Monday, December 10, 2012

Alias: The Two (3.1)

We return to Alias in the middle of perhaps its greatest challenge to date, coming on the heels of an ambitious, adrenaline-pumped second season that restructured the series as we knew it and took certain characters so far that it's arguable whether or not they could ever truly go anywhere else. Season three arrives like an entirely different show, abandoning everything from last year except for its arresting cliffhanger ending. It's an understandable decision in some respects, considering Lena Olin decided not to renew her contract and ABC were concerned by flagging ratings and what they believed to be an overly complicated narrative. But it sure makes this season premiere a little hard to swallow, so distracted by new developments that you feel just as alien as Sydney does herself.

Then again, that was probably the intention. But it does leave this uncomfortable after-taste. The show has downsized so much from last year's closer (Irina, Will and Francie gone; Rambaldi never mentioned) that everything feels smaller as a result. While the major story arc at work this season will presumably be Sydney's quest to retrace her lost years, the stakes don't seem all that high, surprising -- especially in light of Syd already leveraging Jack's release from a maximum-security prison. It's the unexpected byproduct of making Sydney so lonely and isolated. While it does allow her to become this badass warrior out on her own mission, the rest of the cast are so different, or removed entirely, that there's no sense of peril right now. It's suddenly a show that feels frustratingly straight-forward. Even the new organization behind everything, known only as the Covenant, are more anonymous than anything else.

Of course, most of The Two works as a tease for things to come, and not so much as a relentless opening chapter to a major mystery. Sloane has experienced the greatest change this season, the Rambaldi device he put together last episode yielding a single message of 'peace', inspiring Sloane to buddy up with the CIA and start his own non-profit organization to save kids in poverty. Yeah, it's a stretch, but at least Sydney calls him on how ridiculous it all seems. I liked the power-mad antagonist he became after Emily's death, but I'm assuming this story was the only way the writers could entirely utilize Ron Rifkin at a time in which Sydney's missing years took story precedence.

On that story in particular, I like that the writers have decided to make Sydney entirely unaware of everything that she has recently experienced, cleverly lying to the CIA that she has a couple of vague memories intact, purely to be welcomed back into the fold. It saves us from a run of episodes that would have seen her stumbling around looking confused and experiencing shadowy flashbacks, and ensures that this week's cliffhanger ending, Sydney watching herself murder somebody on camera within the last two years, sparkles with intrigue and out-of-body creepiness.

But this isn't the greatest of premieres. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but it's a little disorienting to see everything so different and so many of Alias' foundations taken down over the summer. It doesn't help that Jennifer Garner seems a little off, too. There's something about one of her last scenes, in which she breathlessly attacks Vaughn for "abandoning" her and marrying somebody else, that reads more (small voice) 'funny' than heartbreaking. It's just another thing that throws you for a loop this week. Minor blip? C+

Guest stars
Kurt Fuller (Robert Lindsey); Oleg Taktarov (Gordei Volkov); Amanda Foreman (Carrie Bowman); Adam Alexi-Malle (Bernard)
Writer J.J. Abrams Director Ken Olin

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