Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Alias: Truth Be Told (1.1)

Alias premiered at the very beginning of post-9/11 existence. The world had changed immeasurably, and my own bubble of childhood naivety had rapidly been exposed to unimaginable horror and destruction. It was a difficult time for me on various levels, and there was suddenly this sense of fear and hostility that permeated every discussion. Everything always came back around to tragedy, and whenever we weren't talking about it, we were thinking about how we weren't talking about it. I'm probably granting it too much importance, but Alias, along with the similarly-themed 24, marked an immediate escape from the terrible realities that we were all pulling through at the time.

Both shows were set in worlds similar to our own, and in universes full of secret organizations and secret agents fighting threats that were definitely familiar but suddenly felt so much more real and tangible in light of recent events. But Alias in particular personified the heroes trying to protect us. It pushed this ordinary-seeming young woman center stage and gave her this incredible strength and importance, and for somebody as innocent as myself at the time, watching Sydney Bristow using personal trauma as the impetus for great change really spoke to me. This was a heroine for a very different world.

Every once in a blue moon, there's this incredible discovery on-screen, somebody who was completely unknown five minutes ago, but who suddenly bursts into your consciousness with this incredible talent and presence. Jennifer Garner appears in every scene of Alias' pilot, and owns every damn frame. While we can discuss the action and the espionage all day long, it's the aching realism of Sydney's emotions that carry the show to glory, and Garner imbues the character with so much warmth that you instantly fall for her.

In the space of an hour, Sydney witnesses every element of her life come crashing down. Her fiancee is murdered, her allegiances are questioned, her drive is tested, and her already fragile relationship with her absent father is irrevocably altered. This is a woman whose life is rapidly changing before our very eyes, and when Sydney faces down her torturer and pledges that she has nothing to lose, you damn well believe her. Through Garner's performance, you feel every single nuance as her mindset changes. Her wail of horror as she finds Danny's body burns into you, and her sense of complete disbelief as she is told the truth about SD-6 is horribly real. But it's that final decision to pursue her own form of vengeance that leaps off the screen. She's suddenly calling the shots, storming through SD-6, demanding respect and later signing up to the real CIA with such force and determination that you instantly know that you're sticking with this show for a long, long time.

Garner has a spectacular face, with its sharp angles and intensity, as well as its ability to completely relax and become so pretty and vulnerable. She exhibits incredible range just within this episode, and regardless of her iffy movie career, Garner absolutely sparkles on Alias -- easily becoming the most instant 'star' I've ever seen on modern television.

As a premise, Alias' story of deception and betrayal is similarly arresting. J.J. Abrams, while at the time notable as a film writer and as creator of the WB's college drama Felicity, was very much stuck in traditional dramatic territory -- and Alias really marks that moment when he steps into genre storytelling and instantly finds himself at home, a position he's stayed in ever since. This is a man who has deftly created a remarkable world of secretive espionage, crafting a story that continues to build within the hour, adding layer upon layer as we fall deeper down the rabbit hole of hidden agendas and grand mission statements. Opening in medias res (something that quickly becomes an Alias staple), pushing through Syd's backstory, expanding her inner circle in her personal life, her SD-6 bubble as well as with her dad, followed by what we believe to be the general story of the series being undermined by that final twist with Michael Vartan's CIA handler, this is something of an elaborate nesting doll of a pilot. It's so fine-tuned in tone to what the show would eventually become, and lays down an immediate rulebook that the series follows from here on out. This is, without a doubt, an absolutely incredible pilot.

The ensemble cast also make strong impressions. Victor Garber's tight-lipped spy daddy is instantly reserved and intriguing, while conveying that true sense of desperation to reunite with his daughter. Bradley Cooper is charm personified as Syd's friend Will, and his look of mild heartbreak as she announces her engagement sets up his future role on the show. Francie is a neat depiction of mundane reality, interrupting Sydney's undercover life at the most unfortunate of times, while SD-6's weapons specialist Marshall Flinkman is adorable, jittery and brings the funny in one desperately-needed scene of comic relief. Arvin Sloane is a character who you can almost understand here, somebody who recognizes the harsh realities of the job and only exercises what needs to be done. But the revelation of his true allegiances grant him additional layers, and leaves you eager to find out where the show will go with his character.

Alias was always a show that, while on a major network, seemed frequently crying out for major buzz. It quickly became this impenetrable, arc-driven puzzle of a Rubik's Cube, but the vigor and energy of this pilot is both accessible and ridiculously rewarding. There's no awkward stumbling and zero misfires, just a story that arrives with its agenda laid out for all to see and anchored by an attention-grabbing and powerful embodiment of female strength. God, this show was fantastic. A+

Guest stars
Edward Atterton (Dr. Danny Hecht); Jay Gerber (Professor Missy); Angus Scrimm (Calvin McCullough); William Wellman Jr. (Priest); Ric Young (Dr. Zhang Lee)
Writer J.J. Abrams Director J.J. Abrams


  1. Wooohoooo! You're finally reviewing Alias! I'm so happy I could cry!!!! I'm also ecstatic since I rewatched the entire show last summer so it's still super fresh in my mind (thus I can post insightful comments unlike my Charmed ones which were based on 10 year old memories). Can't tell you how happy I am that I'll have these reviews to look forward to for the next few months!

    First off, your praise towards Garner was spot on. You're right, she is SUCH an immediate star it's scary. I remember watching the pilot for the first time and immediately falling for Jennifer's charisma and talent. It's unfortunate that her movie career has been so disappointing. I always watch all of her movies and defend her to friends but it's so hard when they haven't seen what I've seen (Alias). Hopefully she'll get her due (and perhaps recognition she deserves) at some point in the future. You really feel she's such a genuine person inside and out.

    And yes this was an absolutely stunning pilot, meticulously planned and expertly executed. It's so rare for a show to come firing out of the gate, so sure of its identity and special brand of awesomeness. The iconic red wing, the heart-wrenching scene in which she finds danny in the tub, the film-grade cinematography... pure perfection. I can't praise it enough. Your review covered all bases beautifully!

  2. Between your reviews and Panda's, I feel like I need to rewatch every DVD boxset I own. My memory is a little hazy since I haven't seen the show since I binge watched the five seasons on DVD in a few months, but I definitely think it stands alongside the better tv shows of recent years, even if it never quite reached the excellence of the first season again. I know the second year is probably better received, and it is pretty great, but I loved season one more. Probably my favourite first season of anything I have ever seen, just above Damages.

    I really admire Jennifer Garner for Alias, because she managed to do so much in the role, and it is to her credit that she can be convincing as a sweet college student, devastated lover, badass spy and under pressure double agent so early into a role. Not to mention that she did a whole lot of the stunt work! J.J really could not have asked for a better leading lady. I'm also a little sad that her career didn't quite explode in the way it should have. Although, I'm pretty interested in a movie she did called Butter - which I believe is a political satire, and I'm interested in it for two reasons. Firstly, Jennifer Garner in the lead role. And secondly, it got compared to Election, one of my favourite movies, so I have been pretty interested in it ever since, even though it supposedly got a pretty mixed reaction at some film festival. But, yeah...shame her career has stalled a little in recent years, but there will always be her amazing performances in Alias, and I adored her in Juno.

    It really is an impressive pilot, among the best I have ever seen (and probably my favourite). Perfectly cast with interesting characters, a great central idea, great action scenes, etc. The character interaction was such a joy to watch too, and Will and Francie really helped ground the show, and helped insure that it wasn't all spy shenanigans all the time. It's just an incredibly satisfying piece of television.

    On a shallow note I love that Alias had a huge budget. Like Lost, when the show told you the characters were in, say, Australia or wherever, you actually believed it because of the great set design, which helped make it easier to just sit back and enjoy.

    Can't remember the next episode enough to comment there, but I really love the 'previously on' Alias recap with our heroine catching us up on everything.

    Great review, so glad to see you writing about another great series! There really are a bunch of them I would love to see again, with no memory, because Alias did shock twists pretty well.

  3. Oh, and I apologise for leaving that wall of text. Did not realise how much I was going on while writing...

  4. I agree about Butter tvfan332! I can't wait to see it either! I really hope it will get her the recognition she deserves! I can really see Garner winning an Oscar in the future with the right material (although this probably won't be it, not enough buzz).
    By the way I really enjoyed reading your long post and I'm sure Max did too! It's going to be fun discussing Alias with you guys (and hopefully Panda as well)!

    One last note, I hate how much Lost overshadowed Alias. Whenever people mention JJ or serialized television in general, Alias always seems to get overlooked in favor of its fellow Abrams show. As far as I'm concerned, Alias was a stronger total package and one I'm infinitely more invested in on an emotional level! I wonder if you guys agree...

  5. Great retro show to review.

    Agreed with every word, this pilot, and this show, were incredible. Garner nailed every scene, all the characters had a clear role to play, and every single aspect of the pilot gave off this impression of hard work. They must have spent a hell of a lot of time getting it as perfect as they did.

    I re-watched Alias myself last summer, and I don't think the slide in quality is as severe as some make it out to be. Seasons 1 and 2 are the strongest, but season 3 is pretty great in its own right and season 4 has some great moments, especially Mia Maestro. Loved her. Season 5 was a little better though, and almost up to scratch with 1 and 2. I look forward to your thoughts on all that when the time comes.

    Argh, ramble. Great review, can't wait for more.

  6. Loving that you're reviewing this show now. I always come here for your X Files reviews, now I've got something else to look forward to now, I know later years of this show are quite controversial in terms of quality, but this opener must surely rank as one of the best pilots in living memory, squeezing in around two season's worth of plotting and twists into one hour. Amazing stuff.

  7. Thanks for such a great turnout, guys! I figured it would be easier to make one big reply instead of trying to individually respond, so...

    Agreed with the general consensus that this is one of the best pilots in history. I think it's probably my all-time favorite.

    About the show itself, I actually agree with tvfan that the first season is the best. I watched season two recently and while it is ridiculously strong, I felt it sort of meandered around at points, while season one was relentlessly badass. Also agree with Panda in that I'm not sure it ever totally fell off. People seem to despise the third season, but I don't remember it being particularly terrible. Then again, I'm sure it's the kind of show that works better on DVD. I remember getting a little lost in real-time because of all the breaks and hiatuses, and I lost track of what we were supposed to know about Rambaldi and what stories got dropped. Parts of season four weren't good at all, but I don't think the show ever got truly heinous like so many people claim.

    About Lost, I think that show captured pop culture in a way Alias never really did, maybe because Alias was a little ahead of its time. I remember it being the only show I watched on ABC at the time, ABC being sort of a dead network when Alias first premiered. In terms of quality, though, there's no question Alias suckered me in more. Lost never totally worked for me, and I ended up tuning out after season two out of boredom.

    On Jennifer Garner, agreed about the Butter intrigue. It keeps getting pushed, though, so I'm assuming it's not great, despite sounding so fun. I don't really know what's happened to her as an actress, though. She had such a great break-out role in 13 Going on 30 and then Juno (which I disliked, but was such a huge movie), before making this run of movies that weren't just awful but, for me, legendarily awful. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Invention of Lying, Valentine's Day, Arthur. All epic stinkers that blew on every level. She's one of those actors that I'm a big fan of so I end up watching everything they're in (like Nad said), but I really wound up losing faith in her after Arthur. Her role in that was just insulting for somebody of her caliber. She keeps having babies, too, which has kind of derailed her career momentum a little. And I know that sounds terrible, but I'm a selfish bastard. Heh.

    Gah. There are probably other comments I haven't responded to, but it's awesome seeing everybody turn out for this. All of your comments are hugely appreciated, so thanks again.

  8. Ah! Forgot to reply to tvfan's thing about the "Previously On". Dude, I love that "Previously On", so much that I literally speak along with it at the start of every episode.

    "My name is Sydney Bristow. Seven years ago I was recruited by a secret branch of the CIA called SD-6. I was sworn to secrecy, but I couldn't keep it from my fiancee, and when the head of SD-6 found out... he had him killed. That's when I learned the truth, SD-6 is not part of the CIA. I'd been working for the very people I thought I was fighting against. So I went to the only place that could help me bring them down. Now I'm a double-agent for the CIA, where my handler is a man named Michael Vaughn. Only one other person knows the truth of what I do, another double-agent inside SD-6. Someone I hardly know... my father."

    Totally just wrote that from memory. It might just be the nerdiest thing I've ever done on the internet. Gah. And that shitty intro they had for season two? Hideous! They never should have changed it. You know, until they had to. Heh.

  9. Yes thank God they dropped that atrocious season two one. It was so bizarre. It felt network-mandated particularly with the cheesy guy's voice. I shudder thinking about it.

    And yes we'll discuss the show's quality more in the future, but on a general note: I also think the show never really got horrible. So many people love jumping on the hate bandwagon and saying Alias went to shit after the first two years but I honestly never stopped loving it until the very end. Season 3 was a bit too convoluted and sci-fi for my tastes, but it was still addictive, thrilling television. As for season 4, I think the first half with the standalones was the weakest Alias ever got simply because there was no excitement or cliffhangers (but they were still entertaining due to our love for the characters). And of course the second half was a return to form and just stellar.
    And finally I thought season 5 was an excellent year particularly with Kelly Peyton who was a real badass. The finale on the other hand we will discuss when we get to it :) But I have very strong thoughts on that one which I shared on Billie's review.

    Gosh I'm just so excited there's still so much love for Alias and we have a nice little gang here to discuss future episodes with! I knew the show wasn't forgotten!

  10. Oh God, the intro, you guys!

    I can rattle it off as well, but it would just look like a copy and paste of what Adam just wrote, so I won't. But safe to say I could fanboy you all into the floor!

    And I agree about watching it on DVD. I never saw it week to week, I only got into it a year after it finished, so I was always totally swept up in it and watching it at my own pace. I can see why it would get frustrating and confusing diving in and out. Network schedules are the most annoying things in the world.

    Jennifer sort of reminds me of Kristen Bell in that she seemed set for a crazy career after her big titular rise-to-fame role, but a few bad parts sort of broke it for her a little. But Kristen's younger, so she has a bit more time in that respect. Both girls are in my list of top actresses, TV or otherwise.

  11. Nad I think it was Greg Grunberg's voice, actually. At least I think I read that somewhere.

    And agreed about season four being the weakest and season five perking the show up again. To be fair, though, I can barely remember season four. But the fact that I can't remember a ton about it probably implies that it wasn't that great.

    Panda That's a great parallel with Kristen Bell. Personally, though, I never really thought she screamed movie-star. While she was crazy good as Veronica Mars, I've always found her sort of bland on-screen elsewhere. There's definitely a reason why Mila Kunis stole the show in Sarah Marshall and has blown up from there, Kristen to me is just a little too blonde and safe and uninteresting. Gah. I know that's like fanboy blasphemy, but I always thought Sarah Michelle Gellar was a more interesting, earlier version of the same type. And she at least tried to show range back in the day, before her movie career went off the rails, too.

    What bugs me about Jennifer Garner's career is that she started balancing genres at first (Daredevil, 13 Going on 30, The Kingdom), before getting stuck in this bad romcom rut. I don't know if it's bad management or just what Hollywood does to thirty-something actresses like her.

  12. So happy you're reviewing Alias. It's one of my favorite TV shows and this episode certainly is one of the best pilots ever.

  13. Wow this is an incredibly awesome pilot, Sydney sporting her iconic red wig was the highlight of the episode. :)

  14. Dude were are you?! You haven't post anything in your blog since last summer