Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×15: ‘Facade’ (TV Review)

When ABC laid down the edict midway through Alias’ second season that the series needed to become less impenetrable to audiences, Facade in many respects feels the closest the series has yet come to providing the show the network perhaps wanted it to be.

Facade, barring one or two continuing narrative aspects, character beats and story ideas, is perhaps the most truly stand-alone episode of Alias yet. It is also, in many ways, certainly one of the best episodes of the third season, if not the entire series. It links to Season Three’s arch villains the Covenant, and ties directly back to a small dangling thread from Full Disclosure, but Facade is the first experiment with crafting a contained, focused narrative that could be watched independently of understanding the myriad amount of complex mythology and character stories Alias is built upon. In narrative construction, it also owes the biggest debt to date to one of the series’ primary influences: the 1960s iconic spy series Mission: Impossible.

Why now? Why create an episode like this as the show enters the last third of a season?

Though the primary reason is to build an episode around the special guest star of the week, Ricky Gervais, there is also a strange logic to Facade’s placement at this stage in Alias. It would have worked in the fourth season, a year which embraces stand-alone storytelling intentionally in the first half of the season, but Facade also exists within the strange nether-space of Alias between two distinct stages of the series’ mythology: the Prophecy and the Passenger. After Six and Blowback certainly advanced the duality inherent in the dynamics of Syd/Vaughn, Sark/Lauren, but from a narrative perspective they advance nothing of importance. Lauren doesn’t even feature in this episode at all. Alias is in a holding pattern that only starts to shift from Taken, next time, onwards.

In the third season, there is no better place for Facade. It exists almost independently of many of the plot lines and character stories around it. Maybe, in the strangest of ways, that’s a major reason why it works so well.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×12: ‘Crossings’ (TV Review)

How do you follow an episode like Full Disclosure? It is hard to envy Crossings, an hour of Alias that, to some degree, is a necessary change down in gear.

Being aware that Full Disclosure was, in part, meant to span the length of the third season, Crossings could in an alternative universe ended up an early outing in a fourth season exploring the consequences of the Julia Thorne arc, yet it is forced to find a space in the wake of some monumental revelations on a personal level for Sydney, seismic Rambaldi secrets laid bare, and a major twist for one of the series’ lead characters. Josh Applebaum & Andre Nemec’s second script as writers on the show chooses to focus on the easiest of the three, and indeed by and large Alias never really gets into the fallout of the bigger two aspects of the previous episodes. Crossings is a sign of the times to come for the show.

After the events of Full Disclosure, one might suggest that Crossings refers to Sydney’s emotional state as she moves from the missing two years, and the seismic personal changes that wrought, into a new space. “I’m moving on” she tries to reassure Vaughn as they grapple with the terms and conditions of their relationship, but it’s as convincing as the idea of Alias itself truly moving on into a new space. Crossings is no metaphysical piece, no sequel to Passage on a thematic level and any kind of rite for Sydney. Crossings is rather Alias moving into a safe space, a comfort zone, and almost immediately a far less intriguing, complicated and nebulous arena. It’s not even a step back, as such. It’s a step sideways.

Season Three will get back there in much less elegant fashion than in the first half of the year, but perhaps appropriately for an episode set primarily in North Korea, Crossings is Alias walking into a dramatic no man’s land.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×08: ‘Breaking Point’ (TV Review)

Though moving away from anything that could be described as an Alias episodic ‘formula’, Breaking Point is not just one of the best episodes of Season Three but, perhaps, of the entire series.

A natural culmination of the third season’s story arcs to date, Breaking Point is where Alias has arguably been heading for almost two seasons. Breen Frazier’s script, as the arrested Sydney is carted away as a suspected terrorist to the menacing, isolated Camp Williams, renditioned and tortured by US military forces for intelligence, is the natural extension of the first season’s episode Q&A, in which Syd was detained by the FBI (supposedly) after she was directly linked to apocalyptic quatrains in the Rambaldi manuscript. Jack said at the time that they could “conceivably hold her without trial for the rest of her life” and the same applies here. Camp Williams is not presented as the kind of detention facility people leave, or certainly leave as who they were before.

There are plenty of connections back to The Prophecy arc in the first season over the conclusion to Syd’s missing two years storyline, but one of the most interesting is how Alias approaches terrorism in this context. After spending several years operating as a post-Cold War series as America’s unipolar might is challenged by domestic insurgents and glamorous external villains, Breaking Point finishes the work began in Q&A—and continued in episodes such as Fire Bomb in the second season—in transforming Alias, born in the shadow of the attack on the Twin Towers, into a post-9/11 series. Breaking Point could be an episode of 24 or Homeland. It debuted at the height of 24’s popularity, as The Sopranos was coming to terms with the New York tragedy, as Star Trek: Enterprise was exploring the reactionary cost of American imperialism in its fictional future. Though a series built on retro, cod-1960s escapism, Alias boldly crosses a threshold in Breaking Point as it explores the reality of American political extremism in reaction to the existential fear of terrorism.

It makes for one hell of a powerful, dark and disturbing hour of Alias. This might be as grim as the series gets.

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Star Trek: Discovery, TV, Writing

TV Review: STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Season 3)

Star Trek: Discovery’s third season is both a step forward and, in many ways, a step back for the new era of the Star Trek franchise.

Buoyed by the ending of a second season that sent the crew of the Discovery far past the point of any canonical Star Trek story to date, the possibilities were endless. It could throw off the shackles of nostalgia, of existing trapped within the fan fiction canon of the 1960s, and truly emerge into something new. Incoming showrunner Michelle Paradise, under the stewardship of our modern day Rick Berman, Alex Kurtzman, chooses to throw the U.S.S. Discovery into a world of uncertainty: a post-cataclysmic, disordered galaxy with the reduced United Federation of Planets, an imperious crime syndicate in heavy control, and a central mystery for the crew to solve. Discovery builds on Star Trek: Picard’s notion of a shattered world order, a universe of futuristic certainties rent asunder by cosmic events, poor governance, and the rise of conspiratorial and sinister entities. Like much Star Trek before it, the seeming fall of the Federation as we knew it tracks with the steady collapse of the United States as the bedrock of post-war geopolitical order in the 21st century.

This allows Paradise and her team of writers to present Discovery as the kind of anachronism Star Trek itself, to some degree, now is. Michael Burnham leads her crew into this unknown future where she is greeted in almost hallowed terms by the first Starfleet officer she meets, who suggests the “hope” of a unified Federation, separated through travel and communications by the mysterious ‘Burn’ event a century ago, is her (and her crew, but more specifically her). It is as close to prophecy without venturing down the awkward road Picard trod on those lines, but Discovery the ship ends up serving as an avatar of righteousness and goodness from the distant past, from the “golden age of science” as a future character at one point puts it. In a world filled with Federation officers used to reactive, insular actions, Burnham and the Discovery arrive with a hopeful joie de vivre about the universe which, surprise surprise, challenges the status quo in a way no other crew had done in a hundred years. Discovery serves as Star Trek’s own attempt to provide light amidst ominous darkness.

The problem ends up lying with a mixture of repetitive elements, unoriginal storylines, at points poor writing and a chronic over-reliance on a main character who is lionised, even almost canonised, to the point of a climactic moment that is not just unearned, but also truly, when you think about it, absurd. Continue reading “TV Review: STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Season 3)”

TV, Writing

The American Nightmare: Experiencing THE SOPRANOS

Following a first watch of the show, A. J. Black discusses his impressions after experiencing David Chase’s seminal Mob drama, The Sopranos

To me, The Sopranos is about the American Nightmare, as opposed to the American Dream.

The final episode of David Chase’s magnum opus about the New Jersey Mob which ran from 1999 through to 2007 on HBO is called Made in America, as if to underline how the larger than life central figure of Anthony ‘Tony’ Soprano, despite his Italian heritage and Mob family history, could only exist in the framework of American society. Even with a fairly sprawling cast of regular fixtures, within the Soprano family and without, it was Tony who encapsulated the broken promise of America in one deeply flawed, psychologically scarred, selfish and sociopathic individual. The series pivoted around the balance between being head of the New Jersey Mafia while trying to exist as the patriarch of a prototypical American nuclear family, and how these elements would come to often almost violent blows.

Chase’s series is constructed upon the idea that Tony, while representing ostensibly the quite cliched, Mario Puzo-definition of an Italian gangster—masculine, hard drinking, loves food, charms women etc…—was also intensely damaged as a human being to the point he reaches out and accesses therapy as a way of grappling with his own life and psyche, traditionally the kind of omertà-breaking move that would consign him to Mafia oblivion. The Sopranos only works so well because Tony needs to talk, to find an outlet for the filthy, ugly, morally vacuous existence he leads within a world of zero substance posing as important machismo. If Tony represents how America lost its way, became corrupted by cynical values of self-deception and mercurial self-interest, then it’s the American Dream week in week out in the office of Dr. Jennifer Melfi as much as it is a fairly low-rent Jersey gangster.

Having just turned two decades old, experiencing The Sopranos for the first time throws all of this into sharp relief, suggesting Tony Soprano was less an actualisation of America’s decay but more of a harbinger of what was to come.
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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×03: ‘Reunion’ (TV Review)

Reunion is a classic example of Alias on auto-pilot, delivering the kind of throwaway hour of the series filled with scenes and moments most fans probably barely remember.

This makes a degree of sense given how The Two and Succession both had an enormous job to perform of establishing the new status quo of Season Three’s altered landscape, provide Sydney with a set of core new arcs for her character, and re-introduce both our long-term supporting players and crucial new additions, such as Vaughn’s wife, NSC agent Lauren Reed. Reunion is, therefore, the first conventional episode of Alias’ much truncated ‘stand-alone’ structure, although from the season premiere J. J. Abrams established that Alias, by its very nature, will never be entirely a contained episodic series of old. Jeff Pinkner’s first script of the season shows off that new structural format; a central ‘espionage of the week’ plotline flanked by a number of ongoing character and story arcs.

The worrying part of this is just how anodyne Reunion turns out to be as an episode. It reminded me of Season Two’s third episode, Cipher, which perhaps stands as the most disposable story in that otherwise propulsive season, and while Reunion is perhaps given a run for its money this season for that accolade by outings such as Crossings or Taken, and does at least contain the last vestiges of narrative establishment for this season with Syd and Lauren’s interaction, much like Cipher it contains several relatively unmemorable missions and Sark operating in a barely sketched, ‘rent a baddie’ role. Reunion simply feels like a collection of necessary character beats for the seasonal arc stitched together by a thin main story which, ultimately, means nothing to the show as a whole.

Reunion stands as probably the least thrilling or dynamic hour of the season’s first half, even if it at least has some element of necessary form and function.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 2×15: ‘A Free Agent’ (TV Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

There is a strong argument to be made that A Free Agent is the episode in which the second era of Alias truly begins.

Phase One, in a direct attempt to reconceptualise the series, destroyed in one episode the entire conceptual framework of how Alias worked in order to eradicate the complexity of the double-agent spy narrative Sydney Bristow found herself within, collapsing SD-6 and the Alliance beyond them like a house of cards in swift, stylish fashion. Double Agent, succeeding it, was originally meant to air ahead of it, and serves as an unlikely breakwater, geared around a major A-list guest star and while it introduces a key part of the series’ mythology in the Helix doubling technology, it feels strangely divorced from what came before and what follows after. A Free Agent is the direct follow-up to Phase One. It is the episode that deals with the fallout and consequences of SD-6’s collapse, on multiple levels, and kickstarts the new threat Season Two will deal with.

Namely: the threat of Arvin Sloane as a super-villain, freed from the restrictions of his role in SD-6, and allowed to blossom into the character Ron Rifkin has steadily, through the nature of his ambiguous and deadly performance, steered the character toward. A Free Agent also, directly, even up to the nature of its title, deals head on with the reality of Sydney’s existence in the espionage world. She has always been a reluctant hero, dragged into the CIA’s mission to destroy the Alliance after the loss of her fiancee. All she wanted, upon learning the truth about SD-6 and Sloane, was to escape. “I did everything for the CIA I said I would, and I’m done” she claims, determinedly, planning to quit the CIA. A Free Agent does something the audience, even without realising it, needed: it provides a new mission statement for Syd, at least for the time being. A reason for her to continue being a spy and for Alias, logically, to exist.

That reason, interestingly, turns out to be the realisation that Sydney, existentially, is trapped. A Free Agent establishes Sloane as a personal and ideological opponent she needs to, logically, overcome in order to escape this life. The title becomes an ironic one.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 2×13: ‘Phase One’ (TV Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Every television show has that one, signature episode which stands out as the series at its best and often its most iconic. Phase One, for Alias, is very much that episode.

It has passed into the cultural lexicon in American TV as “the Super Bowl episode” of Alias, in that it was chosen by ABC for the very prestigious honour of airing directly after the Super Bowl, America’s biggest watch sports event in mid-February by some distance, and in the days where network television ruled the roost, many shows would save major two-part episodes or important narratives to air in the slipstream of the Super Bowl, aware that they had a larger guarantee of attracting a major audience. Phase One was originally designed, structurally, to air after Double Agent, but once J.J. Abrams—with some advice from his wife—realised the powerful potential of Phase One, and quite how much of a game changer it was, the running order was adjusted and Phase One aired after the 2003 Super Bowl…

…to the lowest audience numbers in that spot since 1975! Though perversely it was still the highest rated episode for reviewing figures the series ever achieved. This is a reflection on how Alias, despite being supported well by ABC who believed in it and Abrams enough to consistently renew the series, even when the numbers were eclipsed substantially by Abrams’ next series Lost from Season 4 onwards, would consistently struggle to find an audience, even in the wake of the most watched television event of the year and the fact that Phase One ends up being, for all intents and purposes, a second pilot for Alias. It is structured and designed entirely to close the book on the knotty espionage premise introduced in Truth Be Told, do away with SD-6, the Alliance and Sydney Bristow as a double agent, and reboot the series with a streamlined, if not simplistic and uncomplicated, premise going forward.

As a result, Phase One is not only the best episode of Alias since Abrams’ pilot, it is also arguably the show at the peak of what it was capable of. It is the closest Alias ever comes to true TV greatness and a motion picture scope and gravitas.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 2×09: ‘Passage – Pt 2’ (TV Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

The second half of Passage is proof positive that Alias might have benefited more often by indulging in the traditional two-part episode structure of old, given how well it makes use of the breathing space afforded to it by part one.

The Box, as we previously discussed last season, played structurally with the classic two-part event episode by seeding a high-concept idea within the ongoing, serialised fabric of Alias, in a different manner to Alias’ penchant for ending stories week by week in a truly serialised fashion with a cliffhanger, frequently Sydney-in-peril. This lessened over time, with many Season Two episodes having the confidence to end on an emotional beat, but connected narrative structures remain – take how Salvation flows into The Counteragent, for example.

Passage, like The Box, has a condensed conceptual idea—Syd, Jack & Irina work together on a mission—that only exists within the construct of these two episodes, while helping the forward the broader arcs of the season.

Passage therefore has the space to establish the global stakes—in this case stolen suitcase nuclear weapons inside contested Kashmiri territory—and establish the emotional stakes—here surrounding whether Syd, Jack and the broader CIA can trust Irina enough to let her out of her cell—which gives this entire story a greater depth than some Alias episodes are afforded. It is a sign that Alias can break from the traditional Season One template of a mission Sydney goes on with a specific objective, broken up into two or three set-pieces per episode. The mission in Passage is the episode, and it works entirely to service the Bristow family drama. Not until Season 4 premiere Authorised Personnel Only will Alias again give itself the two-part framework to tell a story in quite this manner.

That is part of the reason Passage works so well, indeed rarely for the second part of a story, it works better than part one and the establishment. Passage also works because the payoff is as satisfying, if not more so, than what the episode sets up.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 2×05: ‘The Indicator’ (TV Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

One of the key thematic ideas running through the genre output of Bad Robot as a company, and particularly JJ Abrams as a producer, is that of destiny. Alias, for the first time head on, truly confronts this concept in The Indicator.

This is an episode more important to the broader direction and thematic core of Alias than it may first been given credit for. It exposes a huge personal secret from Sydney Bristow’s past which casts her relationship with her father Jack—one I’ve argued since the very beginning is what Alias is really all about—in a striking and devastating new light. It ends up directly connecting to season finale The Telling, in how it reveals Project Christmas as a spy children training program, and consequently manages to establish the parameters for Syd’s amnesiac assassin arc across the first half of Season Three. It even connects to the series finale, All the Time in the World, which returns to the idea of an innate intelligence within the Bristow/Derevko line that is pre-disposed to espionage, but the message is that such conditioning can ultimately be broken. The Indicator re-frames Syd’s entire life as pre-disposed by some level of spy destiny, and questions whether or not this was inevitable, or she is entirely a product of what her parents made her.

A key skill of Alias, and why to my mind it is one of the great, underrated American television genre series, in how well it actualises parental ideas and tropes. The nature vs nurture debate continues to rage; are serial killers who came from loving family homes a product of their parents, or is there a genetic or psychological basis for their crimes? Alias literalises the idea of nurture by having Jack explicitly manipulate Syd as a young girl into exploiting what a CIA psychologist describes as “proficiency with numbers, three dimensional thinking, problem solving”, and coding into her subconscious the aptitude that allowed her, when SD-6 came calling, to sail through training with the highest scores and commendations. It is hard to say whether Abrams and his team of writers planned this revelation in advance, despite a mention of Project Christmas in Season One’s Masquerade, but it retroactively fits as a causal explanation for Syd’s super-spy abilities.

The Indicator does not necessarily linger in the memory as a classic or iconic individual episode of television, but without doubt it changes the entire context of Syd’s life as a spy, her childhood and her relationship with Jack. In that sense, it’s a game changer.

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