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Adventures in the Spy Trade

ALIAS creator J.J. Abrams bends genres for a new kind of espionage action-drama

By MICHAEL TUNISON     October 07, 2001

Jennifer Garner on ALIAS
© 2001 ABC
Grad student/international spy Sydney Bristow's first mission has been accomplished: ABC's action-packed series ALIAS had a promisingly strong debut last Sunday, edging out some fierce competition from the new LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT to win its time slot on its first time out. What's next for Jennifer Garner's sexy secret agent woman?

While specifics about the show's upcoming story arc are being kept as hush-hush as a CIA covert op, creator/executive producer J.J. Abrams says what viewers have seen so far is "just the tip of the iceberg of a giant story that is being told over the course of the series, and that sort of verges into the science fiction realm a little bit."

"The cool thing about ALIAS is there's a real mythology behind the show," Abrams explains. "There's a surprisingly deep and complicated history that is only slowly being revealed. Even after the first year, we're only really touching upon - toward the very end - one enormous aspect of the story that we're building up to during the whole year."

Talking to Cinescape the day before beginning production on the sixth episode (while simultaneously working on the script for episode 11), Abrams says the series is "very much on target as to where we hoped to be creatively," though the writing staff has done some tinkering to make sure the complicated, twist-filled plotline doesn't alienate casual (i.e. non-fanatical) viewers.

"We've realized we need to make sure we doubly explain what's happening," he says. "One of the things I've found is people tend to watch TV and not really listen. And to some degree on ALIAS, although you can do that, you're not gonna follow the complexity of the story as well if you don't really listen. So we've got to make sure we're really explicit about certain aspects. People are used to being spoon-fed stuff."

Himself a reference-hurling genre buff whose own credits include screenwriting work on ARMAGEDDON and the newly released JOY RIDE, Abrams acknowledges ALIAS' debt to classic spy series such as THE AVENGERS and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE while also pointing to other influences ranging from Alfred Hitchcock's suspense thrillers to German director Tom Tykwer's hyper-kinetic 1998 action-drama RUN LOLA RUN. Considering Abrams made his name in television with the more straightforward young-woman-coming-of-age series FELICITY, it comes as no surprise that he also has ambitious plans for the show's dramatic elements.

"My whole point when I made [ALIAS] was to combine genres," he says. "To take a young woman, who I hope you care about and want to watch regardless of the genre, and combine that with the more classic spy, cloak-and-dagger stuff - to me that was the most fun combination. One of my favorite movies is [Hitchcock's] REAR WINDOW, and another is NORTH BY NORTHWEST. And what I loved about those movies is they took an average person and put him or her in really extraordinary situations. So, in a way, I would closer connect the character that Jennifer Garner plays to the woman that Eva Marie Saint plays in NORTH BY NORTHWEST than I would to either James Bond or Martin Landau in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE."

On the other hand, ALIAS' tone

Jennifer Garner on ALIAS

is fanciful enough that Abrams doesn't foresee having to make any major changes in the mood-altering wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Unlike the more reality-based new spy shows THE AGENCY and 24 both of which had network execs wringing their hands over uncomfortably timed terrorism-related plot elements ALIAS' action takes place in a more fantastical world a couple of steps removed from real-life tragedy, and thus much less sensitive to current events.

"We haven't really done any terrorism stories, so there was not much to change on that front," Abrams says. "[ALIAS] is more of a sort of comic book come to life than it is a real-life drama, so it's not really a show that has storylines that are ripped from the headlines."

"In terms of the possibility of our going to war or not, there have obviously been spy shows and movies that have existed during war, in the shadow of war, with the threat of war," he adds. "I actually think that what shows like that do - as long as they are ultimately respectful of human life and have an awareness of the situation in the world [is] provide a sense of morality and structure and a sense of justice that I think is sometimes difficult to find in real life. I believe that the reason that genre has been successful in literature and film and television throughout history is it's a cathartic experience, to some degree, to witness that. I think that if the show were more gratuitous and exploitative in violence, I think it would be a problem, but I don't think it falls in that category."

In the long term, Abrams doesn't expect anything to dampen viewers' hunger for imaginary action-adventure tales of the type ALIAS represents.

"Obviously there are going to be certain stories that I believe should not be treated in film," he says. "The Schwarzenegger film [COLLATERAL DAMAGE] that was just postponed what else are they gonna do? I don't know who wants to go see a story about terrorism in that way right now. But I do believe that inevitably that will change. And I think people are going to increasingly be hungry for escapism. That was always the intention of ALIAS simply to provide an entertainment."

Six episodes into the series' technically and logistically ambitious production schedule, what's the biggest obstacle to fulfilling that mission?

"The budget," Abrams says. "Our goal is to prevent people from renting a movie at least one night a week, so one of the challenges has been to maintain a certain amount of cinematic quality given the constraints of budget, and so far I think we've been lucky enough to do it. The biggest challenge, really, is doing it every week. Because the pilot has a certain scope to it, and we didn't want to present episodes that don't [have that scope]. I think you'll see as it continues that each episode feels very much a part of a whole. And that's a substantial endeavor, because the prep for it, the planning, the execution of it, the post-production schedule there are just enormous challenges. And I believe, in the name of entertaining hopefully many people, we're accomplishing it."


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