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True to form, at the beginning of its fourth season J.J. Abrams' Alias proceeded to reinvent itself yet again--and the results looked quite a bit like the first season, but with a decided twist. Super agent Sydney Bristow (Emmy nominee Jennifer Garner) found herself once more working for a covert secret-ops group that was "off the books" and headed up by Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin) as she was partnered with... Hey, wait, wasn't Sloane a bad guy before? Well, yes, he was, but having been "rehabilitated" from his evil ways, he's now Sydney's new boss--nevermind the fact that he's trampled all over her life in more ways than one--and head of the CIA's new super-secret division, APO (for Authorized Personnel Only), which also includes all of Sydney's old friends, as well as her dad (Victor Garber) and love interest Vaughn (Michael Vartan). But as Sydney and Vaughn struggle with their budding relationship in the wake of his wife's death, and Syd also comes to realize her father may have had quite a bit to do with her mother's abrupt disappearance, a few monkey wrenches are thrown into the works. There's the emergence of South American agent Nadia (Mia Maestro), who's Syd's half sister--and the daughter of Sloane; the reappearance of Syd's nasty nemesis, Anna Espinosa (Gina Torres); a Sloane doppelganger (Joel Grey); and a mysterious cabal intent on harnessing the power of the legendary Rambaldi device. Alias was definitely all over the map during its fourth season, and a few off-screen factors managed to take their toll onscreen as well. The end of a real-life relationship between Garner and Vartan gave Sydney and Vaughn's scenes a lack of romantic spark, but at the same time a decided tension, as the two warily circled each other and deepened their relationship; they clicked best in the episode "Welcome to Liberty Village," in which the duo infiltrates a Stepford-like suburb as a picture-perfect couple. And the absence of Lena Olin, as Syd's mother, was definitely felt, as her character became a looming presence despite little screen time. Where Alias succeeded this year was in the dramatic impact individual episodes had: "Nocturne" was a captivating tale of Sydney in the throes of deadly hallucinations; "The Orphan" affectingly fleshed out the enigmatic Nadia's background; "In Dreams" (directed by Garner) probed the subconscious of bad guy Sloane, who wasn't as evil as you might think; and "Mirage" forced Sydney to impersonate her mother in her father's fevered dreams. Don't worry, there was plenty of action--especially in the season's final episodes, which prominently featured a deadly Sonia Braga--and despite its ups and downs, Alias remained one of the most intelligent, compelling dramas on television. --Mark Englehart