Welcome back Sydney Bristow. Television’s best spy returned to homes all across America this past week with a bang … sorry Jack Bauer. After waiting on the sidelines during the fall season, “Alias” struck back with a vengeance.

Adam Rottenberg

The series blows away the competition with its global scope and action-packed episodes — not to mention knockout star Jennifer Garner. Sure, it can be argued that the show is simply a vehicle for Garner to play dress up, but the complex Bristow family tree and elaborate covert operations prove the series’ merits. Yet after a substandard third season, the outlook for the future of the series was bleak. I held my hopes back, but once those promos began their constant barrage on audiences, I was back on the bandwagon. And I was not disappointed.

As a fan of “Alias,” a show that requires fervent viewing, I was left with a slimmer fall TV schedule than usual when ABC decided to hold back the new season until midseason (Fox adopted a similar strategy for “24,” another serialized, espionage-themed drama). By saving the series premiere until January, the network would be able to run new episodes for the rest of the season without having to air a single repeat.

I understood the move but was still disappointed. One of my favorite shows was MIA for most of the year and there wasn’t much on the air to fill the void. Yet, in retrospect, the network-imposed hiatus may have actually benefited the series that I selfishly missed.

When “Alias” was last seen, it was still struggling to attract an audience in spite of its cult following and critical acclaim. Complicating matters, the fan base that did loyally support the show cried foul over the convoluted and unsatisfying storyline that prominently featured the much-maligned character Lauren Reed, Vaughn’s double-agent wife. Lauren existed to add tension to the Vaughn/Sydney romance, but instead just annoyed the hell out of viewers. J.J. Abrams, mastermind behind “Alias,” even admitted to the major faults of the failed season on the season three DVDs.

Moreover, “Alias’s” network, ABC, was floundering — struggling to find its next breakout hit to compete with powerhouses CBS and NBC. Filled to the brim with uneventful reality shows and inoffensive sitcoms such as the brutally bad “According to Jim,” demonstrative of the network at its worst, ABC was in dire straits and kept “Alias” alive because it was the sole source of critical praise for the alphabet.

With “Alias” off the air, ABC put its promotional force behind two equally captivating serial dramas: “Desperate Housewives” and, more importantly, the J.J. Abrams creation “Lost.” Whereas “Alias” struggled out of the gates, “Housewives” thrived in its old timeslot and “Lost” became a water cooler sensation.

When it became apparent that the series was losing its timeslot to “Housewives,” the spot after “Lost” became the most obvious place for the spy thriller to call its new home. Since Abrams now had a legitimate hit in place, “Alias” could reap the benefits of a strong lead-in and a buzz-worthy creator. And though that stupid commercial with the awful Lenny Kravitz song aired approximately 6,000 times in the weeks leading up to the premiere, it still showed the same style and attitude that made the series work so well in the past.

It turns out that the extra time off went to good use. Considering how overextended Abrams is, the fact that the show not only returned to its previous heights in its two-hour premiere, but also returned the characters to their roots is impressive. In restoring Sydney’s double-life and placing her in a working relationship with arch-nemesis Sloan, the series feels rejuvenated.

“Alias’s” betterment in its time off could serve as a model for other series. Imagine if other struggling shows recharged their batteries in the same fashion. “The West Wing” anyone? Additionally, the no rerun strategy plays into the new ways that viewers watch television.

In the age of TiVo and TV on DVD, serialized shows are easier to follow than ever (ask any of my friends how I feel about TiVo, and they will probably warn you that it may cause me to rave for hours). But the greatest asset of these new technologies is that it makes it nearly impossible to miss out on shows. With the extra time between seasons, “Alias’s” third season hit the market before the new season launched. I’m sure the marketing blitz, cushy time slot and timely DVDs led to the huge premiere ratings, but the viewers need to stay for the long run on this captivating and intriguing series to keep it on the air. It’s good to have “Alias” back.

 

— Adam really needs to stop watching so much TV. If you have a suggestion on how to get him off his couch, e-mail him at arotten@umich.edu.

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