Alias

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

Alias (Series Overview + Reviews)

Alias arrived at a fascinating point when it came to television. The year was 2001 and a lot was changing in the ether around it. JJ Abrams, at this point best known as the writer of Harrison Ford weepie Regarding Henry, Michael Bay blockbuster Armageddon and show-runner of late 90’s teen hit drama Felicity, was nowhere near the producing and directing Hollywood totem he would become. His production house, Bad Robot, had not yet become the nascent Amblin of its generation. And, just nineteen days before the pilot, ‘Truth Be Told’, aired… 9/11 happened.

Abrams’ spy series already had some interesting cache behind it. Alias was a show that emerged on ABC with the intention of riding into the 21st century with a fresh storytelling model. The most successful and important TV shows of the 1990’s had almost all built their success on an episodic, network model of storytelling; 22-26 episode seasons with plenty of stand-alone stories which would serve the show well in syndication. In everything from Quantum Leap through to The X-Files, show-runners moving from the 1980’s into more of a Golden Age of television, in which some of the most key writers in both TV and cinema of the next few decades would emerge, had cleaved to the way it had been done for years.

Not Alias.

It would immediately strive for an aesthetic which would tap into a deep reservoir of retro-futurism, both aesthetically and in terms of production. Abrams and his staff came out of the gate leaning heavily into the kind of serialisation most shows in the 1990’s just didn’t do, bar a few trend-setting exception we’ll return to. The concept was both high and complex – female super-spy Sydney Bristow would find herself learning the covert CIA branch she had been working for, SD-6, was in truth the arm of a worldwide crime syndicate, and would work as a double-agent to bring down the enemy from within. Episodes would end on a cliffhanger every week and fold into each other. A surfeit of character and narrative mysteries would propel Syd’s journey along, not to mention a curious central, underlying occult and arcane mythology which tipped the show away from action-thriller and more toward science-fiction.

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Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones – ‘The Wolf and the Lion’

NED STARK: “Jon was a man of peace. He was Hand for seventeen years, seventeen good years. Why kill him?”
VARYS: “He started asking questions.”

Halfway into the first season of Game of Thrones and establishment is beginning to give way to narrative momentum. ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ may not, on the face of it, be as action-packed as some of the previous episodes, and certainly not many of those to come, but in many respects it serves as the lynchpin of the first season and the core of David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ adaptation so far. Once again, the title says it all. Wolf and Lion. Stark and Lannister. The Dragon will form the culmination of this triptych, but not yet. We don’t see any sign of a Targaryen at any point in this episode.

That doesn’t mean, of course, they are not central and crucial to the conversations and conspiracies swirling around King’s Landing. We spend more time in the Westeros capital in this episode than we have in any other, principally because Benioff & Weiss are beginning to pull the threads of George R.R. Martin’s novel ‘A Game of Thrones’ which lead directly to his next book, ‘A Clash of Kings’, which would form the basis of the second season of the show.

At this stage, their adaptation is faithful. The majority of beats are being followed, characters being established, and storylines being developed, with the odd exception of creative license for television purposes; Littlefinger & Varys’ sparring, the much lauded scene between Robert Baratheon & Cersei Lannister for example, or bulking out the homosexual relationship between Ser Loras Tyrell & Renly Baratheon, more suggested in Martin’s novels.

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Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones – Series Overview + Reviews

Game of Thrones changed television. Not many TV shows can say that but Game of Thrones, unequivocally, can. There had never been a show quite like it in terms of scope, grandeur, ambition and ultimately international commercial and critical success. It broke, and continues to break the mould.

George R. R. Martin first began writing his long-form, magnum opus of novels, known collectively as ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, over twenty years ago before the publication of his first, ‘A Game of Thrones’, in 1996. Set in a fictional fantasy world, primarily on a continent known as Westeros, Martin’s prose was at times pulpy and ripe but his reach was astonishing; taking more than a cue from Tolkien, Robert Jordan and Frank Herbert among others, Martin swiftly created a vibrant fantasy world with an incredible amount of detail and depth lurking behind a complicated, exciting and layered narrative.

Despite the roughly five year gap between publication of Martin’s tomes (seriously, the lighter ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ novels clocks in at around 800 pages), production companies soon came sniffing around Martin looking to adapt his books into a feature film. Quite understandably, Martin soon made the point that doing ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ as a movie would be nigh on impossible, explaining how just one of his books is longer than ‘The Lord of the Rings’, which itself was adapted into three enormous movies by Peter Jackson. The scope was just too large. It belonged on TV.

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Essays, Television

The Sense of no Ending: The Walking Dead and sticking the landing

Let me preface this piece with a confession: I haven’t watched The Walking Dead in at least five years. My relationship with the show ended following the lacklustre conclusion to the third season. Many people have suggested the fourth is the best so perhaps the joke’s on me, but here’s the reason I never came back: I just couldn’t cope with the nihilism. If there is a TV show built on a deeper sense of profound doom than the adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s comic, it’s doing a very good job of hiding itself.

The Walking Dead has, from the very beginning, been predicated on the fact there will be no happy ending. The zombies will never be eradicated. The world will never be saved, the virus never cured. The survivors will spend the rest of their lives fighting impossible odds only to one day die, either naturally or horrifically. No light exists at the end of this tunnel. Bleak, huh? Bleak and, for many, alienating. The Walking Dead is shedding viewers by the episode as it’s Eighth Season airs in the US. Many have suggested the rot has been setting in for the last couple of seasons, for several reasons (stand up, Negan). It feels like a show approaching its death throes which is ironic, because The Walking Dead refuses to end in kind of conventional sense.

Endings are fascinating to me. Endings are where the power lies in storytelling, no matter whether you’re dealing with a TV show, movie, book, video game, anything with a narrative structure. You’ll hear many fiction writers talk about how they’ve figured out their conclusion before anything else, novelists in particular. That’s a much harder maxim for television writers to follow given the mercurial nature of the business. Movies are able more conclusively to craft an ending if they are telling a contained story but now almost every cinematic experience ends with the promise of a follow up, whether a straight sequel or a cinematic franchise. The solitary, told story experience is one to be cherished, in whatever form of media.

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Essays, Movies

Cinematic Universes: the divisive wave of cinema’s future

With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another. Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated. There can be no victor in such a battle.

In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’. Sequels had always existed – we can go back as far as 1916 indeed for the first recognised follow up, Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Fall of a Nation, which carried on the story from DW Griffith’s historically polarising The Birth of a Nation – but it was truly the 1980’s that gave birth to the notion of a franchise, once Star Wars developed sequels to George Lucas’ game-changing original movie and developed an entire cinematic eco-system around the property.

Sequels, nonetheless, remained *sequels*. Film number two. Taking the characters and situations from the first successful picture and moving them in new directions, though not always. Many sequels in the 80’s and 1990’s simply re-trod all of the same beats people loved about the first movies, mostly with diminishing returns. That’s what made The Empire Strikes Back so powerful; it took Star Wars and those characters truly in new, challenging directions and forever altered their destinations. Not every sequel took such a bold leap forward for its characters and narrative. Many played it safe, an accusation oddly levelled at some of the recent cinematic universes which were born out of the ashes of continuing storylines.

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