31 August 2011

Review of Alias, Season 1

I watched Alias this summer in 2011 and I couldn't believe this show was made in 2001.

Alias Season 1 has quickly become one of my all-time favorites. I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed this show since I'm not big on the spy genre. On the surface, Alias seems like an action show with a female lead in sexy outfits, but it is much more than that. It is a tour de force of tight writing, sharp dialogue, outstanding acting, and creative vision. Alias is the story of Sydney Bristow -- the girl next door, straight-A student type who happens to sign up for spy work, out of patriotic inspiration and boredom. Most spies and action heroes are cold, calculating personalities, so this is a refreshing concept. The show works for me because as absurd as the plot twists become, I believe in Sydney Bristow. Her character is always grounded and she is easy to relate to, because she is sensitive and wears her heart on her sleeve. This is J.J. Abram's trademark -- the drama that is both realistic and absurd at the same time. Sydney does crazy spy work and juggles both a double-life and double-agent job, but she comes home to hang out with her friends who know nothing about her spy life, and she struggles with her relationships with her father and her paternalistic boss. As weird as the espionage world gets, we can always relate to hating your boss, trying to get along with parents, and managing work-life balance. It's hard to find compelling 20-something female leading roles in Hollywood, which makes me appreciate Sydney Bristow on a personal level.

The show further innovates by mixing different genres: espionage, mystery/thriller, and a little soapy drama. I love cross-genre shows because there is more variety, less chance of falling into cliches, and the audience doesn't quite know what to expect. The action sequences, camera work, and costumes are film quality. You will have fun watching Sydney execute her missions. I'm not a connoisseur of spy shows, but I was entertained by the different wigs/dresses, car chases, and parachuting.

I really enjoyed the writing and fast-paced plotting. Not many words are wasted. The action sequences are cut extremely tight. Unlike other spy shows, there isn't much mission preparation or debriefing shown; we just see Sydney stealing item X and then we're back in Los Angeles. One moment Sydney is in spy headquarters and then she's having beer at her apartment with her best buddies. Yet the show takes the time to explore Sydney's emotional reactions, which keeps Alias grounded in reality. I really like how the show goes for broke -- outlandish costumes, insane stunts, hard-hitting emotional breakdowns, the audience feeling like Sydney is *really* in danger -- and yet it feels organic and not forced. Maybe the writers used up all their best ideas in the first season and that's why Alias started going downhill... but that's a discussion for another time.

The big selling point for me is Jennifer Garner's performance. She is naturally charismatic and has probably the world's best smile, making Sydney probably the most likable spy in cinematic history. (It seems like every male character on the show is in love with Sydney -- a joke, but not far from the truth.) Garner clearly put 100% effort into her acting. Watch her face when she runs -- it's clear that both Garner and Sydney take their job seriously. Sydney Bristow is an extremely demanding role (Sydney is in almost every scene, stunt sequences, foreign languages, dramatic acting) and Garner does everything very well.

The rest of the cast is absolutely stellar. I don't know how many TV shows have ever had a cast this good. There are two critically acclaimed Broadway actors (Victor Garber and Ron Rifkin) and Michael Vartan, Bradley Cooper, and Merrin Dungey have all gone on to great careers (in particular Cooper has become a huge star). Kevin Weisman is funny and charming as the comic relief, and Carl Lumbly, as Sydney's partner, lends gravity and presence to the show. Every single cast member is fantastic and my only complaint is that I wish Vartan and Dungey's characters could have been written better. The superb acting is what really makes the show work. In the hands of lesser actors, the show would have become campy.

I'll leave you with the words of a TV critic:
Alias isn’t a perfect series, by any means. But I do think it’s the most important show of the past ten years that’s been completely swept under the rug. ... I have a sneaking suspicion that few shows have had a greater impact on the television landscape today.
- Ryan McGee, AV Club
(If you are interested in reading more, check out Ryan McGee's essays at AV Club's TV Club Classic.)

1 comment:

  1. Sydney Bristow is a young, athletic, college graduate who was recruited her freshman year as a secret agent for SD-6, a top-secret branch of the CIA. After a few years -- after Sydney confides her lifestyle to her boyfriend, the evil head of SD-6 -- Arvin Sloan, has him killed. Sydney learns that SD-6 is part of a rogue international agency called the Alliance of 12, out to rule the world. She becomes a double agent, working with the real CIA to bring down SD-6 with the assistance of her handler, Michael Vaughn, and her estranged father Jack Bristow -- also a double agent. Along the way, Sydney fights various rival agents, rival terrorist groups, and traitors all the while keeping her cloak-and-dagger lifestyle a secret from her friends....