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Brawlin' 'Angel': A Behind the Scenes Look at the TV Show 'Dark Angel'

James Cameron’s new sci-fi show stars Jessica Alba

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TIME: Noon, March 28, 2000
LOCATION: The Crossing Studio, Vancouver, Canada
MISSION OBJECTIVE: To look good while busting heads

Dressed in a tight black cat-burglar outfit, Jessica Alba prances around the set of James Cameron’s new futuristic Fox series, Dark Angel, prepping for a scene in which she’ll break into an apartment building and lay waste to a pistol-packing bodyguard. While limbering up, she admits that months of gymnastics classes have taken her only so far. ”Your body just doesn’t bend like it does when you’re a kid,” says the 19-year-old. ”One time I was on the balance beam, and the teacher asked me to do a roundoff onto a mat and then sort of spin around. So I go to do it” — she giggles with embarrassment — ”and in a split second, I slammed myself with the beam right between my legs. So I’m sitting there, trying to keep my composure in front of these little girls, and I can’t cry and I can’t cuss. I’m just like, ‘Oh, God!,’ tearing up … No pain, no gain, you know what I mean?”

Wha … ? I’m sorry, Jessica — could you repeat everything after that straddling the beam part? Oh, never mind. Even a distracted journalist can see that Dark Angel has two things going for it this fall. First, it sports the high-concept cranium of Cameron, he of those gigantic ’90s movies Titanic, T2, and True Lies. And, second, it stars Alba, the Never Been Kissed costar whose mouth-agape beauty and swollen lips have made her a buzz babe even before the first episode airs. Of course, for these same two reasons, the bar — to borrow the above imagery — has been set sky-high (which is why, if you live in a major media market, chances are when you put down this magazine and look out your window, you’ll see a huge billboard of Alba riding a motorcycle).

Crafted by Cameron and his longtime pal, television producer Charles Eglee (Moonlighting, Murder One), Dark Angel is the most ambitious new ride of the 2000-01 season. Heck, the budget for the two-hour pilot alone approached $10 million. ”How do you sum this thing up in 25 words or less?” asks Cameron. ”It’s Spiderman — except it’s a girl — meets The Matrix in the post-nuclear-electromagnetic-pulse, Depression-era-1930s Chicago of the future … ” Chimes in Eglee: ”But with an urban jam to it.” For those needing a bit more description: It’s about 20 bleak years from now, and Max (Alba) is a genetically enhanced, angst-teeming teenager who’s being hunted by evil military dudes from whom she escaped when she was a child; along her soul-searching way, she meets a wheelchair-bound cyberpirate journalist named Logan, who recruits her to fight against the corrupt, corroding governmental infrastructure. Butts are kicked, names are taken, and thus a reluctant superhero is born.

Well, it might not be that simple. The Dark Angel pilot, of which early reviews have been mixed, steers toward gloomy, futuristic dystopia — the sort of thing Fox has repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to program in the wake of The X-Files (RIP Harsh Realm and Millennium). And its time-slot competition — two top 15 series, Frasier and Dharma & Greg, not to mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off Angel — is nothing to shake a laser at. (Plus, counting Touched by, just how many Angels can one viewer take?) Still, Cameron & Co. are confident that they’re tapping into universal themes that will attract more than a niche audience obsessed with science fiction. ”Every kid coming of age, from Ancient Greece to the Middle Ages to the ’60s to now, feels that the world that they’re inheriting from their parents is just this f—ed-up, crazy place,” Cameron explains of Angel‘s conceit. ”And so by creating this chaotic future world, we’re keying on the angst of sudden awareness or greater consciousness of the world.” Making note of Buffy, Fox exec VP of programming David Nevins adds: ”This is all about trying to find a female action hero that is smart and empowered and fun.”

Cameron and Eglee know that quest well. The pair looked at 1,000 women (even dancers and gymnasts) in search of the perfect protagonist. ”We saw every actress in Los Angeles,” says Eglee. ”We saw every actress in New York. We went around to college campuses. We saw people up here in Vancouver and in Toronto. And then Jessica came in and lit up the room.” Confirms costar Michael Weatherly (Logan): ”There’s total confidence in her, from her, around her … Once in a while, I look for that microchip in her head, because I think James Cameron might have created her. She might be the Billion Dollar Woman. It’s like, ‘What did you do with all that Titanic money, Jim?’ [imitating deep voice from the heavens] ‘I created the perfect female … and her name is Jessica Alba!”’

Meanwhile, in the face of such harrowing hyperbole and hubba-hubba hubbub, the Dark Angel star is trying to keep her wings unruffled. ”It’s like, you can make hype out of a piece of cheese if you want to, you know?” she says. ”I don’t get caught up in it, really. It doesn’t make sense for my little brain.” Besides, she’s too busy saving the world to worry about frivolous things like It Girl labels and ratings. ”I get to jump around in a harness, I get to kick 6’2” guys’ asses, I even get to beat up a hooker,” she says with a devilish grin. ”It’s pretty cool.”