Alias, TV, Writing

ALIAS – Season 3 (Overview)

By the third season of Alias, the series was established not as a breakout piece of television but rather a cult show with a dedicated but not stellar fan base in terms of ratings share.

2003, the year the season debuted, was signalling the continuing slow death march of network television. Cable prestige television was continuing to take hold and while we remain a decade out from the arrival of streaming services, Alias nonetheless plied its trade in a network model where ratings dominated. Alias, in that regard, was not the titanic hit ABC might have hoped for a show designed to appeal to both the youthful, female empowering crowd of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and fans of genre-based, mythological storytelling such as The X-Files. A year later, Lost would immediately and vastly eclipse it in that regards.

What Alias did have was a solid core group of fans heavily invested in the life and times of Sydney Bristow, her exploits within the CIA, and the ever developing romance between her and fellow agent Michael Vaughn. Season Two, halfway through the season, responded to an edict by ABC to essentially detonate the knotty, serialised concept Alias began with, and streamline Sydney away from the life of a double agent enmeshed in complicated storytelling. Phase One not only freed her, and the show from that, it gave those rabid fans what they had wanted from early on: it out Syd and Vaughn together as a couple and consummated their romance.

Across the first season and a half, Syd & Vaughn had a very strong line in “will they/won’t they?” storytelling, echoing as far back as Moonlighting in the 1980s and carried through into Mulder & Scully in the 1990s, amidst numerous other examples. Alias decided early on comparatively what almost every other show in this position decides: they will. And they did. And across the latter half of Season Two, as the series ran head long into the natural consequences of that first season and a half of storytelling, joyously revelling in the Rambaldi mythology and characters like Arvin Sloane and Irina Derevko as out and out villains, it satiated fans by allowing Syd & Vaughn to exist in a romantic relationship, firmly in love and committed to each other.

What fans, especially ‘shippers’, can sometimes forget is that what is good and pleasant for a character does not always equate to compelling drama. Where do you go when Syd & Vaughn are happily engaged as a couple? Marriage? Children? Logical possibilities, yet Alias is a series built on the ability of Sydney being able to jet around the globe killing bad guys, fighting goons and generally saving the world. How do children fit in that paradigm? Season Five will answer that question but at this stage in Alias’ life, there would be a reasonable consensus that it might be too soon to either marry Syd off or give her a child; indeed had Jennifer Garner not become pregnant, it likely never would have happened at all, particularly given the events of Full Disclosure this season.

Season Three, therefore, works to upset the balance of their relationship as the primary emotional raison d’etre of this new season. The Telling memorably provided audiences with a rather stunning, unexpected cliffhanger; Syd wakes up after her climactic fight with Allison Doren in Hong Kong to find she cannot remember where she has been for the last two years, everyone believes she was dead, and Vaughn… is now married to someone else. Instant horror for audiences invested in their romance. Instant drama for everyone else, aware that this changes their entire dynamic. This speaks to the constant push-pull between pleasing your established fan base, the people who tune in and make your show a success, and creative satisfying both the series and what it wants to say.

Alias, in that regard, deserves credit for what it tries to fashion Season Three into.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×09: ‘Conscious’ (TV Review)

Conscious operates in quite a formative space, not just for Alias but many of the works from J. J. Abrams production house that would overlap and follow it.

After the grim but effective exploration in Breaking Point of Alias’s position externally as a post-9/11 series rocked by the traumatic mass hysteria of terrorism on American soil, Conscious moves inward. It contextualises many of the thematic ideas not just of the third season but of Alias as a whole, specifically the inherent duality behind the concept. Sydney Bristow spends her life being two different people, herself and whatever ‘alias’ she adopts week by week on mission. When the narrative structure disappeared after Phase One that enabled this, Season Two brought in the Helix doubling technology and established, particularly by The Telling, two sides of a psychological join in Allison/Francie – the darkness and the light. Season Three brought that inherent duality into Syd’s character herself through her missing time and Julia Thorne, apparently an externalisation of the darkest impulses that the show has worried about since the beginning.

It’s worth noting in many ways that Alias has always been a little bit obsessed with the idea of the virtuous American mother/wife/girlfriend being not what they seem, and in Syd’s case it also extends to the idea of the hero being corrupted. The revelations about Laura Bristow, the lionised, dead before her time image of the perfect American wife, shatter that visage with the reality of the duplicitous, enigmatic Irina Derevko. Allison Doren murders the innocent, unaware Francie and works to corrupt the CIA’s operation from within through assassination and brainwashing, prepping Will Tippin as a ‘Manchurian Candidate’ in the making (fitting given the character was built on cinematic conspiracy templates). Julia Thorne is the ultimate expression of the fear about Sydney, that she might be an Irina in the making, or a programmed assassin, or a 500 year old prophesied bringer of mass destruction. Conscious is Alias’s psychological method of coming to terms with this anxiety, especially after Breaking Point.

What Syd finds as she enters the recesses of her subconscious manages to both forward the key narrative arc of the third season while making explicit the core thematic idea of the entire show: the greater enemy is within, not without.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 2×22: ‘The Telling’ (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 title of the Season Two finale of Alias is something of a coy misdirect. The Telling promises much in the way of answers to a series filled with questions and, ultimately, simply piles more questions on top of the pile.

This is, however, as it should be. Alias was built on mystery box storytelling. J.J. Abrams, who returns to write and direct this episode, the first time in that double role since the series pilot Truth Be Told (and his last as show runner of the series), constructed Alias atop a house of cards in terms of narrative enigma and steadily unfurling character dynamics which, particularly in the second half of this season, have begun to fall to pieces as the series contracted and morphed into something new. The Telling serves as the conclusion of that transitory process and the beginning of an entirely new one.

Abrams’ script and story are extremely confident in not just picking up from where Second Double left off, as all of the character and story threads across the season begin coming together, but delivering a series of conclusive beats which are incredibly rewarding as a viewer. The tantalising mystery of Sloane’s Rambaldi device and the arcane mythology behind Syd’s ultimate confrontation with Irina; the climactic revelation and supremely cathartic fight between Syd and Evil Francie as the most personal truth of the season is revealed, and finally what has to rank as one of the most stunning and brazen cliffhangers, and one of the best examples of mystery box storytelling, that genre television has ever delivered.

The Telling might not quite live up to the tease of its title. It might not lay bare all of the secrets Alias has to offer. But it does reward the audience as the capstone to a remarkably successful twenty two episodes of storytelling, given how different the show looks from where we began in The Enemy Walks In.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 2×03: ‘Cipher’ (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…

If Trust Me worked to establish Sydney Bristow’s psychology toward her mother, Cipher begins the same process with Jack Bristow as regards the woman who used to be his wife.

Understandably across the first two episodes of Season Two, Alias didn’t really devote a lot of time to Jack and where he stands with all of this. The Enemy Walks In saw him mainly putting Will Tippin back into the world, while in Trust Me he voices brief notes of caution about Irina Derevko which are entirely to be expected. Jack was the man she betrayed in the most personal and soul-destroying way, and Season One established very clearly just how much Irina’s ‘death’ and the betrayal about her origins he kept from Syd all her life had turned him into an emotional shell of a man, one unable to truly connect with the daughter he loved dearly from such a tragic relationship. Jack was always going to react badly to Irina’s reappearance on the scene but Cipher establishes the terror underneath the anger and caution: that Syd might be bewitched by her mother.

This fear forms the core basis of Cipher, an episode which otherwise is a fairly formulaic outing for Alias. It feels the most ‘Season One’ of the three Season Two episodes to date; that sounds like a rebuke, but please don’t read it as such. Season One, which I’ve talked about in depth, is an extremely confident and accomplished first year of television but many of the early initial episodes lack the same nuance and depth of the middle and later half of the season as they work to establish plot points and character arcs that will pay off down the road. Cipher suffers from the same problem, as writers Alex Kurtzman-Counter & Roberto Orci (in their first script this season) seed storylines that will bloom: Jack’s secret about Syd’s childhood, Will’s CIA interactions, Sloane being ‘haunted’ by Emily. Around this, they strive to stick to the spinal mission structure employed by the first season as Syd pursues a MacGuffin, but there is less weight and heft than the previous hour.

In truth, Cipher is probably the first of the five weakest episodes of Alias Season Two, running from here through to The Counteragent. Fine episodes on their own terms, and necessary ones, but hours which lack the dramatic payoff Season Two later provides in droves.

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Essays, The X-Files, TV

Project Crossroads: Where does THE X-FILES go from here?

The X-Files, one of the most recognised and beloved television properties of the last three decades, lies once again at a fascinating impasse.

My Struggle IV was billed as a finale, but it soon became clear Chris Carter only intended Season 11 to serve as a season rather than series finale. Despite Gillian Anderson’s claim this was her last time playing FBI agent Dana Scully, Carter has steadfastly refused to write a true ending for Scully and her erstwhile partner Fox Mulder. What many considered could well be the final time we saw these iconic characters, fates were left unresolved, storylines nebulous, and our two heroes were left staring down at a crossroads of two different paths: domesticity with the chance of a new family, or continuing their work investigating the paranormal. Their choice depends on many factors which lie beyond any decisions made by the two intrepid FBI agents in the show.

For one thing – ratings. Unlike the cavalcade of TV shows and even movies now being produced for streaming services, The X-Files still operates out of the FOX network on broadcast television, and their fiscal choices of what to spend their money on depends on how many people tune in every week. While the first revival series, Season 10, was a mega hit for the network both domestically and internationally, lightning hasn’t struck twice; Season 11 has consistently underperformed week on week, with low viewer numbers.

Were people turned off by the lukewarm creativity of the six episodes in 2016? Did they watch back then because The X-Files returning was a novelty? It’s hard to say. Either way, the numbers haven’t looked good, and while it mattered less when everyone believed Season 11 was the final hurrah, it matters more if Carter hopes to continue the show in some form.

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Essays, TV

THE X-FILES and Alternate Universes

As the much-anticipated eleventh and almost certainly final season of The X-Files kicks off 2018, a remarkable fan theory has begun to arise in certain social media groups from the first two episodes: that The X-Files has slipped into an alternate universe. On the face of it, the notion sounds as crazy as the kind of cases Agent Fox Mulder has in his basement office, but could some nugget of possibility ripple beneath this theory?

A major factor backing up the assertion was confirmed in season premiere My Struggle III, in the fact Agent Dana Scully imagined the previous Season 10 finale My Struggle II in her mind’s eye, a remarkable twist eradicating the events of an entire episode only sold to the audience by virtue of Scully having been gifted of it thanks to a vision from her long-lost son William.

The catastrophic, world-ending, apocalyptic events of the Season 10 finale ended up simply as information for Scully to understand, a warning perhaps of knowledge to help she & Mulder prevent the release of the deadly Spartan Virus that wipes out humanity. So the theory goes, however, Scully’s vision wasn’t just a prophetic warning of terrible events to come, but rather an entire alternate reality she, and we, have experienced since The X-Files returned to our screens.

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