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Of 3 New Shows That Fight Evil, Stylish ‘Alias’ Is Most Fun

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

One minute she’s in class, the next flying abroad to “locate the lab where the plans are being held.”

What lab, what plans? Not important.

The bigger question is how Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) can juggle being a serious grad student and an undercover agent for the CIA. Any way she wants, as long as she keeps that attitude and killer walk.

ABC’s “Alias” is another of those new series that asks viewers to pocket disbelief and not examine plot details closely, but not to worry, for the show’s explosive payoffs are well worth it. Sunday’s premiere delivers spectacular fun with great style edged in melancholy, its balance of breathless action and tenderness providing still more evidence of this fall’s crop of new shows being the best in years.

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Embraced here are two stock themes for thrillers. One is the CIA as a renegade agency every bit as ruthless and corrupt as its enemies. The other is our old friend deeply rooted in literature--the ordinary person getting swept up helplessly in events far larger than she.

Garner meets the challenge, lithe and leggy in sweats or an evening gown, a seething, smash-face fantasy heroine whose self-doubt and other human frailties lower her to mortal status and make her all the more interesting to watch. In the opening episode, for example, she makes a critical error in judgment that costs a life.

Checking in also are her dependable CIA colleague (Carl Lumbly), as well as her nasty boss (Ron Rifkin) and deeply mysterious father (Victor Garber), neither of whom are to be trusted.

“Alias” bounces Sydney back and forth in time, presenting her initially (you’ll wonder about that flaming red hair) as a captive being grilled and tortured by an Asian sadist with a predilection for working on teeth along the lines of crazed Szell in “Marathon Man.” Then come the flashbacks, as Sydney’s campus life and romance with a young doctor come into focus, as do her dislike for her father and her exposure to the CIA’s warty underbelly.

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Just premiered on CBS is “The Agency,” yet another new series about the CIA. “Alias” is vastly better, though, and Garner much more believable as an action protagonist, whose pluck is matched by athleticism, than is Melissa George in another new ABC series, “Thieves.”

“Alias” has time even for a sense of humor. In one scene, bullets whiz by a fleeing Sydney when her cell phone rings. On the line is a girlfriend complaining, “You are not gonna believe the day I had.”

You won’t believe “Alias” either. Enjoying it is another matter.

‘Criminal Intent’ Latest ‘L&O;’ Spinoff

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NBC’s latest Dick Wolf series proves that a “Law & Order” trio is one “Law & Order” too many.

The original “Law & Order” has been exceptional, begetting the highly watchable “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” leading to Sunday’s lesser “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” that precedes another new series, the even more banal “UC: Undercover.”

Departing from the usual L&O; whodunit formula, “Criminal Intent” episodes are whydunits, immediately identifying the perpetrators, after which viewers witness the show’s cop duo, Det. Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Det. Eames (Kathryn Erbe), tackle these “high-profile cases that cannot be solved by the usual police procedures.”

The best thing “Criminal Intent” did was dump its low-brow, lower-IQ pilot. What remains, though, is routine at best, the violent master criminal planning a million-dollar diamond heist in the premiere naturally proving no match for the brilliant, X-ray-sighted Goren.

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Goren: “You notice anything unusual?”

Eames: “Not really.”

This dialogue epitomizes their relationship. He does all the heavy thinking here while the quizzical Eames is his Dr. Watson, basking in his dazzle as their captain (Jamey Sheridan) checks in occasionally to express his amazement en route to bringing in the assistant D.A. (Courtney B. Vance).

If not for that pompous, error-free know-it-all Goren (and the usually able D’Onofrio’s mannered acting), “Criminal Intent” would be at least passable. But this guy is so insufferably pedantic in episode after episode that he’s almost a self-parody, spotting case-breaking clues instantly, getting perpetrators to fall for his cheap psychological tricks and hiding so many things up his sleeve that there’s no room for his arm. If the intent is tongue-in-cheek, it doesn’t play that way.

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In a coming episode, Goren uses his lethal smirk and in-depth knowledge of art to trap a killer, and can tell from a man’s Germanic accent that he’s from Austria. That’s because Goren speaks fluent German.

And it has to be a joke, right, when he deduces Sunday that a man who went skiing in Vermont spent all his time in his room with a “friend” because it was sunny there and the man’s skin is pale? Sherlock Holmes should put that in his pipe and smoke it.

‘UC: Undercover’ Brings Up the Rear

NBC’s new “UC: Undercover” is a music video in search of a series.

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Never have as many undercover agents been as ready for their close-ups. And it’s a tossup which runs faster in this hapless hour of staccato-speak (“Goin in! Can’t wait for backup!”), chases and gratuitous shootouts with a pulsating beat: their legs or their mascara?

Here’s the formula: Great-looking elite squad of feds in chic black makes fools of overmatched thugs.

How overmatched? Tonight’s target is murderous master criminal Sonny Walker (William Forsythe), who is so fiendishly brilliant, so super brainy beyond anything ordinary agents can fathom that he never figures out that his latest hire, Jake Shaw (Jon Seda), is really an ace from the Special Operations Group. And that the cheeky babe who warns him he’s being ripped off by his pals is really Alex Cross (Vera Farmiga), from the same handpicked group of covert crime fighters.

Well, they are chameleons. Even when they’re walking in dramatic slo mo, their minds are operating faster than Sonny’s. He snarls grandly and speaks in whispery homilies, but why is Sonny so dim? Because they don’t make fiends they way they used to when a master criminal would do some checking before putting a new hood on the payroll. Instead, the trick Sonny devises to test Jake’s loyalty is funnier than most sitcoms.

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“UC: Undercover” is a “Mission: Impossible” wannabe, and these undercover kids are constantly monitored electronically by their colleagues at headquarters, where their maverick leader (Grant Show) is second-guessed by a small-thinking bureaucrat from the Justice Department.

“We do things my way or I walk,” he growls. Apparently he walks, for replacing Show in the second episode is Oded Fehr. But go figure, Sonny is coming back. Can TV really be this bad? Yup.

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“Alias” premieres Sunday night at 9 on ABC. The network has rated it TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 with a special advisory for violence).

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“Law & Order: Criminal Intent” premieres Sunday night at 9 on NBC. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

“UC: Undercover” premieres Sunday night at 10 on NBC. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).


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