Alias made the current action TV landscape possible.
Part of what defines the current so-called golden age of television, particularly when it relates to the action-adventure genre, is its ability to rival film when it comes to sheer scale and craft. Before 2001, you really needed film in order to make Superman fly; Lois & Clark may have understood Superman, but it had no other choice but to suggest his more impressive super-feats, rather than actually show them. Now, with shows like The Flash, there’s no obvious sense of compromise: while there’s still a gap between what you can do in each medium, it’s much less noticeable, and mitigated by the fact that there’s a lot of things you can do with TV that you just can’t do with film. Alias, the 2001-2006 action / espionage show starring Jennifer Garner and created by J.J. Abrams, was in many ways the show that began to bridge that gap.
Compare the first season of Alias to the first season of La Femme Nikita, a show that stopped airing a scant few months before spy royalty Sydney Bristow made her debut. Sure, the earlier show could occasionally pull off some slick moments, and yet, these were these few and far between, exceptions in a show that oftentimes felt quite limited. Alias, on the other hand, often succeeded in making it feel as if those limits didn’t exist. Whereas Femme spent most of its on generic cities or inside Section One HQ, Alias took place all over the world (in a simplistic, theme-park-y, made for TV way—they sure as hell weren’t filming on China, Japan, Monaco, etc.—but still). While Nikita got into a lot of relatively-easy-to-stage shoot-outs, Sydney got into a lot of brawls, car chases, and races, requiring considerably more involved choreography from the creators. La Femme Nikita had style and tone; Alias had that and vision. Perhaps most importantly, while La Femme Nikita was structured in a manner not dissimilar to countless other shows, with self-contained one-shot episodes and very few recurring characters, Alias had several large, overarching and interconnected storylines, involving lots of characters and events and places, giving the show a scope that at the time was unmatched and requiring far more attention and trust from viewers than was the norm at the time. Without Alias, there would have been no Lost. Without Lost to popularize the mytharc and assure TV execs that yes, viewers could deal with complex and elaborate story arcs, shows like Arrow or The Flash wouldn’t exist, at least not in their current forms.
All of this might make one think that Alias has secured its place in television history, which isn’t true. It’s not quite forgotten, but neither is it remembered the way shows like The Sopranos or Buffy the Vampire Slayer were. Part of the reason for that is that it was never a super-popular show even at its peak, but it’s also because it wasn’t consistently good: after catching people’s attention with its first season, and following it up with a second season widely considered to be just as good if not better (although I disagree), the series then went on to crash and burn in a spectacular manner in its third, which ultimately caused it to lose most of the buzz it had built, until the series was cancelled in its fifth season after a cut episode order.
How did this happen? Part of it had to do with a chaotic production: the departure of key actors, very noticeable budget cuts, and meddling from executives who wanted more straightforward narratives all helped make things more difficult for the showrunners. But honestly, I think these don’t matter a whole lot: even if they hadn’t been outside factors at play, the series was probably always going to go down the road it went in.
You see, Alias had a problem.
Okay, Alias had a million problems, from a mytharc which writes checks it can’t cash to its repetitiveness to its whiteness to its heteronormativity to its repetitiveness to its repetitiveness, but everyone who’s watched the series knows about those. This is not about those, at least not directly.
A vital part of Alias‘ central conceit is that, until the events of the pilot, Sydney Bristow (Garner), our super-spy protagonist, had no reason to believe that SD-6, a cell in a larger world-wide criminal cartel, was not a black-ops branch of the CIA like it pretended to be. This means that for seven years, the sort of missions she and her equally in-the-dark peers were assigned on were the sort of missions she imagined the CIA would do. Assassinations? Legit CIA business. Propping up friendly regimes? Perfectly acceptable. Subverting “unfriendly” democracies? All in a day’s work. And she’d be right to think that, as those are all things that the CIA does or has done.
We never see SD-6 doing any of this, however. What we get instead are endless retrieval / capture / sabotage missions, the sort that are shown to carry no larger geopolitical consequences, and can be completed without killing people or making us question the morality of SD-6 operatives we’re supposed to like—e.g.: Sydney’s partner Marcus Dixon (Carl Lumbly), or engineer Marshall Flinkman (Kevin Weisman)—and allow Sydney to don the disguises and wigs that are Alias‘ bread and butter. And that’s weird, because when Sydney Bristow joins the actual CIA, first as a double agent inside SD-6 and later in a more general capacity, those are the same sorts of missions she is asked to do there. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except that the series never really feels any need to deal with this. SD-6 is painted as irredeemably bad despite the fact that 99 percent of its evil appears to be committed by 1 percent of its personnel, and that many of its missions appear to cause no visible direct harm. The CIA, on the other hand, is presented as is unquestionably good, with its questionable actions being portrayed as the result of a few isolated rotten apples. Meanwhile, neither its role in U.S. foreign policy nor its methods are to be questioned, because the CIA does nothing worth questioning—there’s even a moment where Kendall, a bigwig within the U.S. intelligence community played by Terry O’Quinn, states that the CIA is not in the business of murder. Nobody laughs. When Sydney is eventually brought into APO, a “legitimate” version of what SD-6 pretended to be, the fact that all of our characters now work for a black ops operation designed to escape most sorts of oversight raises no eyebrows. Rather off-putting, for a series that is ostensibly partly about the shades of grey
Then again, the series never could establish a consistent thesis of morality; actions were good or bad depending on who did them and why. This cognitive dissonance can best be seen in the series’ first season finale, which has at its center two acts of torture. The first and longer one involves Sydney’s best friend, regular guy Will Tippin (Bradley Cooper), who has been captured by a group of baddies and is tortured for information on The Circumference, a device / process of vital importance to them. We have no idea what The Circumference is for—and crucially, neither do the baddies—but nevertheless, the torture, committed by Zhang Lee (Ric Young) whose only characterization is his othered scariness, is meant to be fully condemned; we’re supposed to cheer when Will, in an moment I admit is quite badass, injects Lee with the possibly-paralyzing substance Will himself had been threatened with earlier. The second instance involves Sydney’s father, CIA agent Jack Bristow (aka SpyDaddy, played by Victor Garber), torturing CIA colleague Steven Haladki (Joey Slotnick), a mole inside the agency, for information on Will’s whereabouts. After obtaining said information—torture works in this universe, at least when performed against baddies—Jack kills Haladki in cold blood, in a scene that is meant to make the audiences swoon at SpyDaddy’s awesomeness and overriding concern for his SpyDaughter. Yes, one can argue that the two scenarios are not equivalent: Will is an innocent, while Haladki is a member of a group responsible for various deaths. Then again, so is Jack.
This unwillingness to deal with a crucial part of its premise speaks to the show’s priorities. Alias is a series that is more concerned with the surface of things rather than their significance; while this is a perfectly valid approach, it also leaves the series feeling rather hollow with surprising regularity. It’s a series with many interesting pieces, but it is often not sure what to make of them, or what it’s trying to say about them.
On one hand, this ephemeralness lent the series surprising malleability, allowing it to reinvent itself multiple times during its five year run. It is because the series had no particular commitment to its premise—or indeed any premise—that the show could pull off the baller move of blowing up its own status quo midway through its second season, far earlier than anyone had expected it to. On the other hand, it also occasionally left the show without a clear direction or theme. Is the series about redemption? No, because that would presuppose Sydney having done something requiring redemption. Is it about stopping SD-6? Not really: until the organization is actually taken down, there’s no clear sense of progression in the CIA’s efforts against the organization, and you can see the series getting bored with the concept during the first half of season 2. Is it about Rambaldi, the 15th century prophet and inventor whose legacy shaped the series’ mytharc? As if: the series never had a clue what it all meant, or how it related to the series’ themes, if at all. Is it about the how people compartmentalize their lives, and have to adopt different identities to deal with different people? Nope: while Sydney starts out wearing many faces–grad student, friend, SD-6 agent, CIA agent–which she must then juggle, that element abandoned by season 3, as Sydney’s spy work becomes her whole life. Is it about trying to have it all? Nope, for the same reasons. The closest thing the series has to a consistent overarching theme is family, and even here, it can be remarkably hazy. What, exactly, is it trying to say? How, exactly, does that theme jive with the series’ ending, where Sydney is left motherless, fatherless, and sisterless?
Alias can’t even claim to be about women. Not only is it damn fond of killing them (five of the show’s eight female regulars are killed off—one of them twice—compared with two of its nine male regulars), the show has a tendency of viewing kick-ass women—a concept it defines extremely narrowly—as exceptional in a world of kick-ass men. In the first season, Sydney is one of only three women (excluding extras) working for SD-6, with the others being dispatched soon after appearing. Anna Espinosa (Gina Torres) is the only agent we see working for K-Directorate. Despite being headed by a woman, The Man’s organization has one single female member in its rank and file, who is also killed soon after being introduced. Even by season 5, a point by which female agents were no longer especially rare for the series, the series still had episodes whose premise hinged on the idea that sending in an untrained and inexperienced data analyst into the field undercover as a sex worker (*) was the only option available to APO after pregnancy made Sydney unable to participate in the mission. Because apparently no other highly qualified female agents exist in the whole of the CIA. What’s more, the series is not especially kind to women who do not fit into the kickass hottie mold; most of the “regular” women in the series, introduced to help flesh out characters’ personal lives, end up getting killed off; this includes the only woman of color in the series’ main cast. The series passes the Bechdel test less often than one might think, especially at first.
In short, upon watching the series as a whole, it’s hard for me to escape the feeling that Alias is about nothing else but showing Sydney Bristow (and other assorted women) kicking all the asses and wearing all the sexy costumes, and it is because of this lack of purpose, I feel, that the show never really truly found its feet after the first season and a half: the writers had no idea what the future would look like, or how it would be different from the present. Season 3, set place after the series has abandoned most vestiges of its original premise, was, many people agree, at best a notable step down and at worst a disaster, as the writers found themselves with no idea where the mysteries it had set up were going, or what to do with most of its cast. If season 4 had a direction or goal, it was to exorcise the ghosts of season 3 and place the series in more solid footing, which it succeeded in doing in a rather workmanlike manner. Season 5 spent its first half dealing with the consequences of Jennifer Garner’s pregnancy and a drastic cast shuffle—three of its regulars were gone, replaced by three all-new characters—and its second half scrambling to put together a series conclusion after being told of their cancellation. While the writers could still pump out their fair share of awesome stories—Abrams, by the way, eventually ceased to be actively involved in running his own show, a development that could be seen as a hindrance, a boon, or both—they never congealed into a satisfying whole.
And really, that’s a damn shame. When it’s firing on all cylinders–or heck, even just most of them–Alias is an incredibly enjoyable show. It has awesome characters played by fantastic actors with awesome chemistry. It can be incredibly funny and fun. There are a ton of moments that make me go “this fucking show” in the best of ways. I love it to bits. Still, it’s not hard to imagine it being a much better show than it actually is.
* The show’s use of the male gaze, sex appeal, and female sexuality are worth an essay of its own. It might have already been written! In any case, this is not that essay.