Alias has been, quite unfairly, a bit forgotten. It had the dubious luck of being the heavily serialised, sprawling, mystery-driven show that JJ Abrams made just before Lost, and has been quite dramatically overshadowed by its big brother show. However, for those who watched it at the time, or the few who’ve discovered it more recently, it’s an absolute gem of a show. It’s also a very interesting show to watch in retrospect, as it in many ways suggests early blueprints for the Lost format, and shares most of its strengths and weaknesses with the Island-based epic.
Alias starts out innocuously enough as a neat little spy show. Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner, in her breakout role) is a young spy, believing herself to work for a black ops branch of the CIA, SD-6, until the real CIA show up and reveal that she’s been working for the bad guys all along. They recruit her to work as a double agent, helping to take SD-6 down from the inside.
Right off the bat, the show builds in some interesting twists on the simple spy setup. For starters, almost everyone else at SD-6 believes that they work for the CIA, and consider themselves the good guys, making Sydney’s betrayals all the more wrenching. Secondly, her best friend Will (Bradley Cooper, long before his current fame) is a reporter who’s gotten it into his head to investigate SD-6, with expectedly perilous consequences. Finally, and best of all, Sydney discovers early in the show that her father Jack (Victor Garber) is not only also a spy, but is also a double agent for the CIA. Their relationship is often the core of the show, and over the course of its 5 seasons Alias engages in some interesting discussion of family, parenthood, the responsibilities of parents to their children, and more.
The show really takes off, however, as it gets into some good old-fashioned Abrams style mysteries. Not content with the complex back-and-forth between the CIA, SD-6, and a host of other spy and terrorist organisations, Abrams also builds in a deep mythology that regularly skirts the line between sci-fi and fantasy, and goes well beyond your average spy material. The head of SD-6, Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), is after the Rambaldi artifacts, the creations of an inventor from the Renaissance-era, a cross between da Vinci and Nostradamus who came up with some seemingly impossible devices and predictions of the future. The show takes its time delving into the mysteries surrounding Rambaldi and what they mean for our characters, and they help sustain Alias’s momentum during its lulls and occasional drops in quality. And the show does have some drops in quality. But before that, what’s great about the show?
For starters, the superb cast. Jennifer Garner has had a pretty mixed career, but surely some of her best work ever was in this show, where she shows us a character who has gotten very used to maintaining a cool and emotionless exterior, but is now struggling as her life gets more and more complex, as pressures and huge revelations pile on her, ultimately revealing some difficult truths about her childhood. Bradley Cooper is also great, as is Michael Vartan, who plays the similarly named Michael Vaugn, Sydney’s CIA handler, and romantic interest. Special mention should also go to Carl Lumbly and Kevin Weisman, who play two of Sydney’s utterly well meaning and lied-to SD-6 colleagues. Lumbly in particular sells his character as being so utterly good that it’s all the more crushing to see him work for the bad guys, and there’s some superb material later on as he begins to suspect that Sydney may just be a double agent – thus believing that she’s the one betraying her country.
However, any discussion of the cast would be woefully incomplete without proper mention of the wonderful Victor Garber and Ron Rifkin. As Sydney’s father and SD-6 boss, respectively, they’re the powerhouses of the cast. Rifkin mixes in just enough charm and fatherly affection for Sydney that you desperately want to believe that he isn’t really as awful as he seems. Garber is the real star here, and his turn as Sydney’s father alone makes the show worth watching. It’s one of my favourite TV performances ever – he’s cold, restrained, utterly incapable of showing affection, and has made some absolutely awful decisions in the past, and watching him struggles with his past, and with his daughter, is always a delight to watch.
The show’s quality issues unfortunately crept in as it went on. As the complexity of the mythology increased, the characters occasionally suffered. Worse, the show began to creep towards soap opera-esque reveals and twists as the format was stretched to its limits. Finally, an attempt to reinvigorate the series with some new cast members and a slightly altered setup in season 5 failed to draw in a new audience, and left long-time viewers unhappy to see so many of their favourite characters left on the sidelines. The show ended with its fifth season, though thankfully the writing staff had enough notice to put together a satisfying conclusion to the story, and the final few hours were excellent, as the writers got back to what made people fall in love with Alias in the first place.
Alias set the template for serialised TV in a number of ways, and was almost as influential as Lost in that regard. Unfortunately, as the forerunner of serialised storytelling, it also suffered more than most from the format’s flaws, and the writers struggled to balance an increasingly overwrought mythology with the story-of-the-week and character requirements. There’s still more than enough good to outweigh the bad, however, and Alias is worth anyone’s time. The cast are superb, the storytelling is always gripping, and even at its worst, it’s pretty damn good.
Dominic PrestonPin It