Start Making Sense

J.J. Abrams should have no time to talk about the past, not when before him lies an extraordinary amount of work due in the very near future--like, any second. The creator of Felicity and screenwriter of Armageddon is preparing a new series about bounty hunters for ABC, which will debut as a midseason replacement this year or in the fall of 2004. He also expects, within the next two weeks, for Warner Bros. to make an announcement regarding the fate of his Superman screenplay, which Charlie's Angels' McG is scheduled to direct. After so many retracted trade-paper announcements and ridiculous Web site speculation about who may don the blue tights, there may at last be tangible evidence The Man of Steel is no longer grounded by studio red tape (or red kryptonite, forgive me). Then Abrams must still oversee production of his Alias, which begins its third season on ABC on September 28--a few months, and two years, after Season Two wrapped. Two years, because that's how long CIA agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) had been unconscious by the end of the season finale.

Yet here is Abrams, at the end of a phone line from his Los Angeles office, promoting not only a show in need of promoting but also the forthcoming Alias DVD boxed sets: The Season One collection arrives this week containing a handful of inevitable extras, among them a making-of documentary, while Season Two makes its debut in December. Abrams is working the DVDs for a very specific reason: How well they sell, and to whom they sell, just may determine the fate of a would-be franchise that, in two seasons, has yet to draw viewers lured by the buzz. That's because Alias was from jump a ludicrously confusing series populated by good guys unknowingly working for bad guys, some of whom were actually good guys, including Sydney's dad. You missed one episode, and subsequent episodes were as inexplicable as the phrase "long-running series starring Jim Belushi."

Most TV shows get released on DVD for the fans, who can own a digital keepsake n a fancy case without commercial interruptions. They're loaded with the bonuses for fetishists: The forthcoming 24 second-season collection contains hours' worth of deleted scenes, which turn one man's bad day into a very long week. But the Alias DVD also serves as a newfangled marketing tool, the key that unlocks a show so often referred to in the media as "Byzantine" you'd think it was set in the Roman empire.

"The premise of Alias was perfect for a DVD release, because if you are confused, if you have missed an episode, you've got it right there to see and can figure out the stuff that might confuse you if you decide that's something you want to do," Abrams says. "You can also watch them because they're fun and sexy and cool thrillers. The truth is, the spy genre is inherently a mystery and a complex genre, and our show had a double whammy: It also had good guys pretending they're bad guys with bad guys, some of whom didn't even know they were bad guys and almost all of them pretending they're good guys. The good guys let the bad guys do what they were doing, and I think it was confounding on top of the premise, the genre itself, which is inherently a mystery.

"I can see why the show was, for many people, impenetrable and was actually preventing us, the writers, from telling certain stories we were really interested in telling. It was sort of a perfect thing, because the issues that many viewers were having mirrored many of the problems we were having in trying to sort of reconcile the premise with certain stories we wanted to tell."

In other words, even the writers were baffled and bogged down by the first season's premise, which went a little something like this: Sydney's a grad student who works for SD-6, which she thinks is a secret organization within the CIA. Turns out, her boss, Arvin Sloan (Ron Rivkin), is actually a very bad guy using his agents to further his own agenda, which involves the prophetic creations of a 15th-century inventor named Milo Rambaldi. Syd discovers just whom she's working for when her estranged dad, Jack (Victor Garber), shows up and reveals that, yeah, he also works for SD-6 and that it's a bad place. After her fiance is killed by SD-6, Syd goes to the CIA and offers to work as a double agent--just like, turns out, her daddy.

Throw in some sexual tension with her CIA handler (Michael Vartan), a "dead" mommy who's actually a KGB baddie (Lena Olin), a best friend who's eventually killed by her double (Merrin Dungey) and other boogeyman nonsense, and you start to understand why it draws an average of 10 million viewers a week and resides in the lower half of the weekly Nielsen ratings. (It finished last season at No. 72 and has sunk even lower during the summer, where it draws some 3 million viewers and is routinely beaten by such cheerless novelties as Fox's Banzai and such creative failures as ABC's own Life With Bonnie.) It lives on only because it scores relatively well with the prized 18- to 49-year-old demographic--but even then, coming in at No. 44 with those folks won't keep a series on life support forever, no matter how many Maxim and Entertainment Weekly covers Jennifer Garner garners.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky