Like a George Cukor of the small screen, writer-producer-director J.J. Abrams has a gift for working with actresses. He helped Keri Russell and the female costars surrounding her in Felicity to blossom as they've portrayed guileless, effusive, yet intelligent young college students. And now with Alias, Abrams has fashioned a beautifully conceived espionage drama around star Jennifer Garner, complete with moments of light wit and deep emotion running beneath action sequences of stirring derring-do.
In Alias, Garner is Sydney Bristow, a 26-year-old grad student recruited into the CIA seven years ago becausewell, because she was approached by the Agency on campus at a time when, she says, ''I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere, even in college, and I needed the money anyway.'' (We've come a long way since the '60s, haven't we, counterculturists?) Smart but assiduously superficialher most pressing question to her boyfriend (Edward Atterton) is whether he's scored Dave Matthews Band ticketsSydney thinks her life is going fine until said beau proposes, she accepts, feels obliged to tell him she works for a ''covert branch'' of the CIA, and the next thing you know, he's deadbecause he learned too much.
Having set up the early, airy scenes of romance and friendship so deftly (Sydney has a great rapport with a wisecracking gal pal played by Merrin Dungey), creator Abrams makes the abruptness of a dead fiancé all the more horrific and, in the process, sets up a motive for Sydney to become a ruthless agent: ''I've got nothing to lose,'' she tells a tormentor, shortly before crushing his throat.
Turns out there's a bit more of her innocence left to go: Sydney discovers that her CIA division, called SD-6, is actually a renegade mole organization burrowing within to subvert the Agency. So in effect, she's been working against the CIA. Plus, her chilly widower dad, whom she thought worked as an exporter of airplane parts, is also a devious SD-6er. (He's played by Victor Garber, working some very slick, Robert Vaughn Man From U.N.C.L.E. mojo.)
I've given enough away, and yetdon't be madnot the crucial twist. Garner is exceptionally adroit as Sydney; previously confined to short-lived series like Significant Others and bit parts in major cinematic events like Pearl Harbor and Dude, Where's My Car?, she's a full-blown action star with acting chops here. In directing the pilot, Abrams gives his star's paradoxical beauty (the way her chiseled cheekbones and chin contrast with her perennially wounded-looking eyes) as much of a workout as the rest of her martial-arts-trained body. He films Sydney in every sort of mood, from ecstatically happy to literally tortured, and Garner meets all of Abrams' challenges.
The quick-change demands of student Sydney and spy Sydney could easily have seemed ludicrous, but she's completely in tune with Abrams' storytelling style, which slithers between the naturalistic (the college-pal scenes aren't in this series as fillerinstead, they fill out Sydney's emotional life) and the hyper (the secret-agent huggermugger is as deftly edited and as exciting as a James Bond feature). The whole show is complicated in a fun, brain-teasing way, and having seen the second episode, I can say it only gets funner. I know that's not a word, but I'm saying it anyway.
Speaking of fun, our old pal Felicity sure had some this past summer, but as the season premiere shows us, it wasn't with her boyfriend Ben (Scott Speedman)it was with her former guy toy, Noel, played by Scott Foley (married in real life to Garner). How this series (now guided by cocreator-producer Matt Reeves as Abrams attends to Alias) has managed to maintain the Ben-vs.-Noel rivalry without going brain-dead is a small miracle. And now that Felicity is a senior, the show's pace is really revving up.
Erich Anderson reenters the series as Felicity's intriguingly moody, believably stubborn dad, dropping by to tell the poor kid she's wasted the past three years pursuing her dream of being an artist, and that he's pulling the financial plug on her. See Felicity apply for a loan! See the heretofore mopey, aimless Ben finally find a purpose in life! See the most underrated odd couple on TV, Greg Grunberg's long-suffering Sean and Amanda Foreman's sadist-with-a-heart-of-tin, Meghan, bicker endlessly!
Now I know what it must have been like to be a slave to 90210 or Dawson's Creek (are there still Creekers?): I find myself thinking, Oh, if only these Felicity kids could all go on to grad school together. They are the ensemble you never want to see break up. Alias: A Felicity: A-