Bucking the odds against such makeovers working, the producers of “Alias” have again essentially blown up the show and started over, shuffling their attractive deck of cards by returning the spy drama to its first-year roots. Jennifer Garner always looks great on billboards and magazines, but despite infiltrating a new timeslot — sporting a more munificent “Lost” lead-in, courtesy of creator J.J. Abrams — it’s doubtful many viewers will suddenly discover the series in season four. Still, those who’ve enjoyed the ride thus far should be amply satisfied, provided they check their continuity complaints at the door.
Without giving away too much about the plot (largely because without Cliffs Notes or memory serum I can barely reconstruct it), spy extraordinaire Sydney Bristow (Garner) is assigned to a secretive CIA black ops unit. This conveniently reunites her with much of the old gang — including ex-boyfriend Vaughn (Michael Vartan), ex-partner Dixon (Carl Lumbly) and acid-reflux dad Jack (Victor Garber).
Of course, it’s always rough working with family, and Jack compounded the problem by doing something really awful as last season ended, though the opening two hours take their time clueing us in as to what that was.
Readers of Maxim, meanwhile, will be happy to know another beloved member of the lad-mag world, Argentinean actress Mia Maestro, is back as Sydney’s recently uncovered sister Nadia. Then again, it’s no surprise the half-siblings are super-spy hotties, since mom, you might remember, was a Russian mole played by Lena Olin, whose second-year stint marked the show’s operatic apex in terms of family feuding.
What Abrams has done so cleverly is create a big, old-fashioned spy yarn — down to Bond-ian gadgets, acrobatic fights and semi-supernatural threats, including those mysterious Rambaldi artifacts — and set it all against a family soap. Sure, Sydney wears wigs and can pummel guys three times her size, but she struggles to understand her father, hang onto a boyfriend and, in earlier years, shield friends from her demanding work.
Garner somehow manages to sell all of that, and the more grown-up members of the cast — Garber, Lumbly and Ron Rifkin, who does everything but breathe smoke from his nostrils — lend a sense of gravitas that makes even the silliest flourishes palatable. The only risk this year, as presently constituted, is that Sydney initially lacks much of a life apart from the agency, though balancing those worlds had begun to prove a bit forced anyway.
Despite the much-ballyhooed success of “Lost” leading off Wednesdays, “The Bachelor” sent more than half that audience scampering for alternatives, so ABC’s probably wise to take a shot here — if nothing else, creating one of TV’s better dramatic blocks.
Not that Sydney’s new assignment isn’t treacherous, with “The West Wing” exhibiting sparks of renewed vigor and “American Idol” soon to occupy that hour; still, as “Alias” has demonstrated through three years of twists, turns and extended bouts of amnesia, where the hell’s the fun in doing anything easy?