Wednesday, May 24, 2006

"Ima" "Ima what?": Alias season five (and career retrospective)

"Do you watch 'Alias'?"

"No. I had all of these friends who kept saying, 'You have to watch "Alias!" You have to watch "Alias!"' so I tuned in for the Super Bowl episode, and the first thing you saw was the main girl in lingerie, and I said to myself, 'Oh, it's THAT kind of show.' And I turned it off."

"Oh. It's THAT kind of show."

Well. . .yes. And no.

What my two co-workers (at my old job) failed to realize is that brazen flirtation with exploitation was one of those things Alias just DID (and often did well). It was female empowerment that went down easy (easier than Buffy), since the woman at the show's center took her orders from a bunch of guys (though she often had to improvise on the job). It was every spy movie plot device you've ever seen crammed into one frenetic hour. It was one of the oddest, most moving family dramas on the dial. And, while it lasted, it was really, really great.

And I'll miss it.

But I'm not sure why. Sticking with Alias these last few seasons has been more of a chore than it should have been. The show was still fun, the action beats were still strong, and the acting was still stellar across the board. But there was something missing. It wasn't the wild, twisty ride it had been back in the day. And there are a lot of people to blame for that. But let's start with J.J. Abrams.

If there's one thing J.J. Abrams knows how to do, it's mash up genres. Alias managed to combine spy movies, thrillers, horror films, science fiction, exploitation dramas, soap opera and family dynamics into one dynamite little package (again, when it was good). Lost throws even MORE stuff into the pot. If there's another thing the man knows how to do, it's turn a show on a dime when it just isn't working. Felicity was famously getting too mopey in its first season when, roughly halfway through, Abrams and his writers (and famously forgotten co-creator) turned the show on a dime into a romantic comedy. The show worked much better as such after that. When Alias backed itself into a corner (which happened five or six times), Abrams would pull the rug out from under the show, reinventing it for another season or two.

But this whole process got exhausting. Keeping up with all of the genre tropes on display AND all of the plot twists got to be too much. The popular complaint is that the writers had NO IDEA what they were doing with the Rambaldi storyline. I happen to think they may have known where they were going with that story of the 15th century prophet who foresaw most of the events of the series, but the continuing addition of more and more gadgets and doodads of his made things get too convoluted to the average viewer, who probably bailed.

This is not to say that Alias COULDN'T do straight spy drama. The episode in season three where Ricky Gervais stars as a man who can build very advanced bombs (who's wanted by terrorist groups) stands out as a series highlight for me, what with its twists and turns and breakneck action. But the fans of Alias didn't WANT spy intrigue. When the characters went after terrorists, it always felt sort of goofy and low stakes. The folks in Alias clearly didn't live in our world, so why should they be so concerned with our problems? In this respect, when Jack Bristow brought up Osama bin Laden in season two, it probably was the series' death knell. The series was at its best when it was playing the Rambaldi game, but it was also digging itself a hole so deep and convoluted that only the most ardent fan could find his or her way out. Because the show burned through plot so fast, it was impossible to keep twists coming in a logical way (those who complain about how slowly Lost moves probably have this series to blame).

Another problem with the series ended up being Sydney herself. She was such a good person. TOO good of a person to be the center of a TV show like this. What was most interesting about her in those first two seasons was her attempts to blend work and a regular life. She would go from zipping around the world on mission after mission to talking about silly stuff with her friends. But because of how quickly the show moved, the plot line of "Will Sydney's friends find out she's a spy?!" quickly got tiresome. So the friends were brought into Sydney's world or killed off or written out by other means. And the show lost the element that made Sydney so interesting: her longing for a normal life (so brutally shattered in the pilot when her fiancee was killed). After that, we came to see that Sydney was pretty much. . .perfect. She was beautiful, she had a great boyfriend, she patched up things with her fractured family remarkably well, and she even forgave the man who killed her fiancee when her father asked her to. She was pretty much the best person ever! And that got boring, no matter how well Jennifer Garner could sell it.

Sidenote: Jennifer Garner seems to be one of those actresses who deeply divides women. The many women in my life (past and present) just can't seem to agree on her. But they all either LOOOOOVE her or HAAAAATE her. There's no middle ground. I'm not sure why this is. I think it's her impossibly high cheekbones.

But for those first two seasons, Alias was gold. Out of all of the shows ending this year, my relationship with Alias was probably the most committed (at one time). I even had my sister tape it for me once when I couldn't get home in time to set my own VCR (I've always been kind of embarrassed by how much I enjoy TV, so this was a big step for me). For a while, I thought it was the better of the two big spy shows that premiered in 2001 (the other being 24). In those first two years, Alias unleashed plot twist after plot twist and decimated its entire structure more than once (decimating Sydney's fractured family more than once in the process). It was thrilling, the sort of breakneck TV we hadn't really seen up until that point (though it's become a template for a lot of other, more successful series). But since it wasn't something that people had seen before, it never became a very big hit, though it did pave the way.

In its fifth and final season (which concluded Monday), Alias sort of pointed the way to how it could have blended Sydney's home and work lives again. The show gave Sydney a baby (Jennifer Garner was pregnant in real life), and it raised the stakes for her by seemingly killing off the father of her baby (though, to be honest, no one ever dies on Alias might as well be Newton's Fourth Law). The spy plots were still as convoluted as ever, but the show found its emotional heart again (though the season was far from perfect). It's easy to imagine a sixth season where Sydney, reunited with her lover (now husband), fought back against evil to make a better world for her child, even if she would really rather be at home with the kid. This sort of storyline wouldn't have risen to the heights of those first two years, but it would have given the show the throughline it had been missing.

In most other regards, though, the final season of Alias was one of its weakest (though it was better than the fourth season, which tried to pretend the show's serial elements didn't exist for the most part). The attempts to add new characters to the show felt ham-fisted (and I'm one of the few people who enjoys Rachel Nichols as an actress). The Prophet Five conspiracy was a bit of a groaner. And the attempts to wring drama out of the family dynamics of the show just didn't work anymore (Sydney had made peace with her father long ago, while Lena Olin was never on enough to make a convincing foil for Sydney).

But we'll always have those first two years on DVD. Before Sydney and Jack patched things up. Before Sydney and Vaughn's relationship got boring. Before Lena Olin decided to leave the show. Before Sydney's home life was completely eliminated. Before, before, before. . .

I'm not as ultimately disappointed in Alias as many critics were (I don't put a ton of stock in every little element of these sorts of stories making sense). But I do wonder what could have been.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...
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frater said...

i didn’t get a chance to Watch Alias Episode it yet, but i just couldn’t resist reading what happened! i hope to Watch Alias Episode is as soon as possible !


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