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"Alias" Appreciated

It's good to see spies are cool again. For a long time there, television was nothing but a deserted wilderness of characters who didn't use shoe phones or lipstick .44s. Instead we've been stuck with humdrum doctors and monotonous lawyers who rarely, if ever, garroted someone.

That all changed this year with the introduction of three spy shows. CBS's entry The Agency is a lot like the rest of the network's lineup: light on the shootouts, heavy on the viscous sermonizing. If you absolutely must watch TV at 10:00 on Thursday nights and it comes down to a choice between ER and The Agency, rent a James Bond DVD.

Of the other two espionage-themed spy shows, Fox's 24 has gotten the most ink and certainly deserves every adjective of critical praise it has been buried in the last few months. What began a little unevenly has settled down into an incredibly addictive series. Kiefer Sutherland plays a fine counter-terrorist operative and the writers keep piling twist after twist on top of the attempted assassination saga.

24 is original, stylish and paced tighter than Greta Van Susteren's new face. But let's not jump on the "Best New Show" bandwagon just yet. ABC's Alias, the third of the freshman spy troika, has matched 24 plot twist for plot twist and firefight for firefight.

Back when we first reviewed Alias we said it was a exuberant show that may not be the most grounded piece of fiction ever attempted, but was that rarest of all hour-long TV series: superb, no-apologies escapist entertainment. What Alias has grown into is simply the most fun you can have with your television on a non-scrambled channel.

Instead of pulling back from the somewhat ridiculous premise of college co-ed Sydney Bristow moonlighting as a top secret agent, creator J.J. Abrams has pushed the limits of suspension of disbelief farther than anyone else on television. Sydney and her father are now both double agents for the CIA, Sydney's mother was a KGB assassin and intelligence agencies around the world are engaged in a deadly battle to capture a 500-year old book in which a Renaissance Italian inventor sketched blueprints for 21st century technology.

Now there are probably a lot of people out there who aren't willing to engage in such giant leaps of logic. Screw 'em. Abrams deserves a chorus of hallelujahs for taking network TV so far off the well-beaten path he'd need GPS to find his way back to Boring and Predictable.

The outlandish plots are just one piece of what makes Alias such a great series. It may have lost out to 24 on the split-screen patent, but Alias is still every bit as stylish as its Fox counterpart. For example, Alias has perfected the cliffhanger to a degree Kiefer and Co. can only dream of matching. Every episode ends with Sydney in mortal danger, whether falling down a secret mountain gorge, hanging outside a six-story building with gunfire blazing all around or having her own father leveling a gun at her head. Last Sunday's closing scene, which revolved around the contents of the aforementioned book, was so over-the-top you have to wonder what Abrams is smoking while at the same time applauding his sheer audacity.

Playing the role of Sydney is Jennifer Garner, a superbly athletic beauty who is as good in her show as Sutherland is in his. Garner was a surprise winner at the Golden Globes this year, certainly the most ass- kicking actress ever honored. She deserved the award just for her fighting ability. This may be a little beyond my experience, but I imagine uppercuts and roundhouse kicks are a little harder to deliver in a bikini or skin-tight latex dress.

Garner also gets to show off her subtler acting skills during the quiet moments of Alias when Sydney is pretending to be a grad student, comforting her lovelorn roommate and fending off advances from her goofy reporter friend. There's lots of wine and curling up on overstuffed couches while Paula Cole whines in the background. It's a testament to how good Garner really is that I rarely use these interludes to make a run for the fridge. Sarah Michelle Gellar may still be the queen of action actresses, but Garner is ready to duel for the throne.

The thing that really sets Alias apart from its spy show brethren is its sense of humor. As good as 24 is, there aren't a whole lot of chuckles in watching Jack Bauer scream about his missing wife and daughter. Alias isn't exactly The Simpsons, but it refuses to take itself seriously. The show uses every cliche in the spy genre yet does so with such a light touch it seems the producers are making fun of the conventions instead of simply rehashing them.

Thanks to the skimpy uniforms that are seemingly always required whenever female spies take to the streets, Garner gets to be both Bond and Bond girl. Of course there are gadgets, gadgets and more gadgets, dispensed by a dopey geek with a crush on Sydney. Even Quentin Tarantino's two-episode guest shot as a rogue agent seeking revenge was enjoyable. If you can put Tarantino in front of the camera and make it fun, that alone is worth a Lifetime Achievement Emmy.

Taking it all in -- the rollicking action and sensational cliffhangers, the wacky premise and extreme plot lines, the free-spirited tone -- Alias isn't so much a competitor to other spy shows as it is the television equivalent of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Or a rodeo.

Yes, it's good to see spy shows are cool again. It's even better to see them being cool in skin-tight latex dresses.


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