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For "Alias' and "24', the time is now

It's always about timing in Fox's 24 and ABC's Alias. Every minuscule detail is planned to the second, making the stories explode whenever covers are blown and plans are derailed.

Premiering both in midseason also may be a case of perfect timing. This way, each airs without repeats through May, a favor to viewers who shun reruns and ache over every pause.

That's all the more reason, the networks are hoping, to keep an eye on Jack Bauer's ever-more-destructive efforts to halt terrorism and to track the number of wigs and microminiskirts Sydney Bristow slinks into in the line of duty.

They're going to need all this because this could be make-or-break time for both shows, especially Alias.

It's not as if both series lack fans. The fans are addicted, and they have critics on their side. But last season, 24's viewership was down by about a million from the previous season, to 10-million, on average. That's still more than the 8-million Alias addicts who tuned in throughout 2003-04. Slimmer numbers are less a problem for 24's Fox than Alias' ABC. The latter network stood by its little spy drama because the audience was reliable during several seasons when little else was working for ABC and the show tended to be skewed heavily toward the prized 18- to 49-year-old demographic.

That also was before Alias was shown up by its old time slot's new occupant, Desperate Housewives. At 9 p.m. Sunday, the Wisteria Lane coffee klatch raked in more than three times the audience when a major character was murdered during fall's sweeps ratings period. Attractive though our nubile spy is, a move was inevitable.

Fortunately, Alias creator J.J. Abrams found a home for his show on Wednesday, after his new monster hit, Lost. That's a nice coup for Abrams, as well as a wager that fans who love Lost, a hit that looks like a cult show, will carry that love over to Alias, a cult show that, considering the high profile of star Jennifer Garner, should already be a hit.

Alias returns with a two-hour premiere tonight. Last season left Sydney (Garner) with a lot of questions, foremost being whether her father, Jack (Victor Garber), allowed the CIA to run her life as an experiment; if she can reconcile with Vaughn (Michael Vartan, a former real-life boyfriend); and what kind of relationship she can build with her half-sister, Nadia Santos (Mia Maestro).

For newcomers, that brief summary doesn't even begin to explain what's going on. How about this attempt: Alias is primarily about a droolworthy spy who often seduces her targets while wearing lingerie or fetish wear, then physically punishes them for enjoying the show.

Thick layers of conspiracy (much of it concerning the prophecies and inventions of Milo Rambaldi, a 15th century visionary) on top of an encyclopedia's worth of tangential characters are the series' greatest obstacles to winning a wide audience. But they're also what endears Alias to its fan base. To remedy this, the show has been overhauled a couple of times, and that may happen again to keep as many of Lost's 17-million-plus viewers from defecting between that show's end credits and Alias's opening.

The premiere takes no chances, opening with Syd strutting around in a peignoir, all that's required to coax a scientist to open his briefcase and hand over a valuable substance.

Turns out this is Syd's first mission in her new job, placing her in the deepest covert operations. Work would be ideal if not for her boss, assigned to her by CIA director Hayden Chase (guest star and St. Petersburg native Angela Bassett). Guess who it is? It's her hated enemy Sloane (Ron Rifkin). But she also has a new partner _ well, a familiar one _ to smooth the chop. Along the way, Syd has to hunt down an assassin who styles himself as a samurai and ends up finding out some distressing news about her duplicitous mother, Irina Derevko (Lena Olin).

Fox's 24 also has time-slot concerns. Since it premiered, 24 has held on to 9 p.m. Tuesday. After its two-day, four-hour debut Sunday and Monday from 8 to 10 each night, the series settles into Monday at 9, a shift pitting it against CBS's powerful Everybody Loves Raymond, ramping up to a series finale ripe for hoopla, and NBC's Las Vegas, a reliable ratings hit.

And despite all the raving over 24, the gloss has worn off somewhat, hence this season's reboot.

Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) is 3-for-3 in foiling terrorism, which does not go unnoticed by stubborn new Counter Terrorist Unit head Erin Driscoll (Alberta Watson), who fired Jack almost immediately after her hire. Eighteen months after Jack secured last season's virus threat and magically kicked heroin, he works for Secretary of Defense James Heller (William Devane) and is having an affair with Heller's daughter, Audrey (Kim Raver). His life becomes even more exciting when an explosion on a commuter train leads to Heller's kidnapping.

In a nauseatingly familiar scenario, the terrorist kidnappers intend to execute Heller on the Internet. Jack sets out to find his boss against the wishes of Driscoll and CTU, which also employs Marianne Taylor (Aisha Tyler), a suspicious-acting systems analyst. Start the clock.

24, like Alias, trades in storytelling devices that are just plain ridiculous the more you think about them. But they're precisely what keeps the devoted curious enough to stick around for the next episode. Fans refuse to give up on them. And first-timers? Only ratings will indicate whether they've finally seen fit to join in.