When people mention JJ Abrams on TV, what’s the one show that leaps out at you? A tenner your answer is Lost. Understandable. More of a die-hard TV fan might even mention Fringe, or Person of Interest, or most recently Westworld. How many, when you ask, will mention Alias? You can bank on the number being much less.
It may not have been Abrams’ breakout vehicle as a writer/producer on TV, that honour goes to the Keri Russell-starring Felicity, but Alias was the show that really put him on his course. Alias got him involved in Lost, with several of the same crew. Tom Cruise watched and loved Alias enough to ask Abrams to direct Mission Impossible III, which triggered his move into the movies, and to many his incumbent role as the Steven Spielberg of Generation Y.
We may never have had Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as we know it today, without Alias. There, I said it. There’s no going back.
Hyperbole aside, Alias is one of the early 2000’s shows that time, to some degree, forgot. It arrived at the tail end of The X-Files, which only devoted fans watched. It fused that series’ sense of mythology and mystery with Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s female empowerment mixed with hyper-real action, set in a much more colourful, B-movie world than the alternate espionage series 24 which launched in the same year.
Jack Bauer stood the test of time longer than Jennifer Garner’s Sydney Bristow because it was, from the outset, a much easier sell. As while Alias could be easily described as ‘The X-Files meets James Bond meets Indiana Jones’, even coining its own sub-genre term in ‘spy-fi’, the simple fact is that Abrams made it enormously complicated and layered right from ‘Truth Be Told’, its superb, statement-making pilot.
Though it eventually became in its later seasons more of a straightforward espionage series, primarily thanks to ABC’s network demands, Alias began as a narrative series of boxes within boxes, Russian dolls within Russian dolls, thanks to all-American heroine Sydney discovering she was part of SD-6, one cell within a much bigger organisation called the Alliance, who hid a worldwide organised crime syndicate by posing as the CIA. Alias from the outset was an inversion of the enemy within; the enemy within was in plain sight, and our heroine’s mission was to peer down the rabbit hole and expose them.
Abrams, with his writing team including future showrunners and luminaries such as Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Drew Goddard, Jeffrey Bell (both once Buffy & Angel ended) & Jeff Pinkner, updated 1960’s Mission: Impossible-style kitsch, full of costumes, disposable Euro-villains, disguises, gadgets and glamorous locations, into a narrative filled with turncoats, double-crosses, and serial style cliffhangers that literally left Sydney every week in a perilous position, certainly throughout the first season.
The reason it worked, the reason despite all the B-movie silliness it made you care, were the underpinning character dynamics. Alias in its later years wanted you to believe it was a love story between Sydney and her CIA handler Michael Vaughn (the intensely dull Michael Vartan), but it was in truth always about parents & children, significantly Syd’s relationship with her long-standing CIA agent father, Jack Bristow (played wonderfully by Victor Garber).
Jack, aka SpyDaddy among the fandom, was arguably the show’s finest character; straight, seemingly humourless but riven with the blackest of wit, dangerous and often ruthless, Jack nonetheless was devoted to Sydney and keeping her safe. Often it involved lying to her, making her hate him, or breaking every law in the book, but one of the few constants in the show right up to the end was Jack’s devotion and love for his daughter, and thanks to Garner & Garber’s beautiful father-daughter chemistry, the show was richer whenever they shared the screen and the story centered around their troubled dynamic.
Season Two served to complicate matters by continuing to pull back several of the component layers and pieces the show had steadily unfolded. Introducing Syd’s presumed dead former KGB agent mother Irina Derevko (played with enigmatic iron by Lena Olin) added complication and frisson, playing a long game with a relationship which only truly was pinned down in the show’s Fifth and final Season, given the behind the scenes difficulties to keep Olin in the show for several years.
Irina started as a boon, but ultimately became an albatross around the neck the writers constantly had to write around, avoid or pretend wasn’t there when she loomed even larger in her noticeable absence in the third and fourth seasons. The same could be said for the nascent mythology at the heart of the show, the Rambaldi hunt; villains who would routinely attempt to construct the puzzle of a 15th-century prophet who predicted modern technology, future events, and a labyrinthine destiny for Sydney and her surrounding family. In the end, it had one redeeming virtue: Arvin Sloane.
If Garner made the show, and Garber gave it soul, it was Ron Rifkin who lent it gravitas as, arguably, one of television’s finest machiavellian antagonists. Sloane, at the outset largely an enigmatic and vicious rogue intelligence agent as Syd’s SD-6 boss, blossomed, once ABC indicted Abrams and his writers to uncomplicate Syd’s mission and take the Alliance network of storylines away in the middle of Season Two, into an outstanding, complicated, and layered enemy. Rifkin played him with unerring creepiness, a calculated venom if not physical power, and kept him one step ahead.
Then, much like many of the greatest villains, the writers steadily worked to try and humanise him over the Third and Fourth Seasons; after losing a wife, he gained a daughter (to complicate matters further, Syd’s sister thanks to a secret Sloane/Irina tryst years before), and sought redemption. It didn’t last. It couldn’t last. Sloane’s obsession with the search for Rambaldi had to be how the show ended, and his fate (entangled with Jack’s) is one of the crowning glories of a very uneven final few episodes.
You see Alias couldn’t maintain itself, once it got off the starting grid. Season Two remains, for me, one of television’s finest 22-episode seasons, with almost every episode successfully building on the strong First Season, which arrived with style, pace and grace. A terrific finale, helmed by Abrams before he moved on to develop Lost, capped a triumphant year but the Third Season, after a solid first half working to resolve a stunning cliffhanger which enabled a time jump, eventually became lost in Rambaldi mumbo-jumbo and the misjudged decision to make Melissa George’s new female regular, Lauren Reed aka Vaughn’s wife, an enemy agent. The final half of Season Three is the show at its worst; rushed, unformed, a lack of coherent plotting, and two-dimensional character work climaxing in an awful cliffhanger which the writers worked hard to retcon for the beginning of Season Four. The show, in truth, almost didn’t survive.
Yet Season Four ended up something of a rebirth and can be judged as the show’s second best year in hindsight. Stripping back the Rambaldi mythos to almost nothing until the very last few episodes, it allowed the writers to craft genuinely solid, relatively standalone espionage stories within the Alias sandbox, which lent a much deeper ensemble feel that allowed the other long-standing regular characters–Marshall, Dixon, Weiss etc…–their moments to shine rather than function primarily to lend characterisation to Syd, Vaughn, Jack or Sloane.
Truth be told, the show probably should have ended with Season Four’s epic (if rushed) finale, ‘Before the Flood’. The chance presented itself for a happy ending, only for a whopping great retcon of a cliffhanger to blow open an entirely new set of villains and characters for a slightly truncated Season Five, thanks largely to Garner’s pregnancy (the long-running joke was that Ben Affleck killed Alias).
Season Five, in fairness, has its moments. Rachel Nichols is well introduced as incumbent Syd replacement Rachel Gibson, while Amy Acker–fresh off Angel–vamps it up deliciously as a nasty henchwoman. To the show’s credit, Garner’s pregnancy is written in as Syd’s, allowing them the need to clumsily avoid showing their very pregnant lead actress or contriving a reason to write her out, but despite new bad guys and an overarching, semi-Rambaldi set of bad guys (the bafflingly named, thinly sketched Prophet Five), the writing was on the wall.
In danger of eating itself, Alias‘ time had come to hop into the sunset in three-inch heels while napalm exploded around it, and while ‘All the Time in the World’ has its successes as a finale, it has an equal amount of failures. It’s a satisfying conclusion, unafraid to give its long-running characters genuine closure, but it just proved conclusively how the writers spent most of their time writing around storylines and characters rather than thinking everything through.
You know what, though? That ended up being okay. Alias retains such a sense of charming brio throughout, never forgetting its neo-60’s, spy-fi roots, and always coming back to heart, soul and family, you can forgive its narrative shortcomings. When its good, its as great as almost anything – the final ten minutes of ‘The Telling’, or the entirety of ‘Phase One’, are as brilliant pieces of television as anything JJ Abrams has written or directed since.
What makes me sad, over ten years since Alias finished, is how its in danger of being forgotten. It doesn’t deserve such a fate, and its a show that will remain close to my heart, no matter what else JJ Abrams will ever do.
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