Babe in Spyland

Have a good summer, Agent Bristow.

A lethal weapon camouflaged in grad-student threads

Last October, I went to dinner with some friends, one of whom had been shut out of her apartment near the World Trade Center because it was filled with smoke, glass, and black dust. She had a detailed story of evacuation and the rest of us had only vague ideology and insomnia, so she dominated the conversation. When she paused for a breath, my friend Ron said, “Have you guys seen Alias? The girl in it is so hot.” The Sept. 11 story resumed. Later, Ron just mused to himself: “I think her name is Jennifer Garner. She’s incredible- looking.”

I went home to a television that flashed with the faces of the fall and winter—Paula Zahn, Judith Miller, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Tom Clancy, Ariel Sharon, Bernard Lewis, Donald Rumsfeld. For weeks I watched news during prime time; then I turned away. And when the smoke cleared, I looked for Jennifer Garner.

Jennifer Garner is a cleareyed, square-jawed woman with pouty cartoon lips and long colorless straight hair that is either not highlighted or very expensively highlighted. She was briefly on Felicity (which, like Alias,is a creation of writer-producer J.J. Abrams), and she has lately reprised her role on that show.Garner is tough and sweet by turns: first stiff, with her chin set like a cadet, and then abruptly ingratiating and girly, with a wide smile and deep dimples. (The show’s soundtrack—which lurches among old Lilith Fair compilations, jazz, rock, and techno—often has the same effect.)

Garner plays Sydney Bristow, a spy in her late 20s. Even people like me who are amazed by the standard legerdemain of spy fiction can often predict the plot lines of Alias,try as Abrams might to convince us that he’s come up with a show that is very, very complicated. In its pre-credits plot review, in its dialogue, in its chronic self-analysis, Alias rehearses its non-complex complexities as though they were the imaginings of Dickens or Umberto Eco. In fact, here’s the deal: Sydney, ostensibly a graduate student with a part-time job at a bank, was recruited before the action of the show by SD-6, a criminal for-profit operation that defected from the CIA; when hit men from SD-6 killed her fiance, she got mad and jumped to the real CIA to spy on SD-6. Her father also works at SD-6—also as a double-agent.

Vartan and Garner’s sexy sleuthing

Sydney’s mother was KGB. When Sydney was little, traitor mom (a “university professor”) staged her own death by driving a car off a pier and then secretly staying alive by breathing air from the tires. As the season reached its finale, Sydney was pursued romantically and professionally from all sides. With Smokey on her tail, as well as feds and family, she repeated her mother’s fake-out: She drove off a pier, sucked from tires, and swam to freedom. On the last episode of the season, viewers learned that Sydney’s undead mother is in fact the most rogue of rogue operatives, a fallen intelligence angel who has masterminded everything sinister in the known world—including the longtime manipulation of Sydney and her father. Except for this garbled Electra-complex logic, the show doesn’t reward attention to its structure. You either suspect the plot’s an obsolete Bond rehash or you have no idea what’s going on. In the no-idea instances, what’s revealed is mostly decoy material, with little connection to the show’s broader ideas or indeed any of life’s themes. This spy game is not a game like chess or even checkers, but I enjoy it for its surprises and colors—it’s a game like Payday, colorful, quick, and fun.

Between expository conversations—”You were working for the very people you thought you were fighting against” plays on an endless loop—Sydney travels around the world gathering intelligence and KO’ing thugs with gadgets and leggy kickboxing. Every mission requires a disguise, and the appealing dress-up sequences seem to come from Rocky Horror or Andy Warhol’s Factory: red, blond, black wigs; latex, sequins, velour, straitjacket, hijab.Sydney also speaks French, Taiwanese, Mandarin, and Hebrew, but the producers rarely furnish subtitles, which keeps you from ever thinking you’ve gotten too smart for the show.

Sydney’s life has downtime. She spends perfunctory moments in good-girl clothes on campus listening to lectures on Victorian poetry or trying to get out of writing papers. (Online, some members of the show’s voluble audience have argued that graduate school, with its many demands, is a bad cover for Sydney. I disagree: If she’s studying Tennyson, she could jet, sleuth, dead-drop, and kick all she wants; no one’s keeping tabs on her.) Sydney also has friends, allies, enemies, sex, slight romantic intrigue, and hot TV pinup Michael Vartan, who plays her (now deceased) CIA handler. She has a tense relationship with her father, whom she begins to trust only when she learns to despise her mother. Psychically, she spends most of her energy being tired of the lies. She longs for a Felicity-style life of full-time emotional disclosure, as if it were her birthright, both as a dimpled woman and as the brainchild of J.J. Abrams.

Initially, I feared that Alias, visually,would be another filmic study in blue and orange like Oz or an Adrian Lyne movie, with cold, blue, aluminum scenes alternating with warm, orange, Venetian-blinded ones. (Ron Rifkin, who’s excellently earnest in a ludicrous role, looks great in the orange light.) But I have come to like the way it’s shot: the car chases, the tight-packed clubs, the Indiana Jones-style stylization of deserts, bazaars, nightclubs, European cities. It doesn’t add up, but with Alias you get a lot of jive and magic for your hour.

Or for your eight months of prime time. Alias closed its season last Sunday. It was a good show—I hope it can keep its momentum—and all summer I’ll remember it like one of those long, international espionage dreams where people are my father, myself, and Jack Kennedy at the same time and where all the violence and action feels good because it’s long, inventive, involved, and, ultimately, not really happening.