Sunday 5 December 2010

There's Only One Sydney Bristow - Why Alias is one of the great TV shows of all time

Recently I watched All The Time In The World, the 105th and final episode of Alias.  It was, by my reckoning, the third time I've done so and, as on the previous occasions, it reduced me to tears.  It was end of a couple of months immersed in the world of Sydney Bristow and Milo Rambaldi, watching every episode in sequence.

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Then, a few nights later, I found myself chatting with a friend in the pub who complained that he won't buy TV shows from places like iTunes, in part because he only ever seems to watch episodes once.  This is a slightly baffling view to me, given I regularly return to my favourite shows and watch them all through in sequence, and Alias has been one of them for most of the last decade.  This is why.

While I'd absolutely put it up there with the very best shows of all time, it doesn't get there for the same reasons.  It isn't like The Wire or Battlestar Galactica (the remake, obviously) or The West Wing, in that isn't intellectually taxing, nor is it especially thought-provoking, and as a rule it doesn't raise the great socio-political questions like should drugs be legalised, can suicide bombing be justified or is globalisation a good thing (as those three do at various points).  Alias falls much more into the territory of stick your mind in neutral and have a lot of fun.  And yet, it's so much more than that.

Alias was the brainchild of J. J. Abrams, who has since gone on to bigger, though not necessarily better things, such as the Star Trekreboot and Mission Impossible 3, he was also the creator of Lost.  The idea, though, had much humbler origins in his show Felicity, which charted the lives of several college students in New York.  Apparently it was a bit of an effort to keep coming up with stories and at one point he suggested it would be so much easier if Felicity was a spy, as that would give them a ready supply of stories.

So, when we first meet her, Sydney Bristow is a graduate student, while also pretending to work for a bank but really being a super-spy.  Don't worry, it gets much more complicated!  And pretty damn cool that super-spying was.  Think the elaborate double crosses of Mission Impossible (the original TV show) mixed with the production values of a movie: several times each episode a glamorous location would flash up on the screen - the city name appearing in the same distinct lettering as the title logo, the camera zooming through one of the letters and into the city - and knock me down if didn't look like they'd actually gone there and tried to break into the Vatican or parachuted past the giant statue of Jesus that towers over Rio.  Add to this the sheer crazy coolness of some of the plots - racing through Sao Paulo in an ambulance, pursued by bad guys trying to blow them up, while at the same time trying to defuse the bomb that's been superglued to the pacemaker of a nobel laureate, say, or the genius episode which opens with Sydney getting buried alive in Cuba and with her only hope of salvation the geeky technical support office Marshall (played superbly by Kevin Weisman).


But the greatness of Alias isn't simply that it's tremendous fun and with better action sequences than many a Hollywood blockbuster.  It has one key factor in common with those great shows I mentioned earlier: it doesn't patronise or talk down to the viewer.  You have to pay attention, you have to follow long drawn out plots.  The end of each episode is frequently the cliffhanger into the next, in the best traditions of that other form of serial entertainment I love so much - the comic book.  This is not a simple show.  Often the plots are fiendishly complex and if I sat down and tried to explain exactly who had double crossed whom while working for what person or organisation over the life of the show, well, let's just say it would be quicker for you to sit down and watch those 105 episodes.

And then there's Rambaldi.  Milo Rambaldi, sort of a cross between Leonardo Da Vinci and Nostradamus, is the MacGuffin or plot device that drives much of the story.  It also enables the show to do impossible things, and there's little so fun as a bit of the impossible.  So, there are 500 year old watch repairers, portraits of our heroine drawn centuries ago with cryptic and ominous prophesies, medieval artificial hearts and much more.  All this could easily result in a train wreck; that it does not reflects a twofold genius on the part of the show's creative team.  First, the writers and the producers know full well that this is all crazy and we know that because often the characters will say just that.  They're telling us that, yes, we know this is insane, but bear with us, because it's going to let us do some very fun things.  Secondly, and more importantly, those fun things extend beyond simply great action and adventure, for this is a show more than anything driven by character.  A show that can do the impossible allows a father to take a fatal dose of radiation to save his daughter's life, demonstrating he would do anything to protect her, and yet not require said character to be written out as the laws of nature would normally demand.  Often the impossible things enable the writers to tell us things about the characters that they couldn't otherwise.  In other words, this show has a strong element of science fiction at its best.


But all that would be nought if it didn't have strong characters and strong actors playing them.  At the centre is Sydney Bristow - a wonderful performance from Jennifer Garner - on the one hand the toughest customer there is, yet in many ways extremely human and vulnerable.  It is her relationships with three other characters that more than anything define the show.  First, her father, Jack Bristow, also a spy, a man who has made more morally questionable decisions than, well, he's made a lot of them, and who, when we start the show, is about as thoroughly estranged from his daughter as it is possible to be.  And yet, Victor Garber portrays a man who is scarred and damaged by the past and would do, and has done, almost anything to protect her, even if it didn't always look that way at the time.  The way this develops over the five years, its ups and downs, is for me perhaps the most rewarding thing in the show and the source of many of those tears I mentioned.  Then there is her relationship with Michael Vaughn, her CIA handler, with whom any relationship frankly wouldn't be appropriate, yet who have more chemistry than a meeting of nobel prize winners from the moment they first find themselves in a room together.  From the touching way this develops and evolves to, well, I wouldn't want to spoil it, but this is a great, even epic love story.  Finally there is Arvin Sloane.  Ron Rifkin plays as bad a villain as you will hope to find.  The sheer quality of his evil is wonderful.  And yet, in common with the best villains, he also has a human side - there are moments when the writers manage to make you feel sorry for this man, others where they blur things into shades of grey.  In contrast to many such shows, Sloane is there the full five years, changing and evolving, and the show is the better for it.

Fans of the show may think I've missed one very important relationship off that list, but I'm hoping people who haven't seen it will read this and be inspired, so I don't want any big spoilers.  Of course, this leaves out a host of superb supporting cast, such as Greg Grunberg's Eric Weiss, whose brief cameo in the pilot eventually let to a main title role; David Anders' morally flexible boyish rogue Julian Sark, Sydney's two closest non-spy friends Francie (Merrin Dungey) and Will (Bradley Cooper) and, of course, friend and partner Marcus Dixon (Carl Lumbly) whose performance over the five seasons is never less than superb.

One of the reasons I tend to prefer American TV dramas to British efforts is that twenty episodes a year over many years leads to a lot more narrative and consequently you get to know the characters far better, meaning that it takes less and less of pull on the heartstrings to get an effect.  That's not to say that Abrams and co don't still give them a good old yank from time to time, hence the waterworks.

And then there's the guest cast - Quintin Tarentino's early spot as a villain of the week gives you an idea, but Faye Dunaway, Rutger Heuer, John Hannah, David Carradine, Ethan Hawke, Christian Slater, David Cronenberg, Richard Roundtree and Roger Moore (adding extra icing to the cake of that breaking into the Vatican episode) all provide wonderful splashes of colour here and there.

Alias was also a show that understood how to do a cliffhanger, perhaps better than any other I know of.  Those of seasons one and two especially are object lessons in how it should be done: final episodes that on the one hand tie up and resolve the key questions that have dominated the season, provide an explosive conclusion that leaves you screaming at the TV that it is simply not allowed to fade to black at that moment, and finally, and here is the great genius, set up the key questions which will drive the next year.  Contrast this with some shows who have no trouble providing the shout at the TV moment but then spend the first couple of episodes of the next season awkwardly stumbling around trying to find the reset button (Buffy season two/three I'm looking at you).

Of course, Alias wasn't perfect.  It had its ups and downs.  Season three took a long time to resolve the key mystery and frustrated a lot of viewers in the process, myself included the first time round.  And yet, watching back on DVD, with no annoying one week waits between episodes, and you can totally see why they did it.  Season five suffered slightly from the loss of several key cast members, and the solutions, while in the end they worked, were not quite as effective as, say, bringing back a certain male lead who left at the end of season two might have been.  Yet, in spite of those small deficits, it remains a remarkable achievement and one of my all time favourite shows.  As All The Time In The World fades to black, before the credits roll, a message flashes up to fans - it's a pretty fair description of the show:

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After watching it, I was again reminded about how many tweets and facebook statuses I've seen lately about Spooks, the most recent series of which has just finished, a show which in my view pales in comparison.  Not only has no episode I've seen ever managed to be as cool as the most mediocre episode of Alias, but it has one fatal flaw which, given what I've written above will seem odd: it just doesn't feel plausible.  Over the years I've read too many spy books, watched too many spy shows and films, and Alias, though crazy, gets the feel of the tradecraft right (often watching Spooks, I find myself wondering whether we're meant to think some of these spies are totally incompetent, leading me to question how they got hired in the first place).  Furthermore, when they do ludicrous things in Spooks, I don't feel the writers are winking at viewers and saying, yes, but it's just a bit of fun, remember.  In short, Alias is plausibly implausible and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Oh, and there's one final lesson to take away from Alias: never, if you're on a J. J. Abrams show, get into a lift.  Not ever.

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