TELEVISION / Comfort In Cathartic TV / Amid tragedy, these series may provide viewers with an escape form the thoughts of this country's vulnerability
ALIAS. Espionage action-thriller about a beautiful college
student who secretly works for the CIA. ABC series premieres Sunday, Sept. 30,
at 9 p.m. on WABC/7.
LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT. Latest "L&O" spin-off gives criminal
perspective on cases. NBC series premieres Sunday, Sept. 30, at 9 p.m. on
UC: UNDERCOVER. Crime drama about special Justice Department investigative
unit. NBC series premieres Sunday, Sept. 30, at 10 p.m. on WNBC/4.
ARE YOU READY for some mayhem? And I don't mean the Sunday afternoon, NFL
Sunday night marks the arrival of three of the most unabashedly violent
broadcast-TV series in memory: ABC's "Alias" and NBC's "Law & Order: Criminal
Intent" and "UC: Undercover." A week or two ago I would have guessed that the
terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, endlessly replayed on television,
had rendered these and other new "action" entertainments superfluous, even
distasteful. Now, with the horrific images no longer ubiquitous on our screens
and the wheels of retribution grinding slowly, I'm not so sure. Perhaps these
series will be embraced, not rejected, because they offer catharsis, a
vicarious revenge against surrogate villains, that renders credibility and
"Alias" is one of the three new shows that involve secret intelligence
organizations. Creator J.J. Abrams, who's also responsible for The WB's
"Felicity," jokingly has referred to it as "Felicity Joins the CIA." His
heroine, beautiful Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner, "Dude, Where's My Car?") is
a graduate student at a university in the Washington, D.C., area. She's also a
veteran CIA agent, recruited in her freshman year.
When we first see Sydney, she's tied to a chair and facing torture by a
smiling, bespectacled Asian who looks like a refugee from an old World War II
propaganda movie. "Alias" updates her dilemma periodically as flashbacks
explain how she got into it. Turns out she's not in the real CIA at all. She
was duped into joining SD-6, a rogue unit within the agency that will stop at
nothing, including murdering her loved ones, to protect its secrets. She was
captured by terrorists during a mission she undertook on her own in hopes of
regaining her ruthless bosses' trust.
If this was all there was to "Alias" it would be a fair-to-middling
double-agent series. The pressures on her are credible, the production is
stylish and the casting is shrewd: Victor Garber ("Titanic") as Sydney's
deceptive dad; Carl Lumbly ("Cagney & Lacey") as a seemingly kindhearted fellow
agent; Ron Rifkin ("L.A. Confidential") as SD-6's leader, a real snake, are
But "Alias" suffers from a split personality. It's half John LeCarre, half
comic book. In the field, Sydney, who looks about as formidable as your average
Vogue cover girl, becomes a spike-heeled super-spy who shoots and karate-kicks
her way through a horde of terrorist storm troopers as if they were targets in
a video game. She's preposterous, and so is half the show. But viewers who
just want to see bad guys die may not mind.
"UC: Undercover" adds an overlay of "Mission: Impossible"-style high tech
to a genre that reached its zenith in "Wiseguy," CBS' great mob-infiltrator
drama, in the late 1980s. "UC" purports to be about a special unit of the U.S.
Department of Justice, some of whose operatives specialize in sophisticated
electronic surveillance and tracking while others do the down- and-dirty work
of assuming false identities and ingratiating themselves with criminals.
Sunday's episode is framed by a pair of elaborate action sequences. The
first is a dizzying ground-air pursuit of a gang of elusive bank robbers, led
by a master criminal named Sonny Walker (William Forsythe). The second is an
extended shoot-out that rivals the finale of "L.A. Confidential" for ammunition
expenditure. In between, we see two agents infiltrate Sonny's inner circle
with ludicrous ease. Jake (Jon Seda, "Homicide: Life on the Street") becomes
his new driver, while Alex (Vera Farmiga, "Fifteen Minutes") persuades Sonny to
hire her as his accountant.
"UC" strains for the sort of street meanness of movies such as "Reservoir
Dogs" and "The Usual Suspects." It mostly comes off like a flashy update of the
'70s Aaron Spelling potboiler "S.W.A.T." But Sunday's episode does move
briskly, and Seda is an appealing lead. Anybody who hangs around long enough to
see the jeopardy he's in at the end of the hour will have a hard time ignoring
next week's continuation.
Dick Wolf's second "Law & Order" spinoff, "Criminal Intent," differs from
the original in two significant ways. It's less believable and more violent.
Instead of beginning with the discovery of a murder, it shows the act. In the
pilot shown to advertisers and TV critics earlier this year, it was the
graphic, drowning murder of a woman in a bathtub. For reasons unknown, NBC
chose another episode for the series launch. It couldn't have been for taste.
In it, the leader of a gang pulling a carefully plotted diamond heist executes
one of his men and a pair of young lovers who stumble onto the job in progress.
Another installment available for preview opens with the throat cutting of a
Catholic church's janitor -in the sanctuary.
We're dealing with particularly nasty criminals here, and "Criminal Intent"
is a pretty nasty show. It wears its harshness and cynicism too proudly. The
"hero," a New York police detective played by Vincent D'Onofrio (who won an
Emmy for his great performance on "Homicide: Life on the Street" as a man
twisted like a corkscrew by a subway train), is jaded and cocky. "His brains
were blown out," he tells a lower-ranking cop at Sunday's murder scene. "Which
means he could still pass the sergeant's exam."
The show's creators also would have us believe D'Onofrio's character is a
deductive reasoner to rival Sherlock Holmes. He's forever making huge leaps of
logic in complicated cases, and, of course, they pan out.
D'Onofrio and his partner, played by Kathryn Erbe ("Oz"), are supposedly
part of a "major cases" squad that is said to handle cases that can't be solved
by traditional means. That means they play rougher with suspects and do their
best to rattle them in interrogation before their attorneys arrive. D'Onofrio
shakes up one of the jewel thieves by convincing her that the ringleader, her
lover, has given her AIDS.
With so many Americans saying today that they would give up some of their
civil liberties in exchange for greater security, the tactics of the cops in
"Criminal Intent" may go over big time. Whatever you think of the
constitutionality of their methods, these detectives get results so absurdly
quick it insults real, meticulous police work.
Like the other two shows, however, "Criminal Intent" may be a fantasy we
want right now.