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Girl spy in 'Alias' hits the wrong note

Sunday, September 30, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

She's a grad student and a spy. She's in love and she's trained to kill. She has a boyfriend and she's got a platonic guy friend. She's constantly followed by folk music, and she's never far from the sound of guitars being strummed.

Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) is "Felicity" as a spy, or as another TV critic put it, "La Femme Felicity." That's as succinct and apt a description of ABC's "Alias" (9 tonight) as there can be.

Airing without any commercials (the pilot runs a little more than an hour), "Alias" offers a mix of espionage thrills, blazing machine guns and wistful contemplation. It's also a little too long and too confusing, especially for anyone accustomed to linear storytelling.

The show begins with brunette Syd, her hair dyed bright red in a nod to the 1998 German film "Run, Lola, Run," being dunked in water by a Taiwanese interrogator. Then the show flashes back to her in college, hurrying to complete an essay exam.

Throughout the hour, the show jumps back and forth in time between her normal life and her espionage exploits.

 
 
TV REVIEW

"Alias"

When: 9 tonight on ABC.

Starring: Jennifer Garner, Victor Garber, Ron Rifkin.

   
 

In the civilian world, Syd receives a wedding proposal from her boyfriend of two years, Danny (William Atterton), and must tell her best guy bud, Will (Bradley Cooper), the news. Syd's friend Francie (Merrin Dungey) warns her Will won't like it because he still pines for Syd. Then there's Syd's brusque father (Victor Garber), an aircraft parts exporter with the warmth of an ice cube.

On the job, Syd reports to the boss of SD-6, "a covert branch of the CIA," played by the chilly Ron Rifkin. Her frequent partner in spying is a nice family guy, Dixon (Carl Lumbly), and there's a Q-like gadget nerd, Marshall (Kevin Weisman).

These two worlds collide in ways horrific and unbelievable. To say more would give too much of the pilot's plot away, but let's just say Syd's reaction to a heinous act is more muted than one might expect.

Afterward, she's eager to get back at those who done her wrong, but to do so she must still take orders from them. Sunny Syd becomes more cold and calculating.

"I am your worst enemy, man," Syd tells the guy holding her hostage. "I've got nothing to lose."

"That's not exactly true," he replies. "You've got teeth."

And then he tortures her.

The pace of tonight's premiere, written and directed by J.J. Abrams of "Felicity," grows tedious even though it's supposed to be an action-adventure series.

Though there are surprises and crosses and double-crosses in the show's waning minutes, "Alias" fails to make me care much about its characters, their future or understanding who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. "La Femme Nikita" kept these mysteries beguiling in its early seasons; "Alias" can't manage to do that in its first episode.

As Syd, Garner is eminently likable. You've probably seen her before, either as a guest star ("Felicity," most notably) or in her own short-lived series ("Significant Others" on Fox), and she imbues Syd with both an innocence and fierceness that are emblematic of her double life.

Dungey, most widely known as Stevie's worrying mom on "Malcolm in the Middle," adds some comic relief to the ponderous goings-on in "Alias." She's particularly effective when used to illustrate Syd's two different worlds, such as when she tries to tell Syd about her bad day in a cell phone conversation as Syd fights for her life.

Tonally, "Alias" is just too similar to "Felicity" to break free of its inspiration. Syd's friend Will is clearly this show's Noel, even though he looks more like "Felicity's" Ben. Abrams is adept at writing believable angst for twentysomething women, but it's beginning to look like he's a one trick pony.

Stylish as it is, "Alias" and several other new fall shows ("Thieves," "24," "The Agency") ratchet up the amount of violence, particularly gun violence, in ways broadcast television hasn't in recent years due to complaints from politicians and the aftermath of Columbine. In light of the recent tragedies in New York, Washington and Somerset County, viewers will either find "Alias" more disturbing or more galvanizing than it otherwise would have been.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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