For “Alias” fans, it has been a long summer and fall with no new adventures with Sydney Bristow and her covert cohorts. But they’re all coming back in a big way at 9 p.m. Wednesday in the spy-fi drama’s two-hour fourth-season premiere.
The season opener is a costume-changing extravaganza for star Jennifer Garner, who finds herself running through the streets of Shanghai dolled up as a schoolgirl punkette and donning an itty-bitty negligee to distract a Russian scientist and thereby thwart the sale of some really dangerous nuclear materials to some really dangerous terrorists, among other situations.
The stakes are always high on “Alias,” and this year, they’re particularly high for the show offscreen too as it moves from Sunday to Wednesday. For the first time since the series debuted in fall 2001, “Alias” will have the support of a highly compatible, hugely popular show as its lead-in: “Lost,” which also hails from “Alias” creator/executive producer J.J. Abrams.
The fact that “Alias” never popped big Nielsen numbers for ABC in the Sunday 9 p.m. slot has always been a head-scratcher. The show about a young woman’s immersion in the undercover world of the CIA has enjoyed a devoted cult following since Day 1, and Garner’s star has shone ever brighter during the past few years.
For its first two seasons, “Alias” was undoubtedly handicapped by its incongruous lead-in, the family-friendly ”Wonderful World of Disney” movie showcase slot. Last season, ABC shifted to an all-series lineup Sunday, but the short-lived cops-on-the-beat drama “10-8” didn’t do “Alias” any favors as its lead-in. Now that ABC has wisely decided to make the Wednesday 8-10 p.m. block must-see TV for fans of Abrams’ stylish-thriller milieu, the stars should align for “Alias.”
Of course, “Alias” already emerged as a shining example of a new breed of primetime drama series whose success has been measured less by its Nielsen numbers than by all the ancillary business it has drummed up for ABC and Touchstone Television. Like Fox’s “24,” “Alias” has been among the first contemporary series to reap the rewards, promotional and otherwise, of DVD boxed set sales as well as video games, books, T-shirts and other strategically targeted “brand extensions.”
From a creative perspective, one of the strongest attributes of “Alias” has been how its writers have smartly mined the realpolitik of the post-Cold War era to keep the audience guessing as to who the enemy is -- this week. In the absence of rigid ideological lines of demarcation, i.e. capitalists vs. communists, it’s a much more nebulous world of bad guys whose alliances and allegiances can turn on a dime (as evidenced by a major plot development in the season opener involving the malevolent Arvin Sloane character, played by Ron Rifkin).
Moreover, “Alias” premiered 19 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but Sydney was battling homegrown terrorist cells from the start in story lines that were conceived long before the twin towers fell. And at a time when the CIA is being turned inside out and upside down by post-Sept. 11 scrutiny of its operations, “Alias” fans can be forgiven for taking a bit of refuge in the fictional heroics of an all-American girl operative who can kick major butt and almost always gets her man, or woman.
As Sydney puts it in the season premiere when she’s drafted into yet another super-top-secret “black ops” CIA unit, “I’m ready to serve my country in the best way that I can.”