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Behind ''Alias''' shocking Super Bowl Sunday revamp

Behind ”Alias”’ shocking Super Bowl Sunday revamp — Needing a ratings kick, ABC’s underdog starts virtually from scratch, fueled on sexy new twists

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Alias, Jennifer Garner

And on the seventh day, he laid to rest everything we knew. ”Alias” creator and executive producer J.J. Abrams may have unleashed a greater surprise during ABC’s Super Bowl Sunday festivities than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers routing the Oakland Raiders, or even a lucid Snoop Dogg cohosting ”Jimmy Kimmel Live”: In a single high-profile episode, he seemingly put a bullet in the heart of the cult spy serial and then resuscitated it on the spot, generating enough watercooler convo to boost Poland Spring’s first-quarter revenue. The hour-long adrenalized rush — which featured a gun battle in a disintegrating airplane, a murder of a sweet supporting character by her evil doppelg√§nger, two first kisses, and Jennifer Garner slinking around in lingerie sets black and red — abruptly resolved the show’s central story line, kick-started a few new plots, and earned its best ratings ever with 17.4 million viewers.

So what’s the rub? This highly promoted episode — aptly titled ”Phase One” — generated the lowest post-Super Bowl numbers since at least 1987 (an 11:01 p.m. start on the East Coast didn’t help). More significantly, not since ”Roseanne”’s blue-collar clan won the lottery has an executive producer so brazenly revamped a show on the fly. With Abrams touting a new and improved ”Alias,” it’s time to ask: Will the Super Bowl episode help usher in a new beginning for this critically beloved but Nielsen-challenged series? Or did ”Alias” just jump the shark with the die-hard fans who put the ”cult” in ”cult hit”? Our intel-gathering mission begins here.

Why isn’t ”Alias” a hit already? While Fox’s ”24” (ranked No. 46), a similarly respected, equally complicated sophomore spy drama, is up 22 percent in viewers this year from last season’s average, ”Alias” (No. 65) has sagged 6 percent. The Sunday-at-9 p.m. time slot is tough. But ABC’s promotional efforts haven’t always captured the show’s spirit (selling it as a soapy love triangle?) or its hipness (describing Sydney as ”Double-oh-yeah…with a kick”?). Speaking of promotion, ”24” got a whole lot of it when last season’s episodes were released on DVD in the fall — a move that Fox believes was partly responsible for ”24”’s ratings burst. ”Alias”’ first season won’t be out on DVD until September, two years after its premiere.

Why the sudden dramatic shift? Abrams says ABC didn’t pressure him to make a ratings-boosting gambit. Rather, he was beginning to feel boxed in by the ”good guys posing as bad guys pretending to be good guys” paradigm. ”If we did another story in which Sydney was almost found out, I was going to kill myself,” says Abrams. So in December, he penned an episode that was ”like a new pilot,” in which our heroine, CIA double agent Sydney (Garner), takes down the Alliance, an international crime syndicate, and finally kindles a romance with her CIA handler Vaughn (Michael Vartan). ”She seems to finally have solved her problems,” sums up Abrams. ”But she’s fallen into a trap and this whole [Alliance] thing was a manipulation…. I got very excited about that idea.”