Like a George Cukor of the small screen, writer-producer-director J.J. Abrams has a gift for working with actresses. 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 because — well, 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 superficial — her most pressing question to her boyfriend (Edward Atterton) is whether he’s scored Dave Matthews Band tickets — Sydney 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 dead — because 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 yet — don’t be mad — not 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 filler — instead, 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.