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Abrams began his career writing for the movies (as Jeffrey Abrams), and his early work--middlingly received movies like Regarding Henry and a credit on the asteroid thriller Armageddon--didn't show much innovation. But in 1998 he premiered Felicity, a WB series about a soulful college girl that had more character depth than your typical teen soap and less self-seriousness. It also proved his eye for casting: he plucked Keri Russell from out of nowhere to play Felicity; Garner, then unknown, had a supporting role. (Lost likewise discovered Evangeline Lilly as the stunning, and stunningly tough, fugitive Kate.)
Felicity's romantic drama did not seem like a springboard to an action series like Alias, whose typical plot has Garner going into a European nightclub dressed like a hooker and blowing something up. But Abrams is the sort of storyteller who seems to want to tell every kind of story and have every job. He even composes music for his shows (he plays several instruments, including guitar, keyboard and cello) and not only wrote Alias' throbbing techno theme but also designed the credits sequence. In his spare time, he's directing Mission: Impossible 3 as well as developing a drama about bounty hunters and a sitcom starring Saturday Night Live alumna Cheri Oteri.
Colleagues describe him as a kind of computer-era Renaissance man--or simply a computer. "We call it downloading," says Lindelof. "We could be talking about a story line for Lost, and he's walking out of an Alias editing room or on the phone about Mission: Impossible. He comes in and downloads for 45 minutes uninterrupted, and then it becomes a dialogue." Says Alias co-executive producer Sarah Caplan: "I've been with him when he is cutting and editing on one screen while writing music. He multitasks in his brain."
Abrams' ever juggling style is reflected in the enjoyable narrative ADD of his series. Their themes--deception and mystery--mean that Abrams can, and does, remake them on a dime. Good people turn out evil and vice versa. Characters are killed ... or are they? Even Felicity had two series finales--the second showing what would have happened if Felicity had made different choices in college. Abrams has reinvented Alias several times, this season by dialing back an overcomplex story line involving a Nostradamus-like prophecy.
Why do fans tolerate being screwed with like this? Because Abrams knows that it is character, not plot, that makes stories plausible. If you ground the emotions, people will buy the twists. When Sydney dangles off a speeding train and escapes, yes, it's "unbelievable," he says. "But hopefully viewers will think, 'Oh, my God, that is how I would react if I was hanging outside a train.'"
Key to that is hiring actors who can do both action and emotion (like the wonderfully understated Garber). For Lost's vast cast, Abrams built characters around the actors. "If he saw something in that person," says Matthew Fox, who stars as Jack, the control-freak doctor, "he adjusted the role and even created roles for people," like Jorge Garcia, who plays affable slacker Hurley.