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Commentary: Deciphering 'Alias'

Clever, convoluted series returns Wednesday night

By Joshua Levs

Jennifer Garner has been put through the wringer as agent Sydney Bristow in "Alias."
Espionage and Intelligence
Ron Rifkin
Jennifer Garner

(CNN) -- She sits in a German bank, staring at the secret documents she just ripped from a safety deposit box -- documents that unravel a critical chapter of her past, part of the story of who she is.

"Project Subject: Sydney Anne Bristow," one reads, with a start date listed: the day of her birth. The project manager: "Jack Bristow" -- her father.

"Sydney, you were never supposed to have found this," he says, stepping into the room, as she gazes up toward him, her eyes glistening with tears.

And the screen goes to black.

So it was when last we saw our heroine, the CIA super-agent at the heart of ABC's "Alias," which makes its long-awaited return Wednesday. For newcomers, this is where to pick up the story.

But those of us who have followed the show since its inception know this is no single-cliffhanger series. Even in its first season, "Alias" left the fate of basically every major character up in the air (or under water, as the case may be -- basically, everything but off an actual cliff). Things have gotten even more labyrinthine since then.

Now, more than a dozen major questions hang over the series as it begins its fourth season -- not the least of which is whether this will be the last. Despite some of the best acting and most addictive plot lines on television, "Alias" never gave ABC the ratings boost it was looking for. Finally, desperate times called for "Desperate Housewives," and there went the "Alias" Sunday 9 p.m. time slot.

Now, "Alias" is being given a chance to follow "Lost," the new ABC hit helmed by "Alias's" creator, the brilliant writer and cult hero J.J. Abrams. It's likely he'll try to transform "Alias" into a more newcomer-friendly product.

Family complications

But that's a concern to those of us who love it for its insanely complicated, twisty-as-a-Maui-road fictional world.

In fact, Abrams tried to simplify once before, tossing out the show's original premise -- Sydney as double agent taking down nefarious agency SD-6 -- in one jolting post-Super Bowl episode in the middle of season 2, an episode that also overplayed the show's great guilty pleasure, Jennifer Garner's endless array of sexy disguises (if there's a wig of any color we haven't seen yet, expect it this season). He also tossed in a terrible best-friend-killed-and-replaced-with-evil-replica subplot.

Thankfully, that's over. We think.

Still, through it all, Abrams has continued building suspense on the most important fronts. The best storylines involve Sydney's family: her emotionally distant, mysterious, fellow super-spy dad (Emmy-worthy Victor Garber) and mom Irina Derevko (the brilliant Lena Olin, who appeared only in season 2), a former KGB operative who tricked Jack into falling in love with her.

Irina then faked her own death, leaving Jack to raise Sydney alone, resurfaced years later and then faked them both out -- supposedly for their own good.

Sydney has a sometimes rocky relationship with her father, Jack, a fellow agent played by Victor Garber.

And that's not even the half of it.

(Incidentally, along the way, Sydney had two years removed from her memory. Let's not even get into that.)

Now Sydney has a half-sister in the mix, byproduct of Irina's long ago affair with the evil Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), who last season pretended to change into a global good guy and somehow got a shockingly loose and unethical CIA psychiatrist to sleep with him.

It all leaves viewers with many, many questions. Is the sister evil? What do we still not know about the time Sydney had wiped from her memory? Is her mother still alive? Will Irina's sister (Isabella Rossellini) pay for trying to kill Sydney? Does Sydney have a child somewhere? (Stolen ovaries, apparently destroyed -- yeah, gross.)

Of course, all of this would seem exhausting and extraneous if Abrams didn't keep suggesting, somehow believably, that absolutely everything we've seen will make sense when we find out the truth about Rimbaldi, an inventor and prognosticator from centuries ago who apparently developed a way to restore life to a dying creature.

Looking for answers

Confused? You're not alone. So am I, and so is everyone who's ever seen even 10 minutes of one episode.

But don't give up. If you can catch up, it's worth the ride.

This year bodes well for several reasons. First, some big answers must be on the way. (Right?) Second, Angela Bassett is set to appear, and she alone could make almost any show worth watching. And finally, it marks the return of Will, Sydney's friend and the show's most realistic character.

Personally, I'm over the central romantic entanglement, the once star-crossed love between Sydney and Vaughn, who spent last season turning from cool partner-in-espionage into clueless pretty boy. (Does anyone recall a week he didn't end up in the hospital?) Rumor has it this year will take that whole part of the story in a new direction.

In short, Aliaphiles like myself have many reasons to tune in. (Note to obsessive fans: yes, I know I short-handed major plot points and left out about 100.)

But to the uninitiated, simply start here: What was in the secret documents?

Ready, set, go.

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