Sunday, October 4, 2015

Sunday Best: TV Dramas of All Time #16 - Alias

JJ Abrams had previously created the show Felicity on the WB, which centered around a young woman's emotional journey through life in a New York City College.  It was a prime time soap opera that had its moments, but it never became a giganitic break out.

For his next, show, Abrams went much more high concept: a female CIA double agent.

And thus Alias was born.

The story centered around Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) who is a secret agent for the CIA's special section: SD6.  She has to keep her training and her missions secret from everyone, even her father (Victor Garber).  This concept alone is interesting enough.  But when the head of SD6, Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), has her fiancee killed, Sydney's father reveals to her that not only is he also in SD6, but that SD6 is not really a part of the CIA; Sydney has been working for the bad guys without knowing.  Her father has been deep undercover for the real CIA and now Sydney joins him.  So together, they must take down SD6 and Arvin Sloane from the inside.

In terms of plot, this is a fascinating entrance point.  And from a practical standpoint, this allows wonderful variety from week to week of TV watching.  Sydney, as a spy, must take on different characters and personas as she goes on new and exciting missions each week.

And as the series continued, the supporting cast became larger and more interesting.  In addition, the show built a wonderfully mysterious mythology.  Alias introduced something almost supernatural to its over-arching plot which infused the show with something even bigger than its already expansive plot.  As a Catholic I enjoyed how it explored how lies, even for a good reason, cause harm to the human person.  It also explored larger themes of family, loyalty, and the tension between free will and destiny.

One of the early hooks of the show was that each episode would end on an enormous cliff-hanger.  While they got away from that later, I found the effect quite charming and it made me push forward with the series with great interest and intensity.

The acting was excellent.  This is the show that made Jennifer Garner a star.  And Victor Garber has never been better.  Michael Vartan, Carl Lumbly, Kevin Weisman, and Greg Grunberg bring a lot of gravitas to the show.  And let's not forget that this the first major breakthrough for Bradley Cooper.

Abrams gave the show a slick look with some incredible action set pieces.  But he never forgot that it had to have an emotional heart.  This show wasn't simply Spy vs. Spy.  This was a show about a woman learning who she is and her place in the world.  Albeit she does it in the world of espionage.

All of the detail in 6 paragraphs earlier about the plot all occur in the 1st episode.  It is incredibly dense with story, but it does not feel rushed or forced.  The story plays out naturally and intensely.  You immediately buy in to the story and the character's motivations.  It really felt like watching a big-budget spy film set on television.  And with that first episode, you could see very clearly the type of show that you were signing up for.

"Authorized Personnel Only"
One of the great things about the show was that they were not afraid to change things up from what had already happened.  The idea of radically altering your overarching plot was still relatively new in serialized television.  But Alias was not afraid to kill off characters, radically change characters, and completely alter the trajectory of the show.

By the end of the third season, the show's ratings began to slip.  So the producers decided instead of pushing forward with something bold and new, as the show had done already, to regress to the old formulas from the first season.  This can sometimes work if a show has lost its magic.  But the problem was that in order to do this, they had to essentially throw out the character relationships and build-up of the last 3 years.  Yes, there is some acknowledgment that "things will never be the same," but instead of feeling nostalgic for the good old days, it instead felt lazy.

"30 Seconds"
In the final season, Alias tried to wrap up all of its loose ends.  In order to do this, one of their villains that had been on a slow road to redemption, has a sudden and inexplicable relapse.  As when they jumped the shark, this felt like a betrayal of all the character development thus far.  It also felt like it was too simple a solution to creating an artificial tension to end out the series.

"Phase One"
As I mentioned before, one of the show's strength was its willingness to take risks.  And in the middle of the second season, Alias blew everything up… literally.  The entire plot was thrown on its ear and it was fantastic.  By breaking the mold, the thrill of the unexpected lingered for a long time.  Each episode after carried with it that wonderful tension that you need in order to feel the sense of danger that these characters face.  And the episode itself was an excellent confluence of great acting, writing, and directing.  Top notch television.


Alias only ran for 5 seasons, and as it moved into its last 2, the quality slowly began to degrade.  But those early episodes are still some fantastic television that hold up compared to anything on the small screen today.  I like to remember Alias not for its failures, but for its bold successes.  And that alone is worth the price of admission.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed.

    It was a show that was simply fun to watch.

    Although I think Victor Garber's spartan performance as Daddy Bristow is the real reason to watch. My absolute favorite bits are when he busts a hectic move on someone who has messed with his little girl.