The Lazy Geek’s Guide to Alias

We take a fond look back at Alias, the JJ Abrams show that made a star of Jennifer Garner...

Before Fringe, before Star Trek and Lost, J.J. Abrams created Alias, a show whose success catapulted its creator and star into the celebrity stratosphere. Jennifer Garner’s ill-fated movie career? All the fault of Alias. That big red ball of liquid in Star Trek? Alias. Lost‘s seat of the pants plotting? Alias did it first. This post-Buffy spy romp lives on in DVD and download form, and is long overdue a bit of appreciation.

The Premise

At its peak, J.J. Abrams’ Alias was a show about all-American college girl and super-spy, Sidney Bristow, living a triple life as a double agent. Struggling to keep her career a secret from friends and family, the drama came from her losing battle to keep all the threads of this convoluted existence separate.

As the series continued and Sydney’s secrets became less secret, a secondary arc moved into pole position: the continuing search for the inventions of a fictional, 15th century inventor named Rambaldi.

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Though Sydney is often sent on missions to retrieve these artefacts, only one character in the narrative knows why they’re worth chasing, Bristow’s boss (and later, nemesis), Arvin Sloane.

Main Characters

Sydney Bristow – Played by Jennifer Garner, toothy girl-next-door, Sydney (if you live next door to a perky supermodel) is the show’s indisputable heart. Although the settings, villains and even the agencies she works for change from season to season, an average episode involves Sydney putting on a wig and breaking into a warehouse, embassy, top-secret base or stately home. She gets in, she kicks ass, she gets out again. Except, when she gets captured, in which case the ass-kicking is slightly delayed.

Arvin Sloane – Beginning the series as Sydney’s boss, Sydney soon discovers that slimey, Hans Moleman look-alike Arvin Sloane actually works for a shadowy, apparently criminal organisation. And so does Sydney. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that this sets up about five seasons worth of conflict between Sloane and Bristow. Or should I say, Bristows…

Jack Bristow – Alias is something of a family affair. In some episodes Sydney, her dad, her mother, and even her sister gallivant around on improbable missions together. That is, when they’re not trying to incarcerate, double cross or kill each other. Anyway, Jack Bristow is Sydney’s dad, a fellow agent, the moral centre in Sydney’s world and a bit of a boring git.

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Michael Vaughn – Every kick-ass female TV lead needs a slightly less effective love interest who’s in the same line of work. Michael Vaughn is the CIA agent assigned to Bristow during season one’s convoluted double agent plot. Later, Vaughn works alongside Sydney as her mission handler in a variety of precarious situations. Their budding romance is continually interrupted by periods of incarceration, being double crossed and one (or both) of them getting killed. Temporarily.

Marshall Flinkman – Our favourite character is the Q to Bristow’s Bond. A clear precursor to Simon Pegg’s Benji in Mission Impossible 3, Flinkman is an electronics and computer genius whose gadgets save Sydney’s shapely tuckus on more than one occasion. 

Julian Sark – Like Spike in Buffy, Sark is the charming bit part villain fans loved so much that he had to be brought back and given, you know, an actual personality. A mercenary rogue spy for hire, Bristow and Sark eventually spend the best part of five seasons trying to incarcerate, double cross or kill one another, and each other’s loved ones.

Marcus Dixon – Starting out as Sydney’s partner and ending the series as her sort of boss, Marcus is a recurring, major character so boring that I completely forgot he was in Alias at all until I checked the back of my boxset.

Irina Derevko – I could tell you who Irina Derevko is, but then I’d have to incarcerate or kill you.

Why We Like It

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Alias is the product of the same pop culture addled imagination that brought you Lost and the new Star Trek, J.J. Abrams. So, there are lots twisty turns, lots of explosions and many, many large red balls made of liquid. Some of them enormous.

Like Lost, it’s difficult to predict. We suspect that’s because, like Lost, they were making it up as they were going along, throwing in crazy Macguffins (like the Rambaldi devices) to lull you into thinking there was an overarching plan when there definitely wasn’t. 

The series’ main strength was its willingness to reconfigure itself every so often, even though it did so within fairly narrow parameters and out of a desire to maintain continuity of character.  It’s never less than fun, though,channelling the best of the classic Mission Impossible at its apogee.

So brilliant was it during those early seasons, that it attracted the very highest wattage of guest star. Christian Slater, Ethan Hawke, Roger Moore, Quentin Tarantino and even Ricky Gervais put in appearances.

Also, the various versions of the title sequence rank among the funkiest every shown on telly, particularly the Jennifer-tastic season 4 incarnation. 

Why It Sucks

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While most shows start weak and get better, Alias set off at Formula 1 speed, but spent most of the last two seasons in the pits. The series was always a bit daft but, by season four, a series of improbable and convoluted coincidences took the place of actual plotting. No one is what they seem, everyone’s a double agent, blah, blah, fricking blah.

Then, just before season five, Jennifer Garner (and her character) got pregnant, thus obviating the show’s major selling point, watching Jennifer Garner kick ass.  Fortunately, she was back in fighting form in time for the show’s brilliantly conceived and superbly silly finale.

Incidentally, the proto-sprog baking in Garner’s lady-oven was half Ben Affleck, continuing the Alias tradition of high profile cameos…

Best Episodes

The Box (Parts 1 and 2)

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Alias deviates from its case-of-the-week formula as Sloane’s headquarters face invasion from a mysterious character seeking revenge. Essential to the building of the Alias mythology, the revelations come thick and thicker in this two-part action adventure, guest starring Quentin Tarantino. No, really.

Phase One

Alias peaked with this extraordinarily cinematic offering from season two. Rutger Hauer replaces Sloane as head of SD-6, the evil espionage agency Sydney Bristow is working for as a double agent. Pivotal changes to the entire premise make this a telly event to remember. The fact that you have to watch the preceding 34 episodes to know what the hell is going on is no bad thing. But the pickings get slim from here until the final third of season five now.

The Two

If we tell you too much about this episode, the first of season three, we’ll spoil the whole series. Suffice to say, it’s a game-changer on a par with Battlestar Galactica‘s second season ending, and it would be the last time such a twist in Alias would be truly effective.

Before The Flood

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In this season four finale, the entire Bristow family unite for the last time in an episode that deftly balances peril, action and humour. The cliffhanger ending will have you reaching immediately for the next boxset. It’s also one of the only episodes worth watching from the entire season.

All The Time In The World

The final third of the often derided (often derided by me, that is) season 5 has some of the show’s best episodes, culminating in this epic two-parter that explains everything. If Lost had finished half as well, we’d be very happy geeks.

Jump The Shark Moment

Sidney Bristow gets pregnant. In an action show with a female lead, the inability for the female lead to do any action sequences is pretty much the kiss of death.

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What Happened To It?

Like Buffy, Alias died an ignominious and lingering death, routed in formula for many of its last two seasons episodes. And, like Buffy, all the stops were pulled out to give the series a proper ending during the final half dozen episodes. 

You’ll like Alias if you like:

Mission Impossible (the original series and J.J. Abrams’ Mission Impossible 3, which is essentially ‘Alias the Movie’) Dark Angel The Bionic Woman Dollhouse

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