The first season of Alias, the show that put superstar producer-director JJ Abrams on the map, has aged remarkably well.
Airing in 2001, a matter of weeks in the wake of the traumatic September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Alias had the unenviable task of providing overblown, B-movie, pulp escapism to an audience reeling from the most existentially terrifying attack on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Abrams, fresh off his first TV series Felicity (starring the later-to-be-famous Keri Russell) and a career penning screenplays across the 1990’s for major Hollywood blockbusters, had to try and sell a show which captured the retro, cult aesthetics of 1960’s adventure shows and movies he had grown up with – Mission: Impossible, I Spy, the James Bond series – shot through with a stylish, slick, modern action sensibility.
It was a hard sell. Audiences gravitated far more to the intense, dour, revenge fantasy of 24 and all-American hero Jack Bauer, who steadily across a decade in which Americans and Western Europe turned their gaze toward Islamic fundamentalism and the threat of the Middle East became more of the superhero Americans wanted. If he was The Punisher, a man of dubious morals ready to compromise his soul for the greater good, then Alias’ hero Sydney Bristow was Captain America; virtuous, homely, and a reflection of wholesome American values, wrapped up inside familial and emotional angst that recalled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Audiences never truly took Sydney to their breast, to their heart, and almost immediately Alias became a cult genre hit, never to explode fully into the global mainstream.
The sad thing about this is just how well executed Alias’ first season is, one of those rare shows that arrives almost fully formed and very quickly steps into a unique tone and rhythm, only building on that start to deliver twenty two episodes which provide a real sense of payoff.
Thematically, the first season of Alias has a remarkable level of consistency beginning with pilot episode Truth Be Told and finale Almost Thirty Years. It tells the core story of a dysfunctional family unit who begin the long process of healing, or at least Sydney healing. The daughter of a distant, emotionally detached salesman and of an English literature teacher mother who died in a car crash when she was a little girl, Syd across Season 1 sees the man she loves killed, comes to discover her father is an intelligence operative and always has been, that her mother was a KGB agent sent to spy on her father, that she never in fact died in the accident and was extracted to Russia, and later that she has emerged to become the leader of a powerful, shadowy criminal organisation.
The fact Alias manages to make all of these revelations work across twenty-two episodes already stacked with story, filled out by a strong ensemble of characters, is all the more impressive. There is a clear emotional and narrative through line for Syd across the season, from the point her fiancee Danny’s death exposes the truth about SD-6, and how it’s not an arm of the CIA, through to seeing her mother alive for the first time captured in Taipei, in a direct parallel to Truth Be Told’s opening scene with, yes, a captured Syd in Taipei. There is a skilled circularity and symmetry to the storytelling Abrams and his talented team of writers often manage to make look effortless.
It is a major reason why Alias races out of the gate so strongly. Truth Be Told remains one of the finest pilot episodes in the history of American television because it manages to ground the enormously over the top, spy-fi shenanigans in the grounded heart of Syd’s life, brought out instantly well by Jennifer Garner (in the role that launched her into relative stardom, if arguably her career has never *quite* capitalised on her promise). It doesn’t take very long at all to start caring about Syd and, conversely, that makes the histrionics around her far more palatable and approachable. Alias isn’t afraid to go wacky or go home, and it goes pretty wacky even this early on, but heavily thanks to the performances, these high ideas don’t serve to alienate.
Aside from the journey Syd undertakes of realisation and truth, she is flanked by largely strong characters, most of whom grow and develop across this first season. For all later seasons try and sell us more deeply on the central romance being the heart of the show, the core from beginning to end was always Syd’s dysfunctional family set up and her relationship with father Jack (played with a wonderful haunted nobility by Victor Garber), an emotionally cold man she swiftly learns is also a spy, also a double agent, and who despite his inability to be a father to her on a parental level, is driven by little more than protecting his daughter. Garner and Garber have beautiful chemistry and how they inch closer and closer to some kind of parental-sibling relationship across the season is one of Alias’ strengths. To the show’s credit, it never forgets that.
If Jack is the traumatised warrior with a broken heart, an angel with clipped wings, then his Devilish opposite is Arvin Sloane (played with oily, whispering menace by Ron Rifkin), the head of SD-6. Across the first season he slithers and manipulates and murders and plots with a callousness restricted for true heartless super villains, yet manages to convince us he *does* have some level of human emotion in how he loves and cares for his wife Emily, dying of cancer. This is all down to Rifkin and the nuance he instills in Sloane. Just look an episodes such as Spirit, where he delivers a long, almost theatrical monologue which teases a look into Sloane’s past and psychology, running a gamut of controlled emotions.
Sloane could easily have ended up as a one-note, venomous boss doling out missions and charming Syd with fatherly wisdom while letting his hand creep onto her shoulder with just a hint of sexual menace, but Rifkin retains an inherent mystery around Sloane while providing him depth. Very quickly he recalls Marc Alaimo’s equally adept performance as Gul Dukat in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and becomes one of the keys to Alias’ success early on. Though Syd faces a variety of villains of the week, usually dilettantes or goons from across the world, we are frequently reminded that Sloane—even without ultimate power—is the Devil. The show quite literally uses that word. We are in no doubt Sloane is, and always will be, the ultimate antagonist.
Less successful are some of the more ancillary characters around this central trio. The other key player is Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), Syd’s CIA handler in her role as a double agent, and a stock type; handsome, capable, strong, driven and, well… incredibly boring, not to mention righteous. You can see why Syd would steadily fall in love with him, which she begins to do across the season (as does Vaughn in reciprocation), given he on a Freudian basis has key aspects that remind her of her father (minus perhaps Jack’s dark wit), and Garner & Vartan do have clear chemistry, but there are only so many lingering looks and hopeful declarations they can eventually be in each other’s lives without the clandestine surroundings you can take before it starts to grow old. Thankfully Season 2 won’t waste time in making this relationship far more overt.
Before unfortunately fans decided to turn against him, Syd’s best friend Will Tippin (played by a pre-A-list Hollywood fame Bradley Cooper) is the other candidate for eventual romantic attraction. In Parity they even kiss, if under the influence of alcohol. Observing the shape of the season, and Will’s journey as a cod-70’s conspiracy thriller journalist (imagine a cross between Bob Woodward and Fox Mulder) looking into SD-6 without realising he’s digging into Syd’s double life, it makes a great deal more sense by Almost Thirty Years for Syd/Will to start becoming closer and edging into a romantic relationship, given their clear physical attraction. Alias decides to focus instead on Will’s career intersecting with Syd’s life, but it never really becomes a vehicle for the audience to uncover more about SD-6 or the Alliance of 12 behind them. Will’s investigation is ultimately more for narrative purposes than the audience’s, and there is a clear sense it takes the writing staff a while to figure out where Will’s search for the truth is going, at the expense of his character.
At least Will has a plot function. Syd’s best female friend, Francie Calfo (Merrin Dungey), becomes increasingly surplus to requirements across the season as Syd’s life edges deeper into the double agent world and further away from more of the young adult drama, 90’s hangover plot stylistics we see in some of the first season’s earlier episodes. Attempts to give Francie a sub-plot about a boyfriend who may or may not be cheating on her, even if it’s used as a mirror for Syd’s own secret keeping, falls flat (they abandon it altogether after The Coup); Francie proves very quickly any time devoted to her alone is a waste of the show’s resources, given how external to everything else the show is doing she is. Francie feels like a character who walked out of a guest role on Friends and into Alias, and only in Season 2 do the writers rectify this and figure out a way to give her, or at least Dungey, a relevant and interesting function.
The only two actors of colour in Alias suffer to some extent across Season 1 in terms of presence and relevance. Syd’s SD-6 partner, Marcus Dixon (played by stalwart character actor Carl Lumbly), primarily operates as a plot function for most of the season. He can disappear for episodes at a time when the story doesn’t need him. When he is involved, it often works well, given Syd & Dixon do have a genuine older brother-younger sister dynamic which, against all odds, fits and further grounds the series, but Dixon too is completely alienated from the drama like Francie; though she is utterly oblivious as to the espionage, Dixon is unaware of what SD-6 is, what Syd’s secret life is, and many of the narrative aspects the show focuses on. Much like Francie also, there is little reason why Dixon is even played *by* a black actor, given the only time he gets to show inflections of African-American culture is in the questionable spy get-ups he dabbles (gamely) in, in episodes such as So It Begins… Dixon too is better served next season but his development suffers across the first.
Quite why Marshall Flinkman (played with excited brio by Kevin Weisman) is even a credited regular is open to interpretation over the first season, as he gets almost nothing to do for the most part; the ‘Q’ character to Sloane’s villainous ‘M’, Marshall is a fast-talking genius inventor and complete epitome of the ultra nerd – he lives with his Mom despite being in his thirties, almost pathologically doesn’t understand social norms, and is tolerated only for the fact he a *literal* genius with technology. Marshall is designed for levity, serving a specific plot function across most episodes, but he only occasionally escapes being irritating at times here and, again, is so removed from Syd’s life (being again completely ignorant of the truth about the situation) that the writers struggle to give him and function beyond ‘here’s a few handy gadgets’.
Marshall’s function provides an insight into the structure of the first season Alias undertakes, because certainly for much of the first half each episode creates its own distinct pattern. Syd will often be sent on a mission by SD-6, which we see in flashback as she recounts it to Vaughn as she receives her counter-mission; these will sometimes involve the deeper Rambaldi mythology as in Parity or Time Will Tell, or recovering a particular piece of technology such as in A Broken Heart, or even abducting a person of interest as in an episode such as Doppleganger. The missions will always usually involve SD-6 furthering their criminal ends under the guise of national security or justice, and Syd working with the CIA to undercut or subvert them. These are the core of the majority of stories up to The Box two-parter, with around them any development in Syd’s ongoing story, or Will’s investigation, or Sloane’s machinations etc…
The first half of Season 1 is concerned primarily with establishing some of the key tenets Truth Be Told sets up. Syd realising the scope of her double agent mission in So It Begins…, the introduction of Rambaldi in Parity, Syd coming to terms with Danny’s death and finding some level of initial closure in Color Blind, the threat of exposure as a double agent in Mea Culpa or Spirit, and her intense suspicion of Jack as perhaps the enemy within in The Confession. While Syd undertakes plenty of disposable missions against faceless geo-political enemies with names like K-Directorate or the Raslak Jihad, beating up a hundred inefficient goons along the way, these are incidental ways of Alias providing surface thrills; the reason we keep watching is for Syd’s journey and the ongoing, serialised narratives pulsing under the surface, but most of these episodes stick to a certain format and structure.
That all changes with The Box. The first format-breaking episode of the show—Die Hard in SD-6 headquarters basically—it showed the possibilities of the kind of stories Alias could do, even while entangled in some knotty plotting. Though we had seen John Hannah appear as a sleeper assassin in Reckoning and Color-Blind previously, The Box also kickstarted Alias’ flirtation with movie-star guest appearances that were not the norm for television in an era where cinema/TV were still rigidly defined, as Quentin Tarantino laps up playing a cocksure, rebel American intelligence agent – Roger Moore would soon follow in Season 1, not to mention actors such as Faye Dunaway, Ethan Hawke and David Carradine across Season 2. The Box proved Alias could be a blockbuster as well as fusing together a complex narrative structure and a core mythology in the same package.
In truth, the Rambaldi mythology is probably at its leanest and least unwieldy across this first season. The idea of a Renaissance-era Italian genius prophesying events 500 years later and creating futuristic technology which kickstarts a criminal ‘Cold War’ of sorts to exploit it, underpins Alias’ B-movie, retro-60’s escapist roots. It flirts with the supernatural without overtly going there, at least this early on. It hints at long-held destiny, specifically with Syd’s revelations in The Prophecy, without committing directly to it. And it never completely overwhelms the narrative, even though the race for Rambaldi’s truth lies at the core of the motivations of most of the bad guys on the show – his innovations only directly influence 11 of the 22 episodes, and even in episodes such as A Broken Heart or The Box or Masquerade, they are not the focal point of the story being told.
This will change particularly in the third season, as Rambaldi becomes a bit all consuming as a narrative device, but Season 1 seems to understand the balance of how to include a central, mythological concept without the drama and character arcs becoming devoured by it. Rambaldi is the evolution of the alien conspiracy arc in The X-Files—one of JJ Abrams’ key inspirations—and a forerunner of Lost’s Island mythology; it provides a mythological framework on which to hang the drama, a juxtaposition of modern espionage, escapist action and youth-friendly emotional issues, under which this deeply esoteric science-fiction blend of Leonardo da Vinci and Nostradamus undulates. It shouldn’t work but it does, and primarily because in Season 1 it remains on the fringe of Syd’s life and the show’s emotional journey – this weird, arcane and uncanny world that is a little bit beyond our understanding. Only when Alias deep dives into that arcanum does the show work in spite of Rambaldi, as opposed to partly because of it.
The latter half of Season 1 doubles down more on Rambaldi as it begins to break a little more with the established weekly format, following The Box. The Prophecy includes a traditional mission formula but through the prism of Syd’s personal quest, while Q&A manages to cleverly combine both the ‘bottle episode’ clip show device with the ongoing Rambaldi mythology and how it links to Syd’s character arc. Even episodes which ostensibly hold to the traditional formula, such as Masquerade or Snowman, have added complications that would not have existed in earlier stories. By the final connected trilogy of episodes that build to the climactic episode, Alias confidently manages to hold to its established episodic formula while building on and at times playing with it. Few shows have such a stride about them after just twenty two episodes and Alias successfully manages to straddle its themes, characters and central mythology with unexpected skill.
The first season, perhaps more than any other, is a show rooted in a post-90’s sense of nostalgia. Syd’s personal home life has the preppy American warmth of a Party of Five or Dawson’s Creek. Abrams season structure, while pushing at the edges of serialisation and storytelling in which characters develop and change, at times cleaves to the more traditional story of the week formula of many genre-based TV series of the last few decades.
Characters such as Will are rooted in the conspiratorial unease of The X-Files and both the 1970’s thrillers that inspired it. Alias could easily have ended up a series that followed in their wake, troubled by government control and paranoid about whether they act in our best interests, but existing in the wake of 9/11 it swiftly works to characterise the CIA as the good guys. SD-6 are the enemy within, the realisation of the long-held American fear of infiltration and subjugation – they could be the Russian bear with their claws firmly in American society. The fact they later are found to be the arm of a new-age SPECTRE in the Alliance, a global consortium of shadowy old white elites seeking to control the world from grand ostentatious rooms, only hammers the point home further. Alias would not be a show afraid of American structures and systems. Sydney Bristow would be the vanguard protecting them.
While there are episodes which in places feel arbitrary or provide fairly lacklustre core missions, and some of the main characters are left behind, the first season of Alias is one of the best years the show has. It will be eclipsed by a daring second season in which Alias reaches its apogee but there is no way such a year could have existed without this strong a foundation. Just the fact JJ Abrams pulled off something this ambitious, complicated and fast-paced from the get go is a feat to truly be admired and yet another reason why Alias is a show that deserves to be embraced by a greater audience.
Check out reviews of Season 1 of Alias here: