Start Making Sense

Alias' creator tries--one more time--to make a hit out of a near miss

ABC fully expects the show to become the franchise the network expected from the get-go: At the end of July, ABC gave Garner an enormous raise (from $45,000 an episode to $150,000) and extended her contract through a seventh season. But if the show doesn't expand its audience soon, it's doubtful Alias will even last a fourth: Network executives, a notoriously timid lot beholden not to quality but quantity of viewers and ad dollars, are loath to stick with ratings bottom-feeders, even those beloved by critics and fans. Look no further than Andy Richter Controls the Universe or Firefly or any other recent cult hit that died in the arms of the few fanatics who loved them.

Part of the ratings blame can be placed at the feet of the ABC execs who scheduled The Wonderful World of Disney or, lately, Sunday-night movies before Alias. "If you are an 8-year-old watching Toy Story, would you want to hang around and watch Alias?" says Riike Magnus, who runs the fan site from Portland, Oregon. "Would your parents even let you?" This season, ABC's rectifying that odd coupling by giving Alias a new, more adult lead-in, the drama 10-8, about a "Brooklyn bad boy" who becomes a deputy sheriff trainee in Los Angeles--a sort of feel-good Training Day, from the sound of things.

But part of Alias' troubles can be blamed on the show itself, which wasn't only confusing but also troublingly daft. You could only watch for so long before wondering just why Sydney was doing the dirty work of men she knew to be evil, or how the supposedly brilliant Sloan never figured out Sydney was a double agent. Abrams rectified that during the second season in a highly touted episode that aired after the Super Bowl, in which SD-6 was destroyed. The show became less tangled in a narrative thread that looked more like a noose to newcomers, as the episode, appropriately titled "Phase One," was intended to bring in fresh eyes (mostly men lured in by the Syd-in-lingerie spots that ran during the game) without alienating longtime fans who had stuck with the show.

Daddy issues: Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) and Jack (Victor Garber) return for a third season of Alias, along with several characters "killed" at the end of last season.
Daddy issues: Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) and Jack (Victor Garber) return for a third season of Alias, along with several characters "killed" at the end of last season.

"My only problem with the Super Bowl episode was how much J.J. and ABC were making it so provocative just to get more viewers," says Magnus, whose site is part of a larger Alias Web ring called The Alias Four. "I felt cheated in that respect...A lot of us were in disbelief at how easily they had SD-6 taken down. It just didn't seem...likely. And then with the takedown of SD-6, Sydney and Vaughn could get together, but that took out the whole angst angle of the show. But it also made me excited to think about all the possibilities that the show could now take. It set my mind a-whirling!"

Abrams feels the same way. He insists it took awhile for the show to find its voice; it was only after it had been on a while that he realized it was less about the plot machinations than the people ground up by them. Fact is, it became a better show in its second season, after the twists had been straightened out and the story became more about this twisted family of spies, none of whom trusts each other--a sort of paranoid Father Knows Best. Still, you have to wonder whether Abrams would have reformatted--refocused, really--the show had it been a huge ratings success. Was the retooling inevitable after he discovered what was best about the show, or was it just a necessity to keep it alive?

"Who knows," he says. "Obviously, had the thing been working, I think [the show] would have required some other stuff as well. If the show had been working on that level, my guess is that the what-if would also have to extend to, 'What if we had changed the premise in different ways earlier?' I think those two things might be related, but at the end of the day I can't be sure. There have been really terrific shows that have failed. There have been really abysmal shows that have succeeded. I don't know how to quantify something like that. All I can say is we try the best we can on a week-to-week basis to present the most compelling and engaging show, and that requires small and big decisions.

"When we did 'Phase One' and we took down SD-6, fans of the show said, 'Wait, you can't do that. It destroys everything we know.' But to me, it opened up these doors that allowed us to tell some of our more interesting stories and really go to the next level. I think that what you realize is, oh, yeah, it wasn't SD-6 that made the show work; it was Sydney versus Sloan. The show did, could and will go on and I think actually be more interesting and broaden the characters' experiences and their challenges and interactions...It's funny, because I feel like Season Three immediately is, for me, more fulfilling than both prior years. Episode to episode, I think there's a good understanding of what's happening. I think the greater specificity to the relationships makes the shows more engaging."

Abrams, and the generous network that keeps his show on the air, will find out September 29 if there are enough people who agree with him.

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