I have followed Alias to the ends of the earth and for good reason. For three years, the show has been a Rubik's Cube of a drama. Jennifer Garner's superspy Sydney Bristow, all elbows, heels, and hot disguises, thought she worked for the CIA...realized she worked for enemy agency SD-6...helped destroy it...only to discover that was the goal of SD-6 mastermind Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin). Fans inevitably can name a half dozen of their favorite twists: Syd learns her dead, saintly mom is actually a living, murderous KGB agent (Lena Olin); Syd discovers that her best friend, Francie (Merrin Dungey), has been killed and replaced by an evil clone. (Oh, the exquisite chill of those six words: Francie doesn't like coffee ice cream.) Alias is a series that has reinvented itself more often than Madonna, all in a neon swirl of chase scenes, high kicks, and delightfully gratuitous wigs.
And now, finally, an Alias mind game I don't like. Series creator J.J. Abrams set up the show's fourth season by plopping Sydney into a black-ops division of the CIA...run by that twisted former SD-6er Sloane. The setup is nearly identical to the first season's especially since Sloane thoughtfully recruited Syd's old co-workers. Sydney's half sister, Nadia (Mia Maestro), has even been installed as her roomie, in a limp attempt to fill the void left by ill-fated Francie. My objection is not so much that this inventive series is repeating an old formula it's that the show is asking us to believe that scrappy Sydney would work voluntarily for the man who ordered her fiancé killed. Disliking your boss isn't so unusual, but it's often due to a disagreeable management style, not the slaughter of loved ones.
Equally stunning is the shunting of the Rambaldi mythology, the gloriously abstruse MacGuffin that fueled the series for three seasons. Abrams has promised to revisit this thread, but for now Alias has moved into easily digestible, self-contained episodes. The simplification has even oozed into the opening credits (once rumored to contain Rambaldi clues), which now flash 51 ''undercover'' images of the charismatic Garner. These decisions along with a prime-time slot after Abrams' popular Lost have boosted ratings for Alias-lite, but Nielsen numbers come at a price. Neglecting the series' intricate plots alienates faithful fans and underestimates new ones: With the success of The Da Vinci Code, people are primed for Rambaldi-style medieval-meets-modernity convolutions.
For three seasons, the various larger schemes the Alliance, Rambaldi, the Covenant spiked Alias' otherwise predictable rhythm: a villain who is always distracted by Syd's undercover charms; Syd or Vaughn (poor forlorn Michael Vartan) once again strapped to a gurney for some complicated means of torture. (It's reminiscent of Dr. Evil's approach to picking off Austin Powers: ''I'm going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death.'') Without an overarching goal, these moments feel mundane.
My sniping doesn't dismiss the fact that Alias, although not the layered, sneaky, wildly imaginative drama it once was, is still entertaining. The new, X-Files-ian vibe paid off eerily in January's ''Welcome to Liberty Village.'' The episode had Sydney and Vaughn trapped in a fake Stepfordian suburb in the hinterlands of Russia, a training ground to teach foreign spies to pass as Americans: Assassins exchanged recipes, went bowling, and wore argyle. And the recent pharmaceuticals-gone-wild episode, with its vampire themes, psychotically induced tarantulas, and mugs of blood...well, no, that one I can't embrace (I'd rather not have vampire themes in my Alias).
But I wanted to like it, and that's key. The series has invested so much in its characters Syd's bristling agent father, Jack (Victor Garber), endearing side-kicks Marshall (Kevin Weisman) and Weiss (Greg Grunberg), betrayed Dixon (Carl Lumbly) that, for now, I'll follow them out of my favored Alias format and into whatever new show this is becoming. Sure, it's difficult to believe that buoyant Syd, who'll tell a villain, Bart Simpson-style, that her name is Ima (as in ''Ima going to kick your ass''), would put up with this silliness. But it's a nod to Abrams' brilliance that I choose to believe there's a master plan at work that will take us all, dazed and wounded, to a better place.