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ON THE TUBE

If you watched the Buffalo Bills' get manhandled by the Colts on Sunday afternoon, you couldn't miss all of the patriotic promos for the new CBS series about the CIA, "The Agency" (10 tonight, Channel 4).

Viewers were advised "to meet the unsung heroes who help protect America, no matter the risk."

If you watched NBC last night, you might have been surprised to see that "The West Wing" was running a repeat instead of the season premiere. The premiere, which will resolve last May's cliffhanger won't run until Oct. 10. Next week NBC is running a special preview episode written by Aaron Sorkin that deals with many of the issues the nation is facing since the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked.

Sept. 11 has changed everything in TV land. Surely, network programs must be wondering if America's changing psyche since the attacks will have an impact on the survival chances of some new shows and the continued success of older series.

"The West Wing," widely considered one of the best and most intelligent programs on television, may even face a bit of a crisis. Before Sept. 11, President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his staff were considered examples of what the nation longed for - caring leaders who stood up for what they believed in. However, the fictional crises the Bartlet administration faces pale by comparison to the very real ones facing President George W. Bush.

You can make an argument either way on the impact of Sept. 11 on "The West Wing." On the one hand, it may make Americans more interested in politics even if the context is fictional. On the other hand, the real crisis facing President Bush may be all the politics the nation can handle at one time.

After all, there is the very real possibility that on any Wednesday night, an episode dealing with Bartlet's re-election campaign may be interrupted by Bush going on the air and announcing a military action has begun.

A few people have asked me if HBO's excellent World War II patriotic series, "Band of Brothers," will be adversely affected by the events of Sept. 11. Their theory is that the battle scenes in that series (which improve as the episodes go on) will look antiquated once the United States' military response in Afghanistan begins.

To the contrary, interest in HBO's patriotic series may be heightened because it is a reminder of what the nation stands for and how soldiers united against the enemy.

when watching "Band of Brothers" before its Sept. 9 debut, it was hard to keep from wondering if today's pampered young men would respond to the nation's call in the same way as their grandfathers did in "The Greatest Generation." Now it looks like "Band of Brothers" may serve as an inspiration to the nation's young, as well as a challenge to prove skeptics wrong.

The impact of Sept. 11 on "The Agency" and another CIA series, "Alias" (9 p.m. Sunday, Channel 7) that premieres this week, is less certain.

Before the terrorist attacks, the initials most commonly linked to "The Agency" were DOA. From feature film director Wolfgang Petersen, it is a workmanlike series aimed at glorifying CIA agents who have hardly been classified as heroes for decades and who have been getting hit hard for the nation's unpreparedness on Sept. 11.

The stellar cast includes such familiar TV faces as Gil Bellows, Gloria Reuben, Ronny Cox, Rocky Carroll, David Clennon and Paige Turco, with feature film actor Will Patton along for the ride.

The pilot had a terrorist plot element. CBS has said it will edit out scenes deemed inappropriate. Osama bin Laden's name is mentioned in the script.

The intrigue is pretty routine and a few harmless methods of how the CIA blackmails people to help it save others are illustrated. The show tries to milk drama by showing how the CIA uses high-tech computer wizardry to prepare phony documents.

Since this is TV and not the real world, the resolution is pretty pat, pretty fast and pretty reassuring.

Opposite "ER," Bellows and his fellow actors have to hope that the wave of patriotism sweeping America and the aching need to believe we can control terrorists will save what otherwise is a very routine show.

"Alias," on the other hand, faces a different problem. Is this really the time for an escapist series that imagines that a striking-looking female graduate student is one of America's best hopes to keep our country safe?

Or will American just laugh at the ludicrous idea that Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) can outwit and out-kick the foreign bad guys? She just has a problem with her own guys.

Created by "Felicity" co-creator J.J. Abrams, "Alias" has been ridiculed as "Felicity Joins the CIA" before Sept. 11. Now it looks even more ludicrous. Since there is so much contemporary music playing in the background, "Alias" often seems to be a music video disguised as a TV series. It often looks and sounds great.

According to Abrams' script, Bristow was recruited by the CIA while a freshmen in college because she's smart, she's buff, she's resourceful. She just never figured out what her charmless father, Jack (Victor Garber), did for a living.

Like "The Agency," "Alias" has a strong recognizable cast that also includes Carl Lumbly and Ron Rifkin. Unlike "The Agency," "Alias" doesn't have a plot that runs in straight time. Abrams' script has Sydney moving from the present to the past to explain how she arrives at an uncertain future.

It also copies from the James Bond series, introducing a "Q"-like character who shows Sydney how to use the latest gadgets. He is a hoot.

ABC obviously thinks it has something special here, running Sunday's unusually long pilot (67 minutes) without commercials and giving it the Sunday time slot before "The Practice."

To his credit, Abrams did make the pilot easier to understand than it was in the original form shown to critics in July.

But if this ludicrous female fantasy works, I'll be confused all over again about what it says about America's psyche.

Rating: "The Agency" 2 stars out of 4

"Alias" 2 1/2 stars out of 4

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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