Disney+ UK TV Review: Alias
Cast and Special Guest Stars10
Action and Melodrama8
Overall Plot and Storylines7
Martyn Conterio | On 31, May 2021
Warning: This review contains mild spoilers.
It was the best of J.J. Abrams. It was the worst of J.J. Abrams. Alias (2001-2006), turning 20 this year, off air for 15, is a reminder of its creator’s early forays in television, highlighting that what makes his work smart and irksome in equal measure was there from the start. Since then, the man has become, well, a bit of a juggernaut brand. After Lost (which for a couple of seasons ran concurrently with the final throes of Alias), he launched his big-screen directorial career with Mission: Impossible 3, rebooted Star Trek, made the 1980s throwback creature feature Super 8, and then ventured off to a galaxy far, far away for two rounds with Star Wars. Not that he’s left TV behind entirely. Post-Alias, there was Fringe (2008-2013), Undercovers (2010), and the upcoming Demimonde, for HBO, sees him return to small screen projects.
Was Alias having an identity crisis every season? If so, it would be quite apt, given the lead character, Agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) finds herself in a waking nightmare situated on that very topic. As an undercover spy performing a variety of extravagant roles in a variety of languages, she’s forced into wearing all manner of disguises (from Bavarian milk maid and S&M dungeon mistress to Goth punk and airhead heiress).
The camera often leered at Sydney when she was forced into skimpy or fetish-wear clothing. There are so many butt and cleavage shots, deployed to sate nerd boy appetite probably, and therefore objectifying Garner completely. Rarely does have anything to offer on the theme of objectification and sacrifice as part of the gig as well as it could. This isn’t a realistic spy show, of course, like The Americans, it’s more about throwing lions meat; watch the “hot girl” kick ass in revealing clothes. 20 years on, it looks sleazy and empty.
As Alias is pitched so melodramatically, the storytelling so fast-paced, full of hairpin twists and turns. Because the show is primed and geared to deliver its high concept premise with fizzy pop energy, it’s only when you start to think about certain storytelling aspects that you realise it doesn’t make a lick of sense and none of it hangs together or feels particularly polished. Narrative threads are picked up and discarded like one of Sydney’s elaborate get-ups, the feeling being Abrams and his writer’s room were guilty of being too clever, throwing too many red herrings at the viewer, while ignoring the mounting stink. It’s a case of leave your logic at the door, Mister Spock, or J.J. waving a hand and telling us, “These aren’t the plot points you’re looking for’.”
This doesn’t make Alias a write-off. Not at all. Even with its multitude of nonsensical elements, Alias is supremely entertaining and gets away with murder because its tone is one of heightened reality, and this is crucial to embracing and enjoying all five seasons.
The core premise: Sydney Bristow is a CIA spy pretending to work at an international bank in downtown Los Angeles. Recruited at university, the post-graduate student must balance her dangerous assignments, continued studies and maintain normal appearances with besties Will (Bradley Cooper) and Francie (Merrin Dungey). In the pilot episode, Sid is shocked to learn she doesn’t work for the CIA at all, nor does her father, Jack Bristow (Victor Garber). They are in fact employed by a secretive cabal of international puppet masters known as SD-6, with ties to another secretive criminal organisation known as The Alliance. Sydney thinks her father is a villain and she’s been played for a fool. Informing the actual CIA of her corrupted status, she goes back into SD-6 with orders to destroy them from within.
Throughout the first season, the compartmentalisation of Sidney’s life becomes a tad exhausting and difficult to navigate. As an introduction to a post-9/11 dangerous and wicked world, it’s info dump central and too much exposition is delivered as dialogue. A case of cool idea in theory, bro, but ixnay on the execution. The network looked at falling viewing figures and agreed. They told J.J. Abrams to essentially reboot the show midway through Season 2, and in doing so he made it a more streamlined affair, and much easier to follow.
Alias, over the course of five years, unfolded as the story of a messed-up family, exploring their fraught and conflicted emotional bonds and yearnings for a normality they will likely never achieve because they’re all super spies and not normal. To begin with, Sidney and her old man – the brilliantly deadpan Victor Garber (an actor who does so much with a subtle look, achieving a pleasing dramatic or comedic effect, depending on the context of a scene) – are practically strangers. We eventually learn Sidney’s mother wasn’t tragically killed in a car crash when her daughter was a child, and that in fact she is alive and kicking, revealed to be a former Soviet agent who honey-trapped Jack while operating deep undercover in suburban America. Lena Olin is fabulous as Sydney’s mum and even more fabulous as an international terrorist playing mind games with anyone standing in her path.
From the midpoint of Season 2, Alias snowballs into a captivating story of fractured relationships, parental tugs of war, return of the repressed and the past coming back to haunt the leads. Add to this: a bonkers Dan Brown-style secret history subplot involving a medieval Leonardo Da Vinci-type genius, here named Milo Rambaldi. Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin) – the show’s big bad – is obsessed with seeking every invention and piece of writing by Rambaldi, and for most of the show’s run, we’re never sure what the ultimate purpose of the obsession is, or why it’s so vital to the storytelling (in interviews given since, neither were the cast and crew). The Rambaldi stuff serves as the MacGuffin, something that sets the ball rolling, but doesn’t necessary feature as crucial to the overall arc.
What really makes Alias addictive as a viewing experience, is the cast and their dynamics. Like a lot of shows, half the job is finding the right people for the right parts. The casting directors struck a series of home runs. Jennifer Garner is a fine actor capable of all kinds of performance and playing Sydney Bristow earned her a 2002 Golden Globe. She is a great all-rounder, able to do comedy, drama and action, and do them well (she performed a lot of her own stunts). Garner was a newbie, back then, but had the chops. The next wise choice was casting Victor Garber, best known for playing Thomas Andrews, the Titanic’s designer, in James Cameron’s Oscar-winning classic. The Canadian made Jack Bristow such a memorable character. Garner and Garber deliver what is easily the best parent-offspring duo since Harrison Ford and Sean Connery played the Jones boys, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (surely a reference point for Abrams too).
No show is complete with a top villain. Ron Rifkin, another superb character actor, is having the time of his life as the duplicitous and maniacal criminal mastermind, Arvin Sloane, the former CIA agent and Jack’s closest friend, gone rogue.
Michael Vartan was another ace in the deck as Michael Vaughn, Sydney’s love interest, while Kevin Weisman became a firm fan favourite as motormouthed, permanently anxious Marshall Flinkman, the Q to Sydney’s 007. Greg Grunberg (Agent Weiss) and Carl Lumbly, as Marcus Dixon, also featured as important members of the ensemble, while later seasons included Mia Maestro, Rachel Nichols, Balthazar Getty and Amy Acker, among the main cast. It might just be one of the best-cast shows ever made. And that’s even before mentioning a roster of special guest stars likely to have eyes popping out of heads: Quentin Tarantino, David Cronenberg, Ethan Hawke, Faye Dunaway, Justin Theroux and Ricky Gervais, to name a few.
The big surprise in Alias is of course the inclusion of Bradley Cooper. Before he became one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, he was a jobbing thesp trying to catch a break. Alias wasn’t it. He endured a miserable time in his two-season run, with Will Tippin, the investigative journalist and Sydney’s closest pal, never truly fitting into the scheme of things. Taken alone, the performance is engaging, and he’s likeable as a character, but Will just didn’t work as part of the overall story, becoming a square peg in a round hole. Cooper knew it too and asked to be written out of the show. Still, no hard feelings, because he was game enough to come back for two later episodes, in Season 3 and 5, where he did get his spy game on and have an adventure or two.
Though with readily identifiable weaknesses, Alias is a lot of fun and cine-literature, in its harking back to the New Woman-inspired serials of the 1910s and Fritz Lang’s expressionist crime capers from the 1920s. In Sydney Bristow, we get a variation on the silent-era action melodrama heroine. Initially, Abrams used cliffhanger endings to episodes, to mimic old serials, but was told to stop it by the network. In interviews since, he’s said he regretted this compromise. The cliffhangers were a nod to the past, provided a spiritual connection to its old timey genre influences. Alias also sometimes opted to use flash-forwards as cold opens, another means of developing intrigue and tension. 20 years ago, the flash-forward was a fairly rare technique on television and brought an element of structural experimentation to the fold.
Another Old Hollywood tradition present in Alias is its globe-trotting escapades all photographed in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. The wealth of different outdoor environments, all within easy reach, is what made Hollywood attractive to film companies in the first place. The hills around Malibu are transformed into the foothills of the Andes, Chinatown becomes the back streets of Shanghai. As a budget-conscious producer famously told director King Vidor: “A rock is a rock, a tree is a tree, shoot it in Griffith Park.” The cinematography and production design are generally impressive, as is the music by Michael Giacchino, who thankfully ditched early use of obnoxious, thumping techno music for more classical arrangements associated with action movies, as the show progressed.
Melodrama can often be met with snobbery, seen as the lowest form of drama, too daft and highly strung to be art. Yet with Alias, Abrams and his team crafted a compelling family saga within an OTT spy thriller. What makes it work a treat is the emotional journeys of the characters, especially Sydney and her father. As mentioned up top, Garner and Garber developed one of the best screen relationships you will ever likely see. Garner and Vartan, too, ooze chemistry, while Marshall jibber-jabbering nervously in the presence of, well, anybody, co-workers or an assortment of baddies, always ensures a laugh.
Come for the full-pelt action and mad plots, stay for the characters, their rich inner lives and constant troubles.
Alias is available on Disney+, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.