There was a lot going on in September of 2001. So you’ll have to forgive me (and most of the still grieving world) for ignoring J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi espionage serial, ALIAS, a crime for which I now repent wholeheartedly. Now that the series has come to Netflix Instant Streaming, I felt compelled to give it a shot considering its impressive pedigree.
You can’t blame me for taking this long to catch up. It’s an easy show to dismiss. Just look at this promo pic.
Sight unseen, the romcom-ready, model-thin Jennifer Garner would seem to be the worst possible choice to lead up a gritty, whip-smart super spy series about a double agent working to bring down a criminal spy organization from the inside.
Taken out of context her array of wigs and accents seems doomed to failure but, and this is very important, ALIAS was created by J.J. “Fucking” Abrams. The same J.J. Abrams who gave us capitalized classics like LOST, FRINGE and revitalized the STAR TREK universe by sheer force of will. The dude knows exactly what he’s doing and Jennifer Garner’s performance as Sydney Bristow here is enough to wipe my mind of the misery of Daredevil, Elektra and 13 Going on 30 forever.
ALIAS is the story of Sydney Bristow, a grad student studying to be a teacher who lives a double life as a super spy for what, in the pilot episode, she believes is a top secret branch of the CIA known as SD-6. Through a series of tragic events, that I won’t spoil here, Sydney comes to learn that she and most of her fellow agents have been duped by a Bond-villain type shadow organization posing as the CIA. Sucks to be her, right? Well, she quickly rebounds and signs up for double agent duty at the real CIA, alongside the father she hardly knew, to bring down SD-6 from the inside.
Meanwhile, she’s also trying to maintain a fairly normal social life complete with needy best friend, Francie, hopelessly platonic best guy friend and intrepid print journalist, Will Tippin (played by a tolerably schlepy Bradley Cooper who has yet to sprout douche wings,) and a terminally late term paper that she just “needs a little more time with.” Sydney’s often flimsy cover story to her friends is that she works for an international bank which she uses to explain her frequent absences. Thus proving the old adage that people see what they want to see.
But enough about the plot.
When ALIAS is at its best it’s not because of what’s happening with the serialized plot, which, forgive the aside, delves into an out-of-left-field ancient prophecy of the Nostradamus variety that pushes the show into science fiction. No, the show excels when the action heats up.The best way I could describe said action would be kinetic. There’s a panicky, cerebral sort of thinking-on-one’s-feet style to the spy action that gives just enough information to the audience so that we can follow along without resorting to handholding.
Sydney’s action scenes remind me of another early ’00s action adventure TV serial: WWE Wrestling. Specifically, the return of Shawn Michaels, a wrestler in the latter half of his career who worked so hard and did so many little things right to sell the credibility of his matches. Just as the tired old headlock became a desperate, flailing, tension-filled battle when applied to Shawn, Jennifer Garner turns every spy encounter into a thrilling, breathless escape. Just to give a small example, Sydney gets stuck in a hallway waiting for an elevator just as armed thugs round the corner and open fire on her. Rather than have her stand there and duck around a corner, ALIAS‘ lead makes an impressive diving leap, and uses the side of the wall to springboard slide her way into the elevator just as it closes.
It all happens so fast. It makes Mission Impossible look like it was shot in slow motion. Yet for all the energy scenes like this bring to the show, they never become incoherent. It’s thrilling and breezy all at once and the fight scenes, of which there are many, never linger on into the realm of Wushu. Like I said, kinetic.
A great device used in the show, and probably a trick they devised to get a full season pick up, is the episodic cliffhanger. Nearly every episode ends on a cliffhanger, sometimes literally. It was impossible for me and my wife to stop because we were dying to know what happens next. The only times this wasn’t as effective were when the cliffhangers were less about spy action and more about emotional catharsis; the one aspect of the show that, at least in the early going, could possibly be a dealbreaker.
Sydney likes to sip wine and listen to Sarah Mclachlan and Sarah Mclachlan-a-likes while she ponders her daddy issues, her romantic interests, and her latest mission to retrieve the proverbial microfiche. It’s a character flaw to be sure, and the show’s insistence on using sappy musical montages featuring real Lilith fair fair gets in the way of all the awesome that’s happening otherwise. It’s as if, someone stepped in and said, “Hey, we have a license to all this mopey music and Felicity was canceled, do you think you could make it work, J.J.?” To which, the imaginary virile version of JJ in my mind said, “Fuck no!” and then they said, “Well, we could just cancel your silly little spy series…” and then he said, “Did I say, ‘fuck no,’ I meant abso-posi-lutely.”
Imaginary J.J., how could you?
That’s just a minor scratch on what is a completely badass gem of a show. The characters are all pretty awesome. The plot has some crazy reveals and twists. The acting is great, especially my always man-crush Victor Garber as Jack Bristow, Sydney’s stony, absentee father. There’s no reason to ignore it any further.
Hell, like all J.J. shows, it even feels like it lives in that same science fiction world inhabited by Fringe and LOST (and possibly Undercovers?? Did anyone see that???). You can just pretend it’s a prequel, sequel or squeakquel and is therefore required viewing.
Also the theme song gets me pumped.
All five seasons of ALIAS are now available on Netflix Instant Streaming. For the purpose of this article, I only watched up through season 1 so don’t blame me if it loses steam by Season 3. J.J. has a history of that.