Milestone: 'Alias'

ABC's spy drama hits 100 episodes and says adieu.

There are a lot of ways for a network TV primetime series to reach 100 episodes, but ABC's "Alias" -- which achieves the prestigious milestone tonight before permanently heading off into the sunset May 22 -- is unique even among that rarefied group.

When the serialized, high-production-value drama launched in September 2001, ensemble dramas such as NBC's "The West Wing" and HBO's "The Sopranos" were the hot shows of the moment.

Having a then-unknown actress (Jennifer Garner) playing an action role traditionally reserved for men in an expensive hourlong series airing on a struggling network was, without a doubt, a risky move.

But "Alias" has overcome the odds, enjoying the type of longevity reserved for an elite few and keeping ABC's lights burning during some lean years until "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy," "Lost" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" could ride to the ratings rescue. It has grown into a creatively rich and complex series, earning critical raves along with the proverbial devoted cult following by refusing to be a mere clone of everything else. In fact, "Alias" quickly created its own genre-hopping handle as "spy-fi."

ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson, who became president of Touchstone TV in June 2001 -- shortly after "Alias" was picked up by ABC -- has deep affinity and respect for the show and what it has represented to ABC and Touchstone. He calls it "the first unproducible drama ever produced on television." Meaning what?

"Well, it was unproducible from the standpoint of the scope of the production itself," McPherson says. "The special effects, the action, the storytelling -- every aspect of 'Alias' brought an elevated level from what we'd seen before with regard to production values on TV. And, I mean, all of that credit has to go to (creator/executive producer) J.J. Abrams, whose vision is exceeded only by his execution."

Abrams, who also co-created the ratings bonanza "Lost" and recently finished directing Paramount's upcoming action feature "Mission: Impossible 3," possessed only a handful of credits when he created "Alias," having co-written the screenplay to 1998's "Armageddon" and created and produced WB Network's "Felicity." It took a great leap of faith for ABC and Touchstone to support Abrams in making a show with a complicated international-espionage tapestry rife with codes and references that served to capture a tight fan base but discourage those who might have arrived late to the party.

"I'm still so grateful that I got to do 'Alias' at all and that ABC was as patient and supportive as they've proven to be all along," Abrams says. "It was always an inherently serialized show that ABC wanted me to sort of deserialize, which we tried to do. But it always snapped back to what it was by nature: a story, not a situation with stand-alone episodes. I feel like we were a bit of a forerunner in showing that serialized shows can work for the long haul."

Abrams also is grateful to have had a guiding hand on a series that reminds him of the spy dramas he watched as a child, such as "Mission: Impossible" and "The Twilight Zone."

"We got to push the boundaries of what was real and familiar to sometimes enter the supernatural," he says. "And, I mean, it's always a thrill to be able to work on something you love and care about as much as we all did about 'Alias' -- it's like being rewarded for your passion."

At the time ABC picked up "Alias," the network was looking for "fresher, younger-skewing programs and a form of escapism," current Touchstone TV president Mark Pedowitz says. "'Alias' was a home run because it told great stories and had great characters, and its core sensibility clicked in with a certain kind of educated fan base that likes to chat on the Internet. That helped the show's word-of-mouth a lot -- it was almost like an ongoing focus group."

The Internet thus helped to build the show's profile, and cyberspace is littered with "Alias" fan sites.

"I think 'Alias' did a lot to develop the whole idea of an Internet fan community bonding over specific shows," ABC senior vp marketing Mike Benson says.

"It creates great synergy -- but it doesn't replace the viewing experience, of course."

For the uninitiated, "Alias" centers on the undercover adventures of Sydney Bristow (Garner), a young and athletic type recruited to be an agent for a top-secret branch of the CIA known as SD-6. Once she learns that SD-6 is really a group of megalomaniacal mercenaries out to rule the world, though, she becomes a double agent then a regular CIA agent -- losing colleagues, friends and family members along the tumultuous way. The show has a spy-vs.-spy dynamic that keeps viewers consistently off-balance.

Part of what has made "Alias" unique is its central female character, something that has become far more common during the past five years (on such series as CBS' "Cold Case" and NBC's "Crossing Jordan," to name a couple).

But merely having a female lead would not have been enough to ensure the show's success: There is general agreement that without an actress who carries Garner's charisma and sheer fortitude, there would have been no "Alias." She has proved the show's steadying, riveting core while growing into a star in her own right; she's also said to be a beloved figure on the set -- a sentiment trumpeted by co-stars Ron Rifkin and Victor Garber, as well as Abrams.

"There's nobody like Jennifer in the world," says Rifkin, who portrays Arvin Sloane. "Everything you hear about her is true: She's truly a wonderful human being with grace and kindness and generosity. The crew just worships her."

Adds Garber, who plays Sydney's father Jack Bristow: "She embraces the crew in a way that's not common, honestly: Everybody is a friend, treated with respect. She came up with the idea of a 'crew member of the week,' where a different one would get a prize. You'd be working at 2 a.m. on a Friday, and a pizza truck would pull up -- compliments of Jennifer. It makes you happy to go to work."

For her part, Garner -- who became a new mother in December with the birth of daughter Violet, with husband Ben Affleck -- sounds most happy simply to take a deep breath after five years of 18-hour workdays that found her in nearly every scene of an hourlong series.

"I think I had two days off in the last three years because I was doing movies, too," she says. "So I have the big emotion of getting my life back, of having this amazing new baby, but at the same time I'm so emotional about the 'Alias' part of my life ending. It has meant so much to all of us. Just surviving it has been an accomplishment, for sure -- but, I mean, we had an amazing set. I've just been blessed to be on a show like this.

"As an actress, you just want to keep working," Garner adds. "To be on something that runs 100 episodes, that just never happens. And thank God the material has been so good -- I'll always be able to talk about this with pride."

In addition to carving out a 41?2-month hiatus during the current fifth season to accommodate Garner's pregnancy and birth, "Alias" addressed it by similarly making the plucky Sydney a new mother. In fact, the 100th episode finds Sydney returning early from maternity leave after learning that best pal Will Tippin (Bradley Cooper) has been abducted by her nemesis Anna Espinosa (Gina Torres).

Rifkin believes that as "Alias" has gone along, "the level of writing has changed and gotten more exciting and more complicated. It has always kept me guessing as to where Sloane's mind and heart are going; that unpredictability is a rare thing to encounter as an actor."

Garber agrees, adding that being on "Alias" has given him the feeling of "having hit the lottery. In a way, it kind of spoils me for everything else I may do from here on. I mean, this is a show that I believe really did change television in a way by so seamlessly combining the spy world with family drama. It also helps me get into restaurants now."

While "Alias" has not set ratings sheets afire, it consistently has averaged a 9 or 10 share among the prime adults 18-49 demographic (falling to a 6 during the current campaign that returned last week, resulting in only 17 original final-season episodes). That said, though, the fact that "Alias" falls under the Walt Disney Co. umbrella via Touchstone hasn't hurt its survival to the 100-episode milestone.

And while Abrams has not been actively involved in the show's production during the past couple of years to focus his attention on "Lost" and "M:I-3," he's confident that "Alias" is leaving the air on a creative high. "The cast and crew continue to work together to pull off what amounts to a magic trick every week -- I have enormous respect for them all," Abrams says. "But it really all gets back to Jennifer and what she's been able to do -- she's always been the key to its success. She's believable both in her vulnerability and in being dynamic, and she's got such a phenomenal work ethic. Without her, well ... you finish the sentence."