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Spy vs. spy

Ticking clock or kicking jocks? In TV's espionage sweepstakes, 'Alias' has the excitement that '24' has frittered away

Let's get real. Sure, "24" is the CIA drama that gets all the buzz, but "Alias," so audacious and so plastic fantastic, is really the bee's knees. "24" baits you with the promise of post-9/11 terror suspense, then scrambles to make sense without looking too ridiculous. "Alias" never pretends to reality as it joyously celebrates the genre that brought us James Bond, Honey West, and, yes, Austin Powers. It's a comic-book explosion of global fashion, cloned villains, kickboxing babes, and fierce emotionality.

A season of "24" is work, as we follow agent Jack Bauer through a long day in real time. "Alias," which entirely reinvented itself this season -- again -- is pure, crazy, spy fantasy fun.

Not that a viewer can't embrace both three-year-old shows, as they bookend the spectrum of TV secret-agent adventures. But while 1960s viewers could like both "Bewitched" and "I Dream of Jeannie," they couldn't like like both of them, could they? In their heart of hearts, there had to be a preference, one they'd save if both were drowning. "Alias," which airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on ABC, deserves more of the loyal viewership and effusive praise that "24" seems to automatically attract despite its thin acting, flat visuals, and narrative insults. While "Alias" does have its rabid fans, such as last season's guest star Quentin Tarantino, director of the "Alias"-esque "Kill Bill Vol. 1," it is definitely one of

TV's overlooked but gifted children. Gifted, and wigged out -- and not just because heroine Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) dons fabulous wigs to go undercover each week. "Alias" is brazenly, wonderfully nuts, as it breaks all the rules of straight dramatic television. It may be network TV's most rock-'n'-rollingest show because it refuses to settle into a grind -- sometimes refusing with flashy, narrative-shattering force. One of the handed-down rules of series TV is that you don't futz around with the premise -- or you futz carefully, lest you disorient viewers, who want their beloved shows to behave like steady, consistent friends. It's the "Law & Order" philosophy.

And yet "Alias" creator J.J. Abrams has made a habit --almost a monthly habit -- of futzing. The man is a futz-a-holic. This season

Log on to www.boston.com/ae and tell us which TV spy show you think delivers the goods.alone, he began with a leap forward two years, which the blacked-out Sydney is struggling to remember. On the sloppy "24," which airs Tuesdays at 9 on Fox, this season's three-year leap forward is an excuse to leave last season's cliffhanger unaddressed; on "Alias," the leap is now the central dramatic topic. A brief "Alias" history, shorn of a bazillion subplots and techno flourishes: The original setup had Sydney as both a grad student and a CIA agent -- actually, a CIA double agent, spying on the evil organization SD-6. But last season, in one dazzling hour, the show purged all the double agentry, as Sydney and her father, Jack (Victor Garber), also a CIA agent, brought down SD-6. Also last season, Abrams introduced Sydney's mother, the riveting Irina Derevko (Lena Olin), a former KGB spy and terrorist. And he topped off the changes by employing the wackiest, boldest of daytime soap devices, murdering a beloved character, Francie, and replacing her with a vile doppelganger played by the same actress (Merrin Dungey). The faux Francie reappeared for a big fight a few weeks ago, after having been fatally shot in last season's finale. Apparently, she has her hands on the magical key to healing.

Meanwhile, Abrams flouted conventional TV wisdom last season by allowing Sydney and her Big Flirtation, CIA handler Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), to become a beautiful, happy couple. Usually, TV writers and producers prefer to keep young lovers apart for years -- see under: "Friends" -- having learned to avoid consummation from shows that went south after the leads became romantic, such as "Moonlighting" and "Frasier." But this season, in typical fashion, Abrams turned it all around again: With Sydney missing for two years, Vaughn got married to someone else, a National Security Council agent named Lauren Reed (Melissa George), who is now justifiably threatened by Sydney's return.

OK, so the show is not as relevant as "24," which plays on current world events. Indeed, "Alias" is about as weighty as "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." But as "24" and TV's other counterterrorism drama, "Threat Matrix," try to milk our anxiety about domestic attacks after Sept. 11, they often wind up seeming pat and simplistic in their convenient solutions. "Alias" is just good old carefree escapism, and proud of it. None of the plot complications much matters, as the writers give us weekly jolts of action and suspense, with Sydney flying to Rome or Madrid dressed as a hooker, a maid, or a bohemian, able to speak the local tongue, smack down an army of enemies, and carry some wicked gadgetry. Over the years, there has been a search for something called the Rambaldi Manuscript; there has been Sydney's journalist roommate, Will, who is now in the Witness Protection Program; and there has been Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), the SD-6 baddie who is now supposedly good but who is nevertheless distrusted and despised by Sydney.

But it's all fairly unimportant as you watch. Like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Alias" is more about the lead characters' emotional turns in each episode, which are sometimes expressed in the carefully choreographed cartoon violence. Often, Sydney's CIA adventures seem to have a metaphorical relationship to her inner life. Last season, all of the spy activity played out like an externalization of Sydney's conflict over her divorced parents, an almost Freudian struggle as she bounced between her kindly father and her mysterious mother. This season, Sydney's CIA work is to stop a nefarious group called the Covenant, but it's really about another covenant -- the one Sydney had with Vaughn before her two-year disappearance, and the one Vaughn has with Lauren now. Each week, she deals with Vaughn's betrayal of their bond. Perhaps the faux Francie's healing formula will fall into Sydney's needy hands?

Of all the empowered young women on TV right now, and there are quite a few as programmers reach out to the young female demographic, Sydney is by far the coolest. While "24" is laughably trying to promote Kim Bauer from damsel in distress to counterterrorism agent, Sydney has already saved the world a few dozen times and survived a tooth extraction, electroshock treatment, and a Taser gun. She's amazingly resilient. And unlike the shut-down heroines of "Karen Sisco" and "Tru Calling," she remains emotionally alive, able to shed almost weekly tears. For every "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"-style fight on "Alias," there is an intimate struggle for Sydney that has just as much kick.

And Garner, so wholesome and yet sexy, moves from fists to feelings effortlessly. Compared with her versatility, Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer on "24" is a statue that grunts. Like her show, and like her character, Garner knows how to turn on a dime. You won't be watching the clock when she's in action.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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