Behind ''Alias''' shocking Super Bowl Sunday revamp -- Needing a ratings kick, ABC's underdog starts virtually from scratch, fueled on sexy new twists by Dan Snierson
And on the seventh day, he laid to rest everything we knew. ''Alias'' creator and executive producer J.J. Abrams may have unleashed a greater surprise during ABC's Super Bowl Sunday festivities than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers routing the Oakland Raiders, or even a lucid Snoop Dogg cohosting ''Jimmy Kimmel Live'': In a single high-profile episode, he seemingly put a bullet in the heart of the cult spy serial and then resuscitated it on the spot, generating enough watercooler convo to boost Poland Spring's first-quarter revenue. The hour-long adrenalized rush -- which featured a gun battle in a disintegrating airplane, a murder of a sweet supporting character by her evil doppelgänger, two first kisses, and Jennifer Garner slinking around in lingerie sets black and red -- abruptly resolved the show's central story line, kick-started a few new plots, and earned its best ratings ever with 17.4 million viewers. So what's the rub?
This highly promoted episode -- aptly titled ''Phase One'' -- generated the lowest post-Super Bowl numbers since at least 1987 (an 11:01 p.m. start on the East Coast didn't help). More significantly, not since ''Roseanne'''s blue-collar clan won the lottery has an executive producer so brazenly revamped a show on the fly. With Abrams touting a new and improved ''Alias,'' it's time to ask: Will the Super Bowl episode help usher in a new beginning for this critically beloved but Nielsen-challenged series? Or did ''Alias'' just jump the shark with the die-hard fans who put the ''cult'' in ''cult hit''? Our intel-gathering mission begins here. Why isn't ''Alias'' a hit already?
While Fox's ''24'' (ranked No. 46), a similarly respected, equally complicated sophomore spy drama, is up 22 percent in viewers this year from last season's average, ''Alias'' (No. 65) has sagged 6 percent. The Sunday-at-9 p.m. time slot is tough. But ABC's promotional efforts haven't always captured the show's spirit (selling it as a soapy love triangle?) or its hipness (describing Sydney as ''Double-oh-yeah...with a kick''?). Speaking of promotion, ''24'' got a whole lot of it when last season's episodes were released on DVD in the fall -- a move that Fox believes was partly responsible for ''24'''s ratings burst. ''Alias''' first season won't be out on DVD until September, two years after its premiere. Why the sudden dramatic shift?
Abrams says ABC didn't pressure him to make a ratings-boosting gambit. Rather, he was beginning to feel boxed in by the ''good guys posing as bad guys pretending to be good guys'' paradigm. ''If we did another story in which Sydney was almost found out, I was going to kill myself,'' says Abrams. So in December, he penned an episode that was ''like a new pilot,'' in which our heroine, CIA double agent Sydney (Garner), takes down the Alliance, an international crime syndicate, and finally kindles a romance with her CIA handler Vaughn (Michael Vartan). ''She seems to finally have solved her problems,'' sums up Abrams. ''But she's fallen into a trap and this whole [Alliance] thing was a manipulation.... I got very excited about that idea.'' What the heck happens now?
Above all else, Abrams urges you not to panic. ''I think you can tell by the way the show ended that we're not going to suddenly be in simple-story-land,'' he says. Translation: The Rambaldi mythology still lingers. Also, Sydney hasn't seen the last of slippery ex-SD-6 chief Sloane (Ron Rifkin), who'll morph into a greater enemy. ''He is far more active and more insidious,'' says Abrams. Slightly less insidious (we hope) will be an outbreak of romance in CIA HQ: ''We've earned Sydney and Vaughn becoming a couple.'' Will the post-Super Bowl exposure boost the show's ratings?
The 11:01 p.m. start time seems to be yet another blunder in the handling of the show, but ABC Entertainment chairman Lloyd Braun insists his hands were tied because of the network's NFL commitments and overindulgent sports division. ''I was spitting blood,'' admits Braun. ''If I controlled it, I would have thrown 'Alias' on during the third quarter.'' Braun believes the series can grow into a ''monster hit.'' Alas for ABC, series rarely see long-lasting ratings jumps following Super Bowl showcases, observes Stacey Lynn Koerner, analyst at Initiative Media. (''Malcolm in the Middle,'' which aired after the 2002 Super Bowl, is down 21 percent from last year's average.) ''I think if we haven't seen it yet,'' she says, ''we won't see it in the future.'' Forget that ratings stuff. What's up with Francie?
Last May, Abrams told actress Merrin Dungey to begin training. The reason: She now plays an evil Francie double. Offering only a hint of what's to come, Dungey says, ''I kill soon.'' Okay, at least tell us if she can run Good Francie's restaurant? ''I don't think she's had time with all the killing to get her Betty Crocker on.''