JACK BRISTOW: There are rules, Sydney!
SYDNEY BRISTOW: Then you break them!
Alias is steadily building toward a larger point of revelation across its first season, as the title of Reckoning alludes to. Thematically, the journey of super-spy double agent Sydney Bristow continues to be about her own understanding of the bigger picture, and her place within it.
The complexities of the narrative inside JJ Abrams show even facilitate, starting with Reckoning, a change to the recap preamble of the series’ concept. I’ve talked about how Alias doesn’t just employ a ‘previously’ recap akin to many other TV shows, but starts with a bigger explanation and contextualisation of the broader story the serialised narrative is telling. Here, Alias expands that recap by weaving the scene-setting around the four key characters at the outset of the series – Syd, her handler Michael Vaughn, her boss Arvin Sloane and her father Jack Bristow, the recap showing their faces and names just in case the people at the back AREN’T QUITE GETTING IT. I can’t recall another show which ever quite felt the need to prime the audience week by week with so much detail before even the previously recap.
Perhaps the choice was made because even just six episodes in, Alias is already starting to grow quite knotty and dense, and the show hasn’t even scratched the surface yet in many ways. Reckoning has a multitude of narratives bubbling away – Syd’s suspicion that Jack may have been working for the KGB, Vaughn and the CIA’s slow-burning backdoor hack into SD-6 established in the previous episode Doppleganger, Francie’s uncertainty about her boyfriend Charlie, Will’s investigation into the Kate Jones mystery. That’s just for starters, before any of the main episodic missions for Sydney are even covered, though really so far they have largely just been window-dressing around which the series can delve into these deeper storylines and building character arcs.
Reckoning, if anything, feels like the first example of what would have been a traditional two-part episode of a more conventional network TV show version of Alias.
If this feels like an addendum to my earlier piece about separating art from the artist, that’s because fate has taken a twist in that direction over the last couple of days. Roseanne, ABC’s successful re-launch of the hit 1980’s/1990’s sitcom starring Roseanne Barr as the matriarch of a middle-American family, has been cancelled after the star herself wrote a horrendously racist tweet about former Barack Obama aide Valerie Jarrett which rightly drew derision from all quarters. ABC’s entertainment president Channing Dungey swiftly responded with this brief statement:
Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values.
While many have applauded Dungey and ABC for such a swift and decisive rejection of racist rhetoric by a star on their network, some such as Kathryn VanArendonk have made the point that the damage has already been done, that ABC don’t have a spotless record in terms of positive portrayals of race recently, and while Roseanne started as a huge hit upon its return, she subsequently had shed almost 10 million viewers by the season finale. Perhaps ABC found the excuse they’d been looking for to can the show.
Regardless of the reasons, Roseanne Barr’s banishment to the nether regions of disgraced celebrities is, without doubt, a long-time coming. While being a pro-Trump supporter for many would be condemnation enough, Barr has often gone one step further in promoting wild, divisive conspiracy theories which further suggest she has extremist views in line with many right-wing individuals who have taken Trump’s Presidency as a sign that their rhetoric has been validated. It should already have been clear that the gift of a revived TV sitcom career was misjudged and highly inappropriate.
By now you no doubt have heard about how the Season 5 launch of Arrested Development has been a bit of a ‘fustercluck’ all-round.
The accusations of sexual harassment and abusive behaviour against star Jeffrey Tambor which led to his firing from Transparent, a questionable interview with the New York Times which landed Jason Bateman in particular in hot water, and now presumably trying to head off any more corrosive media troubles, Netflix have cancelled the U.K. press tour ahead of the Season 5 premiere on Tuesday. It’s all just a bit of a mess all round, tinged with the whiff of scandal concerning the key issue rocking the entertainment industry this year – inappropriate behaviour of male actors against their female co-stars, in a variety of ways. It does, however, lead to an important question we haven’t yet achieved the distance to answer.
Does the personal fall of artists compromise the art they have worked on itself?
SYDNEY BRISTOW: I don’t know how much longer I can do this. Sit in these meetings with Sloane. Look at him as though I don’t despise him. That I don’t want to leap across the table and use the skills I’ve learned at SD-6 against him.
Doppelgänger comes as something of a surprise when you look at it from the broader context of Alias’s first season. The fifth episode of a twenty-two episode season, structurally, is never going to contain too many of the bigger mythological revelations, character turning points, and narrative surprises that you might expect from a mid-season two-parter or particularly a season finale, and while Doppleganger doesn’t buck that trend, it cuts surprisingly deep to the core conceptual idea crucial to the entire show, namely: do we really *know* the people closest to us?
Before we touch on that philosophical question, we must remember that we are still watching Alias. This is not The Wire, riven with harsh social commentary, or Hannibal layered with creeping metaphysical discourse. This is a show about a young spy “jumping off buildings in three-inch heels while napalm explodes all around me”, as Sydney Bristow deftly sums up her career at the end of the series finale way way into the future. That is not to cheapen the writing or character work, which has far more substance than on the surface you might expect, but we should always be aware that Alias first and foremost is a piece of escapism. Which explains the extended, ten-minute opening sequence which kicks Doppleganger off.
Mellow greetings, everyone, how is your boggle?
So I’ve been busy and, I’ll be honest, not entirely on The Book. Naughty, I know! Headway has been made – now roughly at about 38,000 words of an estimated 90-95,000 so I’m not a million miles from being halfway done. A great deal still to plug away at; my next major chapter is all about Dystopian fiction so this means I get to watch lots of cheery stuff! The Purge soon-to-be quadrilogy is on my radar and that’s exciting as I love those films.
Anyway! What else? Firstly, hello to all the new blog subscribers!
Amazing how the internet works. My post all about Marvel & gatekeeping took off in a remarkable way thanks to a shove by WordPress itself (thanks guys) and it’s meant over 400 new subscribers to Cultural Conversation over the last few weeks. Incredible! Thanks guys for reading, liking and commenting and do keep it up – it’s the small gift which propels me on writing away about things I love.
MICHAEL VAUGHN: In this job you see darkness; you see the worst in people. And though the jobs are different and the missions change and the enemies have a thousand names, the one crucial thing, the one real responsibility you have is to not let your rage and your resentment and your disgust darken you.
As we emerge from the initial phase of establishing the central concept of Alias, A Broken Heart continues developing the relationships between Sydney Bristow and our central collection of characters. While the least important and arguably most throwaway episode of the first season so far, Vanessa Taylor’s script nonetheless has several key interactions and narrative points which give the episode a purpose, and further suggest that Alias’ approach to ongoing, serialised storytelling means this won’t be a traditional 22-episodes marked by too many points of ‘filler’.
Not every episode of Alias has too deep a clear emotional or thematic through line, but A Broken Heart quite clearly is all about broken relationships, or relationships which are in danger of shattering. The title itself is a rather pointed pun with a double-meaning; ostensibly it suggests the climactic beat of the episode, in which Syd witnesses a bunch of Euro-terrorists place a small but hugely powerful bomb in the pacemaker of a UN diplomat, but it also rather directly refers to Sydney’s emotional state, and to some degree that of her father Jack Bristow. Both of them have suffered the trauma of losing the people they loved to sudden and rather violent deaths, and both of them have had their hearts ‘broken’ in the process. It becomes clearer that while Syd is trying to repair her damage, Jack’s may well be irreparable.
So imagine you’re in a pitch meeting with a major studio (in this case ABC). You have all your ideas stacked up ready to go and then one of the studio heads says “you know what we really want? A mash up of The West Wing and 24. Politics! Action! Conspiracy! Bills! Sounds cool, huh?”. Of course, because you’re a writer who wants to put food on the table, you say: “uh, sure…”. And there you have it: Designated Survivor is born.
Now, let me be clear: that’s not how Designated Survivor, which has just been cancelled by ABC in what is fast becoming an infamous ‘Cancel Friday’ where several well-known, fairly long-running shows have been axed, came to be. I think. I’m pretty sure David Guggenheim, the creator, didn’t have to be talked into developing a hybrid of Aaron Sorkin’s erudite look at Democratic politics in the White House, and the pulse-pounding, 9/11-reactive action madness of 24 – especially not for an actor as engaging and charismatic as Kiefer Sutherland. Nonetheless, of all the shows given the axe in this latest cull (including Lucifer and Brooklyn Nine-Nine – until it was saved last minute by NBC), Designated Survivor is by far the weirdest and, honestly, probably the most deserving.