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On "Alias"

For the past month, as is sometimes my wont, I have been catching up on a TV show. This in itself is not unusual — in the Pre-Tivo Era, I was a committed X-Files watcher, even when the show was scheduled for the dreaded Friday night slot (yes, I was a grad student; no, I had no life). Back then there was something cracked yet profound about scheduling your life around events like a regularly broadcasted series. And thus I made it through the first season of X-Files, and then I was out of the country, living in China and Taiwan for four years, and during that time, my only access to X-Files myth was through reruns on the Star TV network (good blokes those Star TV programmers were — if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have renewed my love for the original Star Trek series, or seen Sean Connery in a rare baddie role in Woman of Straw, or caught Super Bowl XXX).By the time I returned to the U.S., my X-Files fervor had waned (what was up with the Bermuda Triangle episode?), and all was quiet and sane for four years. Then came the DVD revolution, and the Twin Peaks first-season DVD box set (despite all the hubbub about Sherilyn Fenn and the cherry stem, the scene that haunts my memory is when she awaits Kyle MacLachlan in his hotel bed, comely as a seductress, tremulous as a girl). And from there it was over to 24 — loved the first 13 episodes, the rest was “meh” sprinkled with “yeah” — and then over to Cracker — hard and depressing as a whiskey shot, and similarly best handled in small doses — then to The Shield — like a solid steak and potato dinner, every time — then to MI:5 — squeaky-clean fun, until it became po-faced not-so-fun … you get the picture.

And so now the merry-go-round has spun to rest on Alias, which benefits from the DVD treatment. During its initial first-season run, due to scheduling difficulties among other things, it wasn’t uncommon to go three weeks between episodes, which would have been unbearable given the cliffhangers that bookend each show. Given the luxury of knocking the season down in one shot, I could immerse myself in the show’s mythology, its snarky wit, its mind-boggling soap opera turns, its pop conglomeration goodness.

Oh, it’s derivative all right, and J.J. Abrams, the series’ creator and overseer, knows it. One week we get a nod toSilence of the Lambs — psychopath in a prison cell staredown — and the next we may get a reference toRaiders of the Lost Ark — watch out for that airplane propeller! Overlaying it all is a mod-spy template that sometimes fizzles over into parody, but most of the time remains in check to a very earnest — and American — preoccupation with family, trust, doing the right thing.

I’ll refrain here from a plot synopsis and analysis — Charles Taylor’s excellent Salon article contains all you need to know. Suffice to say, like the best James Bond movies, Alias perfectly straddles the line between ridiculous and ruthless. Sure we get a chuckle out of Agent Sydney Bristow’s myriad wigs and costume changes — Jennifer Garner’s major asset is her willingness to be in on her own joke, with that athletic body and angular face frozen in place no matter how you dress her up. And the plot isn’t so much convoluted as it is twisted all out of proportion; a character dies and his absence isn’t noticed for another dozen episodes, or a villainous organization that has withstood over a season and a half of double agents and security leaks suddenly goes down at the drop of a Nielsen rater’s hat — and did we mention the 15th century inventor who prophesized the future?

But whenever you think this nonsense is going to float off into the stratosphere, something shocking, something unexpected, something downright real happens. I’m currently reeling from Season 2, Episode 13, the famous “series reset” episode, in which all your expections of the show are shattered, and a regular recurring cast member is killed, an assassin who is her genetic double taking her place. Oh sure, a genetic double, that’s real, can I have what you’re smoking? But what sticks with us is the murdered woman slumped against the kitchen wall, a perfect round bullet hole in her forehead, blood smearing the tiles behind her. And not just a woman, but Sydney Bristow’s best friend, the only one unaware of her spy identity, the only member of the cast capable of leading a normal life. Extinguished, just like that. It is in moments like these that we realize that nothing is safe, nothing is sacred, and tragedy befalls deserving and undeserving alike. Real.

In the end, Alias belongs to the real human beings. All the actors do yeoman work — Garner proves she is as game an actress as she is a fashion object, Michael Vartan brings a guarded decency to his role as her CIA love interest, Bradley Cooper handles the thankless job of “thwarted love interest, regular guy friend” with aplomb, Carl Lumbly radiates integrity and depth as Garner’s partner in spy crime, and Kevin Wiseman steals every scene he’s in as Marshall, the gadgetmaster with a Star Wars fetish — imagine “Q” for the Dungeons and Dragons set.

But towering over them all are Victor Garber as Sydney’s father Jack Bristow, and Ron Rifkin as her villainous employer Sloane. With his pinched forehead, brusque fatherly instincts, laser stare, and rat-a-tat speech rhythms, Jack Bristow could have degenerated into parody, but Garber is a master of subtlety, and his scenes with Garner, as father and daughter grow closer even as the phantoms of their past threaten to tear them apart, have ache and bite. No weepy moments of confession from Garber, but no blank-faced ice man either — every purse of his lips or narrowing of his eyes speaks volumes, revealing much without giving away the whole game. With all the huffing and puffing of the outrageous plots, it is Garber’s visage, more than anything else, that is the true thrill of Alias. Spies ourselves, we read his every move, searching for the moment of full disclosure, of revealed truth, and we enjoy the suspense.

Likewise, Rifkin brings a Shakespearean dimension to his part, even when the script inflates him to super-baddie status. Immacculately dressed, burning with the hurt of past slights that are never quite revealed, small and shrunken yet focused like a spider, Sloane makes for a worthy adversary. And not without sympathy, as he would sooner dismantle the organization he has spent a lifetime serving than let them assassinate his lymphoma-stricken wife. Of course, this frees him up to do even greater mischief, but such are the aims of evil genius. Just as we love a stylish bad guy, we admire Sloane for his twisty strategems, how he seems to be unknown to all but himself, and it is this mystery that is the mirror to Jack Bristow’s enigma. We may strain to read Garber’s face, but we regard Rifkin’s countenance with alarmed suspicion — one moment he is congratulating an underling with paternal pride, and the next he is ordering his execution. And somehow, both expressions seem genuine. With Jack Bristow, we glimpse the feeling behind the facade; with Sloane, we peel back layers only to find more layers.

As with all long-running dramas, the rigors of scheduling, tight budgets, and inevitable cast and creative team attrition take their toll. Shows with mythologies tend to wear down in the long run — too many spinning wheels, too many misdirections and hinted-at conspiracies, in the end just too much damn weight. Despite the wondrous character work and tonal shifts mentioned above, it’s too much to hope that Alias will actually resolve into something that can satisfy the threads that have been spun over the past three seasons. With shows we love, shows that have the meat and bone we crave, we imagine proper conclusions and developments, collections of wistful “what ifs” and “if only”s. What if the third season of Alias never existed? (I have not yet seen it, but based on general reactions, I fear the worst). What if Chris Carter grew balls and X-Files ended with the movie? What if Voyager never happened at all?

But for now, in the midst of my viewing odyssey, immersed in the second season, I can enjoy the thrill of possibility, of complications and conflagrations and avenues to explore. After I see the rest, there may be an aftertaste of ashes, but for now, it is glorious, something to be fussed over and contemplated, and now it is preserved.

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