Drive to a run-down stretch of downtown L.A. ditch your car in a subterranean parking garage. Duck through the service entrance of a decrepit building. Slip past the yellow caution tape. Descend several steel stairwells. Traverse dark, narrow corridors past people wearing surgical masks and carrying flashlights. Squish through mud. Stumble over rocks. Arrive at a huge cement tunnel. Choke on the clouds of dust and the palpable dank rot tainting the air.
Congratulations. You’re in hell.
”I love it down here,” says Jennifer Garner, cheerfully greeting you in her blue coveralls, work boots, and gloves. ”You have to kind of embrace it or you’re screwed.”
On a mid-February afternoon in this godforsaken hole that’s serving as a bowels-of-Rome set for ABC’s new spy series, Alias, the lights, camera, and black-powder explosives are being readied for action. After indulging in some between-takes dancing and pretend scrapping, Garner (as gifted double agent Sydney Bristow) and Michael Vartan (as her loyal CIA handler Michael Vaughn) rehearse a scene in which they’re dressed as maintenance workers and are rapidly assembling an ominous demolition cannon. Care to share the details of this special op, Jennifer? ”I push the code numbers to turn it on and I set it and run away. Then, boom!”
Boom! as in mission accomplished?
”Well,” she continues, gathering more breath, ”then we infiltrate the Vatican, we don’t get the alarm off in time, so we’re hunted by guards and I have to beat somebody up. I’m going to kick him behind the knee, kick his gun, and I think we’ll finish him off with a nice elbow. After he’s down, we’ve got to find a numbered box and look through it. We don’t know exactly what we’re looking for, but we have enough clues to figure out what the important thing in the box is. And then we photograph it and we escape.” She grins matter-of-factly. ”That’s today.”
Of course it is. Part frenetic espionage adventure, part precious twentysomething drama, Alias has emerged as the thrill ride of the 2001-02 TV season, a spy-fi roller coaster of killer gadgets, double roundkicks, triple crosses, poignant confessionals, cliff-hangers, sliced-off fingers, conspiracies, outrageous outfits, exotic locales, flirtations, mythologies — and that’s just before the first commercial break. Enduring twist after turn after bump, viewers are whipped through a fun house of seemingly disjointed plot points that add up to intriguingly greater sums while provoking early-X-Files-level guessing games, passionate Internet message-board discussions, and morning-after watercooler summits. Turn away from the TV a moment too long, and you’ll be playing catch-up until The Practice comes on; don’t miss a single frame and you’re still likely to be scratching your head.
For those needing a briefing on the show’s premise: Sydney is a grad student who tells her friends — journalist Will (Bradley Cooper) and roomie Francie (Merrin Dungey) — that she works as a part-time banker, but, in actuality, she’s a spook for SD-6, a covert CIA branch, run by the creepy Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin). Then she finds out that not only is SD-6 working against the CIA, but it also had her fiance whacked after she revealed her occupation to him. Seeking retribution, Sydney becomes a mole for the CIA, in hopes of taking down SD-6. She’s aided by two people: her forbidden-crush object, Vaughn, and her cold-as-dry-ice father, Jack (Victor Garber), who is also an SD-6 agent working undercover for Langley. Her mom, meanwhile, was apparently a lit professor/KGB agent who killed Vaughn’s father and is believed to be dead. (Rule No. 1 in the Alias universe: Always use ass-covering words like apparently and believed to be when discussing the show’s protean details.) Oh, here’s one more fact for your manila folder: Everyone and their mother is running around the globe frantically trying to collect and decode the fragmented works of Milo Rambaldi, an enigmatic 15th-century architect who laid blueprints for some device, which — if we’re not mistaken — is either some sort of time machine, a weapon of mass destruction, or a revolutionary hair-grooming apparatus that would shame the Flowbee.