Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Future Of The Spy Thriller Is Here: Alias Season 1!

The Good: Action, Acting, Character, Plots
The Bad: Repetitive formula becomes evident quickly
The Basics: When Sydney Bristow's fiance is killed, she sets to ridding the world of the organization that did him in in Alias Season 1, a clever spy drama.

It is a rare thing that a series these days waits and allows itself to go into syndication to capitalize on the interest of the audience. Nowadays, the key is to exploit a hit show as soon as you have it: you put it out on DVD. I am sure we are not far off from the days when a series that has its episodes on Mondays will have its season finale on a Monday and release a boxed set of DVDs from its last season that next Tuesday. It seems that capitalizing on a show's popularity immediately is the name of the game now. Had Angel released a DVD of the last episode the next day, I would have bought it, that's how much the episode affected me. I feel, however, that a show like Alias will likely suffer from not capitalizing on the audience in syndication. After all, why stick around next weekend at midnight on a Saturday (dramas in syndication seem to get stuck on at the weirdest times) to see the resolution to a cliffhanger when you can pop your DVD in now and find out immediately.

That said, Alias is the story of Sydney Bristow. She is a graduate student and a spy for the CIA. In the first episode, she tells her fiance that she is a spy, he is killed by her employers who turn out to be one of the CIA's nemesis', SD-6. SD-6 is run by a man named Arvin Sloane, an ex-CIA operative himself and he and the Alliance he works for manipulate the world through controlling people, technology and circumstances. When Sydney learns the truth about SD-6, she goes to the real CIA, becomes a double agent working with her handler, Michael Vaughn to bring down SD-6. The only ally she has in her fight against SD-6 is her estranged, emotionally distant father, Jack.

The first season of Alias follows two essential arcs. The first is the storyline that begins in the pilot wherein Sydney learns the truth, becomes obsessed with bringing down SD-6 and begins to learn about her father. The second storyline, which begins midseason, finds Sydney at odds with her father, believing him to be a traitor to the US government back in the 70s and the consequences of her quest to bring him to justice.

Alias is a stylish show and aired Sundays at 9 PM on ABC. It's a spy drama and the essential conflict throughout Season One is between Sydney balancing her professional life as a spy with her personal life as a supposed student with her friends Will and Francie. It's a catchy concept and the nice thing about it is that it largely progresses without insulting the viewer's intelligence. The nice thing about the DVDs is that one can go back and rewatch episodes to pick up key details; often the plots are dense, working on several levels to keep the viewer engaged. Some people complain they can't figure out what is going on, though I didn't experience that. While there are reversals, they tend to make a lot of sense (nothing like the Dallas shower scene here) and be more interesting than confusing.

There are two things that makes me believe Alias will hold up well over the years (and why the boxed set of DVDs is worth it because it holds up well already over repeated viewings): the characters and the cast. The characters who are integral to the first season are:

Francie - Sydney's best friend and a pretty generic sidekick. In the first season, she wrestles with issues of love as she finds and loses it,

Marshall - the technology wizard at SD-6. He is a genius with almost no social skills,

Will - A reporter and Sydney's oldest friend, he once harbored feelings for Sydney, but his obsession with Daniel's (Sydney's fiance) death leads him down a dangerous path,

Dixon - Sydney's SD-6 partner, an intelligent man who begins to become concerned with Sydney's performance on missions as the season progresses . . .,

Michael Vaughn - Syndey's handler - contact - at the CIA, whose dad was killed by a KGB agent. He protects Sydney as best he can while pursuing his own agenda of revenge against the person he believes is responsible for his father's death . . . Jack Bristow,

Arvin Sloane - The criminal mastermind of SD-6 whose nefarious work is balanced by his love of his dying wife. As he seeks to save her life, he becomes obsessed with the inventions and writings of Milo Rambaldi, a technology prophet whose mysterious works may bring Sloane all he ever wanted,

Jack Bristow - The emotionally-aloof double agent who has experience on his side. His priorities seem to be protecting Sydney at any cost, even if it means sacrificing his own life,

Sydney Bristow - The cunning, dangerous, personality-changing spy who assumes various identities to accomplish missions and gain access to restricted locations. Her quest is to rid the world of SD-6, the people responsible for killing the man she loved.

The cool thing about the first season of Alias is that it was more than simply Syndey running around the world changing outfits. Instead, Sydney becomes various people by changing clothes, hair, speech patterns, and the entire way she moves. For example, in one episode, she plays a punk and her whole walk changes from an unobtrusive walk into an arrogant, annoyed strut. She completely changes personality.

The nice thing is that the show has a very nice mix, both of characters and stories. Will and Francie are nice people and their presence in the show balances out a lot of the morally questionable things that Sydney finds herself doing in her life as a spy. And the spy stories are fun, interesting, compelling and often real nail-biters.

They are also repetitive. Alias quickly gets into a pattern of stories that have twists and turns, but follow the same general pattern. Sydney gets a mission from SD-6, she is assigned a counter-mission from the CIA, she goes on the mission and is nearing completing her countermission when a wrinkle occurs, until she manages to make things right (usually), which puts her in a compromised position at the end of the episode. And we tune in next week, or - in this case - play the next episode.

That said, what keeps the episodes fresh and worth watching is the characters and the actors. Bradley Cooper humanizes the show as Will Tippen. The unrequited love Cooper makes evident in his eyes and body language truly is quite endearing. Similarly, Kevin Weisman who plays Marshall infuses what could be a dull role with genuine personality through long strains of quick, complicated, rambling dialog. Weisman has some of the most difficult lines, yet he works around them like a real professional, selling the viewer on Marshall's expertise.

Ron Rifkin is amazing as Sloane. Hearing Rifkin on the audio commentaries is a real treat, because it becomes obvious quite quickly that he is a happier, nicer person than Sloane. His acting is flawless, then, because Rifkin creates Sloane as a quiet, menacing presence throughout the entire first season. Jennifer Garner, as well, is clearly more than eye candy. J.J. Abrams, the show's creator, cast her perfectly as her face and body change entirely based on the outfits and hairpieces she wears. Beyond that, Garner has a way of captivating the audience with her simple genuine "girl next door" quality. Between that and selling us on someone trained to kick some serious butt - which she does in just about every episode - Garner deserves all sorts of acting credit.

But the real powerhouse of the series is Victor Garber as Jack Bristow. Classically trained, Garber brings his a-game to a complicated role, making Jack both stoic and clearly protective of this daughter. Garber uses subtle relaxations in his rigid body language to express far more than his lines ever do. With an ability to master complex dialog and sell the audience on strange reversals in his character's position on certain issues, Victor Garber easily convinces the viewer of both the plausibility of the circumstances and the dangers that Sydney faces as a double agent.

More than just a simple spy thriller, Alias is decent drama with much to recommend to members of both genders. Females are bound to find a strong role model in Syndey Bristow, while even the most base male will enjoy looking at Jennifer Garner. While considerate women will enjoy the father-daughter bond and the complex relationships Sydney has, most guys will like the action-adventure content. The result: a crowd-pleasing storyline that keeps everyone engaged and a worthy DVD collection to grace anyone's shelf.

For other works with Jennifer Garner, please visit my reviews of:
Valentine’s Day
The Invention Of Lying
Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past


For other television reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the television shows I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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