'Alias' returns; so do its complicated plots

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Alias knows how to capture the audience's attention, at least the male portion of it. The tardy fourth-season premiere opens with Jennifer Garner, as ultra-cool, extremely hot CIA agent Sydney Bristow, cavorting at length in tantalizing white lingerie.

Holding a crowd, especially newcomers, might be another matter.

ABC has been aggressively promoting the relaunch of Alias with the tagline, "It's not that complicated." They lie.

If anything, Alias is more complicated than ever. The return episode is mired in the series' dense mythology and there's a "nothing is as it seems" twist at the very top of the show that will confound the most avid fans.

Moreover, those newcomers drawn in by the promos will be unaware of Sydney's background as a college student recruited for espionage, her occasional maverick behavior in the line of duty, her estrangement from her father and the sinister reasons for it (as well as his own dark background), her tortuous family tree and the unprofessional entanglements she has had and apparently will resume with fellow operative Michael Vaughn.

Loyalists might argue that there's nothing wrong with a show that can't be explained in a theme song and that refuses to write down to its audience. These are laudable thoughts but impractical ones for a series desperately in need of expanding its cult audience - cult, in this instance, being a synonym for unacceptably small.

However, Alias is a series that repays the effort to get up to speed. The stories are smart and compelling. Action junkies are served several times every hour. Then there is Sydney, the most intriguing, complex heroine since La Femme Nikita, an inspiration for Alias.

Sydney is the complete package. She's an intellectual match for the most sophisticated evil-doers, and when smarts don't get the job done, she can kick butt like Bruce Lee - all while doing justice to skimpy satin and lace as if she were a Victoria's Secret model.

What's more, Garner is far from the whole show. Victor Garber is superb as Sydney's father, Jack Bristow, a mystery man of ambiguous ethics. Michael Vartan makes it easy to understand what Sydney sees in Vaughn, and Ron Rifkin causes skin to crawl as the snakelike Arvin Sloane, a former superior Sydney despises.

Also making solid contributions are Carl Lumbly as Sydney's partner, Marcus Dixon; Greg Grunberg as a colleague, Eric Weiss; and Mia Maestro as Nadia, Sydney's recently discovered half-sister. Supposedly, the development of a sibling relationship between Sydney and Nadia will be a recurring theme this season. It is barely touched upon in tonight's two-hour season-opener, which is essentially two individual episodes stitched together to give the aura of an event.

The fact that Alias is back after an eight-month hiatus is event enough for fans. But what will determine if there will be a fifth season and beyond is how many others can be drawn into its web of intrigue.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Alias

When: 9 tonight

Where: WMAR, Channel 2

In brief: Good stories, hot star overcome baffling twists.

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