Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Rocky Road Of Milo Rambaldi: Alias Is A Legacy (Mostly) Worth Owning.

The Good: Some truly great episodes, Wonderful acting, Some intense and great characters, bonus features
The Bad: Bonuses exclusive to this box, Series varies greatly with the seasons
The Basics: With engaging plots, interesting characters and inspired acting, Alias The Complete Series presents a story of a spy fighting terrorists for the key to unlock a 500 year-old prophecy.

The consistent thread through the five seasons (seven years in the storyline of the series) of the spy adventure show Alias was a technological prophet named Milo Rambaldi. He was a 16th Century inventor who wrote in machine code and predicted technological events hundreds of years before such things occurred. It is therefore perfectly appropriate that when the creators of the series put together all five seasons for one massive boxed set, they would make it in Rambaldi related. Alias The Complete Series is also known as Alias - The Rambaldi Collection because the box the 30 discs (counting the exclusive disc) come in is shaped like an artifact from the third and fourth season of the show. Viewing the series with this bent makes for an intriguing interpretation of the show.

Hundreds of years ago, Milo Rambaldi died, scattering artifacts throughout the world and established the Magnificent Order of Rambaldi, essentially knights, to guard his technology and prophecies. At the turn of the millennium, a man obsessed with Milo Rambaldi and his works, a man named Arvin Sloane, works as part of a nefarious agency whose objectives include assembling Rambaldi's collection and figuring out what his final, unfinished work, would be. Sloane is alternatively aided and undermined by a woman named Irina Derevko, who wants Rambaldi's masterpiece for her own use.

The problem is that Derevko had a daughter named Sydney Bristow. Rambaldi prophesied about Sydney and her place in the battle for Rambaldi's works and endgame. Sydney may thwart the Order of Rambaldi and either save or destroy the world (depending on how one interprets the prophecies and what one believes about Rambaldi's endgame). Sydney Bristow is essentially a good woman who finds herself working under Sloane, against the United States government.

When Sydney realizes she is working for a group whose objectives may well include Armageddon, she turns herself in to the CIA and begins to work against Sloane and his minions. Sydney works with a contact from the CIA named Michael Vaughn, who she soon develops a strong relationship with. While working under Sloane, she finds an ally she never expected; her estranged father who vows to work with her to bring the criminal down.

But, of course, Rambaldi predicts things going very differently for the heroes.

Alias is a remarkably inconsistent series and the first thing to address about it is that it's impossible to nail down the timeframe of the series because the writers and producers were not attentive to details. In a series dominated by details and facts, the fact that the producers fail to keep their own timeline straight is irritating. The timeline is mucked up by three events: 1. In the first season, Sydney mentions the Patriot Act (meaning that the first season MUST occur after the September 11, 2001 attacks), 2. The third season begins two years after the second season (which means season three should begin in 2005), and 3. In season 5, a character dispatched in the season four finale is found with a medical bracelet that lists the admission date as 2005. Until the bracelet, the timeline is fine and with the bracelet, the timeline cannot be pushed back because of the comment in the first season. Tsk, tsk.

The reason I start with this is twofold: Alias takes place in a mythical present day (2001 - 2006) and so the problems of the timeline are aggravating for a series that works so hard to keep details straight and create a believable and intriguing mythology. For the most part, the series succeeds. But, the devil is in the details.

Alias is a remarkably inconsistent series, with seasons varying in quality dramatically, which is no more evident than when one looks at the entire series on these twenty-nine discs. The first season is good, rising into a truly great second season (with one of the all-time best season finale's of all time - I mean, right up with the first season finale to Twin Peaks, the third season finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the second season finale of Millennium), a much-maligned but solid third season, a weak fourth season and a near-dismal fifth season (though, to be fair the fifth season gets better the more I watch it).

The concept of the show remains constant for much of the series; Sydney Bristow, secret agent, must foil the criminals she encounters while piecing together the mystery of Milo Rambaldi's works. She does this by going on missions, using gadgets and assuming alternate personalities (alias's). Her varied alias's require her to dress up quite a bit and that leads to the weakness of the series.

Alias begins as a story about a woman assuming personalities to convince those she interacts with to provide her with information or devices while remaining untraceable. The show, because it is fairly formulaic (threat, analysis of threat, mission briefing/design, assume an alias and execute mission with spy tech, and deal with the consequences), becomes predictable rather quickly and the series spends less time developing characters for Sydney and instead, she dresses up and beats her way through her enemies. By the end of the series, Sydney is just dressing up, whereas in the pilot episode, she assumes a swagger and persona that is distinctly different from her own.

What binds the series, other than the overarching plot of the mystery of Milo Rambaldi, are the characters. Alias usually succeeds at being a strong character-based series with characters who are compelling and individual. Here are the primary characters for this series:

Sydney Bristow - A superspy who is the subject of the prophecies of Rambaldi. She is rumored to hold a great power that could potentially destroy the world,

Jack Bristow - Sydney's father, a brutal protector who lives in a rational world and will do anything to keep Sydney safe. He has spent years working to keep Sloane in check before Sydney even realizes the implications of her own existence,

Dixon - Sydney's partner and co-superspy. Agent Dixon is competent and steady in the field and a loyal and true ally to Sydney. When the Rambaldi issues begin to overwhelm Sloane, Dixon bears the brunt of Sloane's wrath,

Will Tippen - A reporter who begins to learn far too much about Sydney and Jack Bristow and finds his life in serious danger by Sloane,

Francie - Sydney's best friend, who has no idea she is a spy and tries to keep Sydney unstressed and happy,

Michael Vaughn - Sydney's CIA "handler" and coworker fighting against Sloane and the other enemies who follow Rambaldi's works obsessively. He soon begins to have more than a professional attachment to Sydney and he finds working closely with her complicates his life,

Eric Weiss - Vaughn's partner at the CIA and a competent agent in his own right,

Marshall Flinkman - The technical genius who creates the gadgets Sydney Bristow uses to recover artifacts and fight evil (a la "Q" from "James Bond"),

Julian Sark - A ruthless killer (introduced into the series by shooting a powerful gangleader in broad daylight on a streetcorner), Sark is a man whose allegiances are never stable. Instead, he is brutal and thrives on surviving, all while trying to achieve a better position in the global struggle for power,

Irina Derevko - Popping up after a significant search, she manipulates Jack and Sydney with their unresolved feelings for her as their long lost wife and mother, respectively. Her place is thorny and duplicitous, though her allegiances seem to be toward discovering what Rambaldi's end game is,

and Arvin Sloane - A man who has sacrificed family, love, and any chance at a normal life to understand what Milo Rambaldi dedicated his life to create. He has spent thirty years attempting to assemble Rambaldi's ultimate creation and he will not stop until he has it.

Of course, a great drama on the page still needs great actors to embody those characters. Alias has that from day one with some good and exceptional actors fleshing out the cast - though the cast changes with each season. Series regulars Michael Vartan (Vaughn), Carl Lumbly (Dixon), Kevin Weisman (Marshall), Greg Grunberg (Weiss), David Anders (Sark) and Merrin Dungey (Francie) provide a strong supporting cast. Notable beyond them are Bradley Cooper (Will Tippen) and Lena Olin (Irena Derevko). Cooper plays a character who has to be the heart of humanity and how it relates to the larger-than-life spy and Rambaldi concepts and he masters the role with a convincing, understated performance. Olin has to be a brilliant and quietly menacing villain and there is not a moment when she is onscreen that the viewer does not fell like she is calculating something as Derevko.

There are three actors who basically supply such consistently great performances that they make the show watching week after week, episode after episode, disc after disc. They create the series and make it worthwhile with their performances. Ron Rifkin is genius as Sloane. Rifkin portrays a character who has spent decades obsessed with a spiritual quest embodied by the mystery of Rambaldi. Rifkin is obsessive, quiet, and utterly believable as a man who will truly stop at nothing to achieve his goals. He is one of the most memorable villains ever created for television.

Alias launched the career of Jennifer Garner, who played Sydney Bristow. When she was required to do more than dress up or speak in a funny voice, Garner delivered every single time. As the show evolved, she kept it interesting and watchable by creating a sympathetic protagonist who finds herself in a world that make demands on her that no one should have to confront. Garner was a completely pragmatic and well-cast choice for Sydney with her ability to emote, using her whole body to make new characters.

The true acting gem on Alias is Victor Garber. Garber plays Jack Bristow and his task over the 105 episodes is to create a father who is strong and appears distant but able to connote enough love for Sydney in a solid enough way that the viewer believes the character's actions. Garber does that, going to the most extreme lengths to convince the viewer he is an odd combination of emotionally reserved and brutal out of love for his daughter. There is not a frame in this series he slips character.

As a loyal fan of Alias, this boxed set offends me, but it's a great investment for those who have caught the show in syndication and want to own the series on DVD (or fans who just waited it out). I was a good, loyal fan and consumer, getting the boxed sets of DVDs when they were originally released. I see this as a clear way to show support for the shows I love. After shelling out all that money, here comes a less expensive, less space-consuming option. The salt on the wound (and my real beef) is that this box includes an exclusive booklet and disc loaded with exclusive featurettes not previously available. As a loyal fan, I'm asked to either shell out $200 more or go without exclusives that should have been available given the loyalty (and good consumerism) I showed for this show. It's rotten and a beef I have with any series that does this (note to DVD producers of long-dead shows: reward the real fans first; release the complete series boxed set with exclusives BEFORE doing the season by season outings!), though for series' that are current and release their boxed set seasons ongoing, this is somewhat more understandable. The happy medium (and the producers of Alias The Complete Series have no excuse for not doing!) would have been to offer the exclusive disc to fans with the purchase of the 5th season (which was released on the same day) via mail order with the proofs of purchase from the prior sets.

Those bonus features on the extra disc and in the book are a must for the die-hard fans, but more casual viewers might want to henpeck through the series (seasons 1 - 3 make a great series as far as I'm concerned). Otherwise, this is a generally strong, well-written, well-acted spy thriller whose only real fault is that it adopts a formula and when it tries to reinvent the enemy every few seasons, it does not always succeed.

Because of the way this boxed set is organized, it impacted the slant on this review (I wanted to do something different!). To learn more about Alias by getting a more in-depth idea of each season (which can ruin some surprises I've maintained in this review), please check out (and rate!) my reviews on each season at the following locations:
Season 1
Season 2
Season 3
Season 4
Season 5

For other television series' that made their debut on ABC, please check out my reviews of:
V - Season 1
Boston Legal
Once & Again - Season 2
Once & Again - Season 1
Sports Night
Twin Peaks


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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