting to France and eventually finds herself disarming a nuclear bomb that has been buried in a grave site in rural Virginia.
Were this pure fantasy, there’d be no subtle touches, like her best friend Will (a nicely anguished Bradley Cooper), whose unrequited love for Sydney is put to the test through all this mayhem. There wouldn’t be the father factor, either; she keeps telling him she wants no part of him, but viewers desperately need him to keep showing up: On a human level, their relationship is the most interesting thing here.
But in the show’s current state, human concerns will appear to be an afterthought, especially if these agents are seen as superheroes. They’re not. This is an action series based on extraordinary circumstances and rather ordinary people.
America, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, may not be too willing to embrace a show that depicts CIA operatives as superhuman. Nowadays, we all know they’re not.
Show’s surreal competition is the past-its-prime “X-Files” and its all-too-real competish is the third member of the “Law & Order” franchise, “Criminal Intent”; together, they may overwhelm “Alias” in this timeslot. Few shows, however, have been hyped as heavily as “Alias,” which may boost the numbers tuning in for round one.
Writer-director J.J. Abrams created “Felicity” after a string of films, and he clearly likes campus angst: Bristow doesn’t really have a cover — she’s in grad school.
Garner played Felicity’s new friend in that series’ first two years, and here she replaces character’s earnestness with ferocity, confusion and concealed pain. She plays the more human side with aplomb, but gets stuck in fight scenes that are so stagy one can count out the steps.
Costumes for Garner lean toward casually racy — in a world populated by men in suits, she’s almost always showing cleavage or midriff.
Stone-face is pretty much the acting style among the cast’s older men. Garber plays the father with absolutely no hint of emotion. Carl Lumbly plays Sydney’s partner Dixon with an affable calmness that’s repeated in Michael Vartan’s relaxed portrayal of CIA agent Vaughn. Ron Rifkin, as SD-6 chieftain Sloane, is all stoic, all the time.
Abrams’ direction is consistent; there’s nothing flashy in the presentation — a fault, especially if this show is going to build an audience through its more fantastical elements. Show uses a string of pop tunes to amplify the more emotional moments, but only Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood” hits the nail on the head.