Alias (Season 1) – Overview

The first season of Alias, the show that put superstar producer-director JJ Abrams on the map, has aged remarkably well.

Airing in 2001, a matter of weeks in the wake of the traumatic September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Alias had the unenviable task of providing overblown, B-movie, pulp escapism to an audience reeling from the most existentially terrifying attack on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Abrams, fresh off his first TV series Felicity (starring the later-to-be-famous Keri Russell) and a career penning screenplays across the 1990’s for major Hollywood blockbusters, had to try and sell a show which captured the retro, cult aesthetics of 1960’s adventure shows and movies he had grown up with – Mission: Impossible, I Spy, the James Bond series – shot through with a stylish, slick, modern action sensibility.

It was a hard sell. Audiences gravitated far more to the intense, dour, revenge fantasy of 24 and all-American hero Jack Bauer, who steadily across a decade in which Americans and Western Europe turned their gaze toward Islamic fundamentalism and the threat of the Middle East became more of the superhero Americans wanted. If he was The Punisher, a man of dubious morals ready to compromise his soul for the greater good, then Alias’ hero Sydney Bristow was Captain America; virtuous, homely, and a reflection of wholesome American values, wrapped up inside familial and emotional angst that recalled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Audiences never truly took Sydney to their breast, to their heart, and almost immediately Alias became a cult genre hit, never to explode fully into the global mainstream.

The sad thing about this is just how well executed Alias’ first season is, one of those rare shows that arrives almost fully formed and very quickly steps into a unique tone and rhythm, only building on that start to deliver twenty two episodes which provide a real sense of payoff.

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Alias – ‘Almost Thirty Years’ (1×22)

When you think about it, Alias gives away the final twist at the end of Almost Thirty Years by virtue of its title alone.

Season 1’s climactic episode is probably best remembered by critics and fans for those final couple of minutes, in which Sydney Bristow is confronted with a twist on the truth that has steadily been unravelling across the entire season. Not only was her mother secretly a KGB spy, and not only did she not tragically die when Syd was just a little girl, but in reality she is the grand master villain behind (almost) everything she has been fighting for the last twenty-two episodes. Her mother, Irina, is ‘The Man’, the shadowy, powerful, mysterious machiavelli in control of vast crime organisation. She literally appears here in shadow, cast against the wall of a dark room Syd is held in captivity, and won’t emerge into the light until the first moments of Season 2.

This grand twist, leaving Sydney with the quiet and stunned final line “Mom?” (which is perfect for a season which has almost entirely been about the secret dysfunctional history of her family), was an inevitability, yet somehow JJ Abrams manages across this episode and indeed the entire season to make it a surprise, and an incredibly effective final moment. You do and you *don’t* see it coming all at once, perhaps because the show has devoted so little time to the supposed ‘Man’, Alexander Khasinau, and kept the entire organisation he seemingly controls in the shadows, dropping the bombshell that Irina has been hiding behind a masculine, almost cliched alias of her own lands with both us and, naturally, with Sydney.

It is the icing on the cake of an extremely assured season finale for a remarkably tight and strident first year. Alias has some enjoyable season finale’s left in its back pocket, but none with the skill or control of Almost Thirty Years.

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Alias – ‘Snowman’ (1×19)

If Masquerade was a busy episode of Alias that needed to function as both ostensibly the beginning of a two-part episode, and deal with the reverberations from the mid-section of the run, then Snowman ranks as one of the most disposable outings in Alias’ debut season.

Snowman in any other series would have been a two-part episode expressly designed for our protagonist Sydney Bristow to enjoy a brief romantic attachment that would in no way impinge on the formula of the show. As discussed in Masquerade, this kind of plot device would often be deployed in TV shows across the 1990’s which balanced stand-alone storytelling with a level of narrative serialisation; any number of Star Trek characters across The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager or Enterprise for example as one of the worst offenders for this trope. The problem with the character who serves this function in Alias, Noah Hicks, and the problem with Snowman in general, is that it has to function within a broader ongoing serialised narrative that is ramping up for the climactic beats of the season.

By this point in the twenty-two episode season, Sydney is simultaneously balancing her role as a double agent for the CIA inside the sinister SD-6, reeling from the revelations that her mother was secretly a KGB agent but is also in fact still alive, now aware she is central to an arcane, esoteric prophecy by a 15th century genius who predicted she could be some kind of human weapon of mass destruction *and* she is having to keep all of this secret from her two best friends, plus has steadily been developing an attachment to her CIA handler which goes beyond professional concern. Where exactly *could* any kind of meaningful love story fit amidst such a dense stack of open and ongoing plot lines? Especially when each episode has to service the majority of them at once.

Snowman ends up being an episode which focuses on the one story element that, in the long run, is never going to matter.

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Alias – ‘The Box – Pt 1’ (1×12)

If The Confession was the point of no return, The Box is the tale which catapults Alias into what is, barring one or two exceptions, a season and a half of dynamic, top drawer storytelling.

Alias was a high concept TV series from the outset. The ‘high concept’ in Hollywood vernacular defines an idea which can be distilled into a pure, accessible, often blockbuster form. ‘What if we could clone dinosaurs?’ for example with Jurassic Park, or to use another Michael Crichton example, ‘What if theme park robots became sentient and took control?’. Alias itself flaunts the high concept in its DNA, pitched essentially as ‘What if a spy found out she was working for the enemy?’. Even from Truth Be Told, Alias perhaps throws a few extras caveats into that pitch but in basic terms, that’s the point JJ Abrams’ show starts from. The Box, however, is the first episode to truly deliver on a high concept idea.

If you look at Alias across the first half of its first season, we haven’t seen an episode anything like The Box. Right from the get go, Alias engaged in a level of serialised storytelling through which it broke the 90’s mould of stand-alone, easy to syndicate episodes of television to depict a compelling, ongoing narrative journey for Sydney Bristow as she becomes more embroiled in her double-agent life with SD-6 and the CIA. Each episode, even those which carried heavily over to each other such as Reckoning and Color-Blind, tells an espionage tale on a scale which never overwhelms the broader character and narrative arcs in play: Syd & Jack’s relationship, Syd & Vaughn’s relationship, the Rambaldi mythology etc… Thus far, the spy stories have been fairly incidental and the weekly bad guys relatively disposable.

All of that changes, immediately, with The Box. The first genuine two-part story in Alias’ lifespan, labelled indeed as such, it delivers on the high concept idea with the pitch: ‘What if terrorists seize control of SD-6?’. Alias does Die Hard, basically, and without a shred of embarrassment. Writers John Eisendrath and Jesse Alexander immediately understand their reference point and the fact they are riffing, broadly, off one of the greatest examples of a high concept in Hollywood history. It only adds to the joy of The Box which exemplifies the remarkable level of confidence Alias had in its storytelling from the very beginning. Many other series wouldn’t have the balls to make The Box until maybe its third, even fourth, seasons. Alias gets it out the way as a midpoint to its debut year.

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Alias – ‘Spirit’ (1×10)

Spirit works not just as a follow on from Mea Culpa but as a companion piece of sorts, continuing Alias’ mid-season exploration of its own central morality.

We saw in the previous episode the difficult soul searching experienced by SD-6 head honcho Arvin Sloane when it came to contemplating that Sydney Bristow, a woman he has spent his life deluding himself into believing a surrogate daughter figure, could have betrayed him – and the consequence of potentially having to sanction her murder. Spirit, by the very nature of how Syd gets out of what looked like at the end of Mea Culpa the end of her life as a double agent for the CIA, shifts this moral question over to Syd’s *real* father, and to some degree the mirror image of Sloane – Jack Bristow. In order to save Syd’s life, Jack has to go beyond simply being Sloane’s weapon of murder—as previous episodes have established—into sacrificing the life of an ‘innocent’ man as part of the greater good.

In reality, as Vaughn later reassures Syd once she realises what Jack has done, the sacrificial lamb of Anthony Russek—an SD-6 agent who Jack frames as a mole working for K-Directorate after faking a transmission to them on a mission we saw in Mea Culpa to disguise Syd’s *actual* transmission to the CIA—was no innocent. “He was an early member of SD-6, he knew he was working for the bad guys”. Russek was culpable in the hidden crimes of SD-6, aware of the Alliance underpinning their ruse of being part of the American intelligence network, and involved in weapons sales used against American interests across the world. “He got what he deserved” Vaughn states, showing that he may not have agreed with Jack’s slippery methods, but from a moral perspective he agrees with the choice Jack made in the heat of the moment. “What would you have done if it had been your daughter, or son, or Danny?” he asks Syd. She has no clear answer.

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Alias – ‘Parity’ (1×03)

ANNA ESPINOSA: I heard about your fiancé. Very sad. I thought perhaps it was a security execution sanctioned by your employer. Maybe you said something in your sleep you shouldn’t have. But then why would you be here in service for the men that killed your true love?

If Alias, in its opening two introductory episodes, flirted with the idea that the show is a post-Cold War espionage thriller attempting to understand and resolve the consequences of the 20th century’s longest-running and defining ideological conflict, then Parity absolutely goes for broke and seals the deal with a loving kiss. 

The third episode, the first not penned directly by series creator J.J. Abrams, cements and solidifies existing, introductory concepts and brings in key new ones which will help frame Alias as a show with a sense of unique, genre identity. In many respects, Alex Kurtzman-Counter (as he was named originally, before losing the Counter) and Roberto Orci’s script is one of the most crucial in Alias’ first season. It is the first episode which directly picks up from the cliffhanger established in the previous episode. It introduces one of the most interesting (and underused) characters the show ever gave us. And, most importantly, it truly kickstarts the mythology Alias would embrace, grapple with, struggle with, and never truly satisfy its audience with over the next five years. Parity is a key, early touchstone for Abrams’ series.

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Alias – ‘So It Begins…’ (1×02)

MICHAEL VAUGHN: This is not about cutting off an arm of the monster. This is about killing the monster.

The big picture. This is something we are going to see our erstwhile heroine Sydney Bristow struggle with a great deal as we work our way through Alias, and right from the beginning of So It Begins…, it is very clear that Syd is way too close to the mess she’s involved in. This is understandable. Her fiancee has been murdered, she has found out she is working for a global crime syndicate rather than the US government, and to top it all off her Dad has been lying to her all her life. If Season 1 of Alias is about anything, broadly, it’s about Sydney coming to accept the life she has always been destined for.

So It Begins… honestly has quite a task on its hands. Truth Be Told remains one of the strongest pilot episodes of a genre TV show in US TV history. JJ Abrams established the premise of his retro-futurist spy saga while taking his protagonist on a real journey over the course of that opening hour. How does a second episode, meant to kickstart the first season after the introduction of the pilot, possibly measure up? So It Begins… as a title almost feels like a nod to that very question. You can almost feel Abrams, who returns to pen this one, saying “yeah, I know, how do I follow *that*?”.

What he does is, essentially, re-establish the mission statement he put across in Truth Be Told, by throwing the audience right into the thick of Syd’s life and work in a similar fashion the pilot did.

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