In the pantheon of lookers with left hooks--a group that stretches from Brunhilde to the Powerpuff Girls--Sydney Bristow belongs in the geeky-but-cute niche. She's the assassin with dimples.
As played by Jennifer Garner on ABC's buzziest new-season show, Alias, Bristow is one of the most winning female-action heroes on TV. Garner's ability to plausibly embody Bristow's many identities--cheerful graduate student, plucky double agent, vulnerable loner and (this part is key) killer clotheshorse--helped the actress become something else last week: a Golden Globe winner. Best-actress laurels don't normally go to ladies who lunge, as one could tell from the look on Garner's face when she accepted the award. What does one do after a surprise like that?
"We were out of there so fast," says Garner, 29. "When we got to the party, people started coming up to me, and I felt, 'I just don't belong here.'" She and husband Scott Foley skipped out and were in their sweats, eating takeout pizza in front of the TV before the awards show had finished airing on the West Coast. "We felt like we had gotten away with something big," she giggles.
Her down-home attitude is one reason Alias is succeeding where so many of its girl-guns-and-gams forebears have tanked. For, at first blush, the Sunday-night show is just a better-produced La Femme Nikita, the USA movie spin-off starring Peta Wilson that developed a cult following but little else.
Bristow is a double agent who works for both the CIA and a mercenary underworld outfit known as SD-6 that she once believed was part of the CIA. Her father, with whom she has had a lifetime of chilly relations, does the same. She is sent in different guises (many involving loud dye jobs and midriff-baring tops) on international missions on which she has to pretend to do what SD-6 wants while really doing what the CIA wants. She also, and invariably, has to overpower a huge gent who's packing heat.
But like Felicity, also spawned by Alias creator J.J. Abrams, the new show features a heroine with romance-challenged friends, an unwanted crush and lots of doubt about a career-exit strategy. "She is very lonely," says Garner. "She's an overachiever who works to the best of her abilities but can't believe she is in a position of not wanting to be a spy anymore." The producers don't saddle her with a stint in special ops to try to explain her combat chops. She's an athletic collegiate who fights because sometimes, in her job, she has to. And she wins, which, after all, is no more preposterous than a millionaire who dresses like a bat to fight crime.
Alias' refusal to make a strong woman seem like an estrogen-deprived freak gives an actress plenty to work with. And Garner delivers. Tall and slim, with flying buttresses for cheekbones and pincushion lips, she is saved from true, distracting beauty by her masculine jaw and long forehead. Garner can be vulgar when Bristow is threatened with anesthesia-free dentistry, vulnerable when she's dealing with her morose CIA handler and horrified when she discovers her fiance murdered in the bath. But mostly Garner spunkily goes about the business of gathering intelligence and trapping bad guys as if spies were just women who are really good at multitasking.