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It was a family affair in the second season of J.J. Abrams's wonderfully inventive Alias, as super secret agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) came face-to-face with the mother of all super secret agents--her own mother, Irina Derevko (Lena Olin), a former KGB agent presumed dead but alive and more dangerous than ever. After shooting poor Syd, Irina later shows up at the doorstep of the CIA, offering to turn herself in and work for the good guys. But can she be trusted? Alias set up so much duplicity in its second season that it might have been hard to keep track of who was doing what to whom, but thanks to a great ensemble cast, fast-paced writing and direction, and some cannily cast guest stars, Alias rode a stunning emotional roller-coaster and never broke its momentum, even when halfway through the season, the show reinvented itself. With episode 13, "Phase One" (which aired after the Super Bowl to the show's biggest audience), Syd's original nemesis (and employer) SD-6 changes forever, yet the kick-butt agent still finds herself going up against the malevolent leader Sloane (Ron Rifkin) and his ever-changing set of henchmen. Action fans got plenty of fighting, while romantic Alias watchers swooned as Syd and the dashing Vaughn (Michael Vartan) finally consummated their unrequited love. The critically acclaimed show owed a debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer for its mix of action, romance, mystery, and moral quandaries, but in this season Alias truly came into its own--with a climax that came as a total shocker and prepped the show for an emotionally volatile third season. Guest stars included the phenomenal Amy Irving as Sloane's wife, Faye Dunaway as a nefarious bigwig, Christian Slater as a kidnapped scientist, and Ethan Hawke as a fellow CIA agent (or rather, two of them), but it was the dysfunctional nuclear family of Syd, Irina, and father Jack (Victor Garber) that gave Alias its heart and its strength, whether the three perfectly cast actors (all Emmy nominated) were just bickering or undertaking deadly hand-to-hand combat. And you thought your family had problems! --Mark Englehart