Watch Your Back, Buffy

The tag line for the ABC drama "Alias" is "Sometimes the truth hurts," which is true enough for a show about a young woman who thinks she's a CIA agent only to discover she's been tricked into working for the enemy.

But how about the stuff in "Alias" that somehow doesn't hurt its heroine, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner)? Like the two brutes Sydney destroys in a parking lot with the help of a car window, a radio antenna and a nifty series of roundhouse kicks. Or the way she picks herself up and gets back into the spy business even after the bad guys murder her fiance and leave him oozing all over his bathtub. Best of all, check out the way Sydney reacts when a man wants to get information out of her so badly that he cuffs her to a chair, pries open her mouth and threatens to yank out her pearly whites one by one until she talks. "I just want to say," Sydney begins as he releases her jaw and leans in to hear her snitch, "start with the teeth in the back. If you don't mind."

Television has always had a soft spot for tough women, from "Police Woman" and "Murphy Brown" to Scully and game-show dominatrix Anne Robinson. What's unusual about "Alias" is that it arrives at a time when butt-busting broads aren't just a curiosity. They've become the standard. "Alias," which ABC picked up last week for the full season, targets the highly coveted 18-49 age demographic. Another show that centers on a single tough female--NBC's medical-examiner show "Crossing Jordan," with Jill Hennessy--is also a hit. Add ABC 's "Philly," starring Kim Delaney as a loose-cannon lawyer, Fox's "Dark Angel" and the deadliest gal in terms of total body count, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and these take-charge women are giving TV's macho men all the action they can handle. "There's something so interesting about the combination of vulnerability and being completely in control at the same time," says Garner. "Women should run everything--it's about time." The show has the potential to become the fairest--and fiercest--of them all: stylish, witty, intense, unpredictable, sometimes even moving. It's already proven to be the coolest, most exciting new show of the season.

The irony of "Alias"--and one reason it's unlike its TV sisters--is that it wasn't designed as an estrogen rampage. In fact, J. J. Abrams, the show's creator, says he really wanted to see what would happen if he turned one of TV's mushiest women into a spy. "'Alias' really came out of the notion of, what if someone like Felicity was recruited by the CIA," says Abrams, who also created that show about an angst-filled undergrad. "It was so not about 'let's create a tough-chick TV show.' Even though she can play tough and sexy and confident, at her core she's a very average woman. And yet, when you're not looking she's saving the world."

"Alias" does stumble sometimes, especially when it's navigating between the jazzy rush of the action sequences and the "Felicity"-like moments of woe. It's not always easy to feel Sydney's pain over losing her boyfriend or her lousy relationship with her dad when she's just spent 10 minutes beating a bunch of terrorists to a pulp. Then again, we're not supposed to take it all that seriously. "This is, hopefully, escapist entertainment, a comic book brought to life," says Abrams. "However, at the core are real people, people you would want to watch in any genre."

The program does have one secret weapon: Garner. She's a wonder as Sydney--mean and resourceful one minute, achingly emotional the next. It's the perfect one-two punch needed to capture the character's split personality. Garner, who is best known for roles in "Felicity" and the short-lived Jennifer Love Hewitt vehicle "Time of Your Life," has mostly played weepy waifs in the past. "I have a girlfriend who has only had to cry in two jobs over 15 years," she says. "I've almost never had a role where I wasn't incredibly vulnerable." But she fought hard--literally--to win this part. "I kind of heard during the audition process that I might have to throw a punch or kick. My husband ["Felicity" star Scott Foley] said to me, 'Jennifer, you're screwed. You hit like such a girl'," says Garner. "So I looked in the Yellow Pages, and there was this big ad for Master Yu's martial arts. I went every single day for a private lesson. It was amazing. I don't think Scott quite gets how fierce I am."

Though that does raise another question: if Sydney and Buffy got into a fight, who would win? "Oh, Sydney," says Garner without any hesitation. Why? "Because I'm taller. And my stunt double won a gold medal at the Olympics." Let the games begin.