Season Reviews, The Pentaverate, TV

THE PENTAVERATE is a kind but comically calamitous relic of a bygone age (TV Review)

The funniest thing about The Pentaverate is the timing of its arrival for Netflix, given how under the kosh they currently are in terms of value for money.

Recent reports have seen Netflix’s stock value plummet following news that they have lost a considerable subscriber base as the ‘streaming wars’ heat up with a consolidated Disney and Amazon, a critically rising Apple, and a looming WarnerMedia on the horizon. All media analysis points to one conclusion – Netflix might still be top dog but they can no longer rest on their laurels. Content is not simply enough any longer. Their strategy of throwing as much as they can at the streaming wall and seeing what sticks is not generating them dozens of Stranger Things’ or Bridgerton’s. What they’re ending with up too often is projects like The Pentaverate.

No one is likely to dispute that Mike Myers is funny or certainly has been funny. Wayne’s World has aged well and is now considered by many as a cult comedy classic of the early 90s. Austin Powers, while broader, albeit just as hit and miss, landed squarely inside the ‘Cool Britannia’ fondness for the 1960s that came to bear in the late 1990s, fondly lampooning the James Bond series and 60s cultural norms with great success. Myers is a one-trick pony in many ways but you know what you’ll get – cheeky charm, irreverent asides, teenage boy scatological set pieces and gurning, cod-Spitting Image caricature. You’ll either go in for that or you won’t and The Pentaverate is entirely more of the same.

The difference is that in the age of Netflix, of streaming, Myers’ repertoire of jokes is rapidly wearing thin.

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Essays, TV

We Are Like the Dreamers: Experiencing TWIN PEAKS

“The locus of the human mystery is perception of this world. From it proceeds every thought, every art”. So said Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, and while she isn’t referencing Twin Peaks, her medication on perception is key to the experience of watching this unique, mind-bending series.

Many people I know have a long association with Twin Peaks to a degree I never have. They watched it either in subsequent decades since it premiered in 1990 or even perhaps at the time on ABC latterly BBC2 in the U.K., where it ran as a two season cult hit that though failing to be renewed, latched onto the public and cultural consciousness and never quite let go. I was just seven years old when David Lynch & Mark Frost’s series arrived, too young to step into the Black Lodge as a viewer but old enough to feel its existence somehow.

During the 1990s, Twin Peaks became an American import that was discussed in hushed tones as a modern classic, something dark, horrific and deeply strange, almost akin to the boom in schlock horror of the period where VHS tapes were king and satellite broadcasts were just penetrating the mainstream. It was not long afterward, around 1995, that I discovered The X-Files—still a lifelong passion—without truly understanding as a teenager the pervasive effect FBI Agent Dale Cooper’s investigation into the death of teenager Laura Palmer had on the show I rapidly fell in love with.

Years went by. Decades. I watched so many series recognised as American classics, beyond my penchant for science-fiction. Breaking Bad. The Sopranos. Mad Men. The list went on. Twin Peaks lurked, however, at the back of my mind, continuing to latch on. References abounded, references I didn’t get. And when the series came back in 2017 for The Return, a long gestated third season, I missed the boat. Was I afraid of it? Was it just too legendary, too impenetrable? Was I terrified it wouldn’t match the expectations?

Last year, the time came, during the second Covid-19 lockdown. It was time to walk with fire. It was time to order some cherry pie. It was time to let the past dictate the future.

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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, TV, Writing

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Legacy’ (3×21)

For all of the jigsaw pieces that make up the Rambaldi puzzle, Legacy works to boil the mythology down into a simplistic revelation.

Once again, Rambaldi’s endgame is about a message rather than a physical gain. Il Dire at the end of Season Two, though we didn’t know it at the time, was designed to reveal a simple truth to Sloane, and all we had in The Telling was Irina’s assertion that he believed he was supposed to realise the ‘word’ of Rambaldi. Words. Knowledge. Sacred information.

Legacy repeats this but rather than Sloane assembling a machine, his conduit is now a person in his daughter, Nadia, injected here with a magical elixir designed to ‘remotely’ channel that ‘word’ of Rambaldi. Again, the answer leads to another question, in the boon they later search for in Resurrection and later The Descent, but the legacy of Rambaldi appears to be coming, appropriately, full circle. Once the puzzle pieces are assembled, all roads seem to lead back to the prophet himself.

This is quite appropriate for Alias in how, from the very beginning of the Rambaldi mythology in Parity, he has been positioned as the series’ God-figure; an unknowable creation, off stage, influencing everything the main characters do. Sloane’s faith, Irina’s past, Sark’s extremism, and on and on – everything traces back to the ‘search’ for Rambaldi, the search for a secular God who holds information, knowledge and great power.

Legacy, however, suggests said power does not just come from within, but from the very bloodline associated with Sydney herself. Season Three concludes the transmogrification in this episode of Alias’ mythology from an outward quest for truth into an internal search for knowledge, as Nadia’s channeling and the continued revelations about Irina’s history regarding her birth unfurl to connect the extended family at the heart of the drama to these mythological stakes.

Legacy, like many of these late Season Three episodes, still has way too much happening for its own good as a compelling piece of drama, but it does contextualise the snowballing effect of the Rambaldi quest.

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Alias, TV, Writing

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Blood Ties’ (3×20)

There is a darkness that pervades Blood Ties that feels quite rare for Alias.

At this stage, the season is at the height of complication turning into resolution. A cavalcade of revelations regarding the Rambaldi mythology have been unfurled over the last few episodes, a barrage of detail that the first two seasons didn’t come close to unloading. Blood Ties adds even more layers, revealing quite who the Passenger is in terms of Rambaldi’s mythological context.

We know Sydney has a sister and here we meet her and get a name – Nadia, played by Mia Maestro for the rest of the season, the entirety of the fourth and once or twice in the fifth. Lauren is fully exposed here and stops pretending she’s not a pantomime villainess, breaking away from the CIA fully to become what she tried to hide earlier in the season – Sark’s partner in crime. Almost everything is now out in the open and the dominoes are starting to fall.

There is, within this, a real nastiness buried inside Blood Ties which reflects the road Alias has travelled from the rather pulpy, bright and colourful series we saw particularly at the beginning to a show buried under a huge amount of revelation and laboured with a great deal of bruised and battered characters. Chiefly, this is realised in how Vaughn, already having to try and hide how angry and emotionally wounded he is by Lauren’s betrayal, being physically tortured by in part the woman he used to love.

We also see how Syd is cautious at the prospect of meeting Nadia, lacking the optimism and hope she felt when getting to know Irina, expecting betrayal. Even Sloane goes into the dark heart of the US government, exposing a cabal who he blackmails through a threat of revealing their dark deeds and the “unseemly predilections” of their children. We are a world away from the Alias of Syd running around in three inch heels while napalm explodes around her.

Though Blood Ties manages to be quite effective in places, stating true to its brooding nature and offering several momentous scenes, it nonetheless feels like a show Alias, on some level, never wanted to become.

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Alias, TV, Writing

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Hourglass’ (3×19)

Hourglass is a good example of the tricky balance Alias is having to pull off, at the end of this season, between mythological revelation and soap-opera theatrics.

Ostensibly, the reveal of Jack’s betrayal by Sloane, and Irina’s added betrayal of him, underpins the central thematic idea coursing through the entirety of the latter half of this season in the ongoing Vaughn/Lauren narrative. Everything is about betrayal, and how the ‘alias’ at the heart of the concept is utilised. It began for the show with Sydney operating as a double agent, evolved into her being kidnapped and corrupted into living with one of the aliases she pretended to be, and has now developed into replaying the core backstory on which the Bristow family saga has played out – Syd’s virtuous all-American mother revealed as the Other, a Russian spy, and how she grew up within a shattered nuclear family as a result, representing the growing dysfunction of American family life at the end of, and in the wake of, the ideological Cold War conflict.

Alias has never really found an idea that works as cleanly as Jack’s betrayal by Laura or Irina to represent what the ‘alias’ means, or the central family values Alias strives for.

The whole point of the show, through the espionage framework, is for Syd to find that happiness and balance and security that Jack was robbed of. It has become more challenging in the post-9/11 sphere Alias was forced to inhabit, a world of uncertain alliances and geopolitical realities—Julia Thorne arc was very much a response to that—for Syd to achieve that balance. Lauren’s intrusion into that security was a pointed challenge to that ongoing story arc and in that sense, her own betrayal—her becoming Irina to Vaughn’s Jack—does make sense, but Hourglass displays how the show has moved from many of these betrayals and revelations operating on a subconscious or opaque level to scenes where Jack and Sloane openly talk about how he had it away with Irina. It removes a lot of the historical mystique from Alias’ deepest themes.

Hourglass also confirms what we have already suspected and throws a classic soap opera drama trope into the mix of the series: the secret sister.

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Alias, TV, Writing

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Unveiled’ (3×18)

There is a great deal going on in Unveiled, as Alias spirals headfirst toward the end of the season, but the episode feels largely an exercise in the majority of characters playing catch up with the audience.

This has always been a trait of Alias. Both of the previous seasons allowed the audience to be one step ahead, the majority of the time, of Sydney and her allies in the CIA. The first season nevertheless did manage to employ a greater sense of mystery – we didn’t really know who ‘The Man’ was or what his organisation sought to achieve. The second season embroiled us more in the machinations of Sloane and Irina as they moved into the position of antagonists, while keeping their motivations within the Rambaldi mythology enigmatic, and kept us aware of Allison Doren undercover when nobody else around her realised. Alias is built on the ‘unveiling’ of characters and storylines and secrets, with the audience caught in the middle of expectation and genuine uncertainty.

The third season has struggled to make this same structural approach work as effectively. We either simply don’t know enough about the villains (the Covenant) or the actions and motivations of our antagonists, with Lauren effectively here operating in the same position Allison was to all intents and purposes, are too informed and vague. Unveiled suggests these stories are unravelling, as Lauren’s duplicity is steadily exposed to Vaughn and the characters around him, but the payoff is nowhere near the same as when Syd or Will realised who Allison really was. Lauren’s exposure is simply an inevitability to be overcome so Alias can move on to the next stage, and that’s a problem. She, and Sark, now feel little more like necessary evils the series needs to indulge rather than powerful opposites for Syd & company to expose.

Unveiled ends up ticking off numerous plot boxes, drowned as it is in Rambaldi mythology, but none of it really has any weight or substance. Much like Taken and The Frame, this really is Alias on auto-pilot.

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Alias, TV, Writing

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Taken’ (3×16)

If there is one character who has been left behind the most in the structural changes to Season Three of Alias, it is Marcus Dixon.

Alias has always struggled with how to integrate Dixon in many ways. He began as Sydney’s loyal partner in Season One, a good friend and older brother proxy who provided counsel and advice; a good man unaware of how he was being duped by SD-6. That season at least flirted with him exposing Syd’s secret that provided solid drama but then the first half of Season Two barely even utilises him. Phase One arguably contains the finest material Carl Lumbly—a great actor for someone so underused, as he recently proved on Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier—to chew on, as Dixon’s world comes tumbling down. Season Two just then compounds the misery and trauma on Dixon to the point he almost breaks, and only just comes through the other side with his wife murdered and him on the verge of suicide.

Season Three has so much else going on, from a character and narrative perspective, that it again struggles to figure out how Dixon integrates into the post-Julia Thorne dynamic. Making him the new boss, the new Kendall/Jack replacement in the CIA Rotunda, in a sense works. It is logical from a development perspective – he has the experience. But it not only reduces Lumbly to largely an exposition role, delivering mission briefings, it also restrains him. Dixon feels, in the first half of Season Three, relatively inert. He is even essentially written out of the Prelude-arc, as Syd goes on the run, when logically he should have been there with Jack & Vaughn fighting to get Syd away from the NSC. Only in Full Disclosure does Dixon actively show a level of forward motion, of the kind of action-based autonomy we saw in the first two seasons, when he joins Syd to help destroy the Rambaldi baby making machine. “It’s personal for me too” he promises Syd, though it feels more like a reminder to the audience.

Taken is designed to rebalance the scales, to invest us once again in Dixon as a character and a father. The problem is that because he’s spent so long being inert, Taken’s attempt to tether him to the ongoing mythology comes off as frighteningly melodramatic.

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Alias, TV, Writing

ALIAS – ‘Blowback’ (3×14 – Review)

In 2018, we began a deep-dive TV review series looking at J.J. Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, we’ll be looking at Season Three’s 22-episode run in detail…

While it is tempting to consider the mid-stretch of Alias Season Three as a devolution of complexity and craft, in which the show spins its wheels, Blowback does at least attempt to adopt a tried and tested narrative trope in which to tell a fairly bland espionage story.

It splits the episode between two perspectives, that of Vaughn and Lauren, as writer Laurence Andries charts the continued, steady self-destruction of their marriage, even before the truth about Lauren’s duplicity emerges. We see the same mission, as the CIA unit attempt to stop the Covenant stealing a ‘plasma charge’ from an unseen Philippine terrorist outfit called Shining Sword, from each of their vantage points, with Vaughn blissfully unaware that his wife is one of the Covenant agents he and Syd are chasing down. In this, the audience are ahead of our heroes and complicit in Lauren’s continued duplicity, but Blowback looks to try and depict the cracks in their marriage, in true Alias fashion, through high-concept spy theatrics.

Andries chooses to borrow from Rashomon, the classic 1950 Japanese drama from auteur Akira Kurosawa, which is generally considered one of the first significant pieces of on-screen fiction to manipulate both time and perspective in the story of two men recounting the interlinked stories of a bandit, a wife, a samurai and a woodcutter, as their narratives re-tell the same events and overlap, each providing a unique and often self-serving perspective on what happened. Rashomon brilliantly plays with perceptions and highlights the nature of subjectivity, in how we are often the heroes of our own story, and it simply takes a tweak in how an event is observed to alter the context of the entire meaning of the moment. It is a compelling and philosophical piece of work.

Blowback is, to be charitable, neither, but it should be commended for experimentation and working to frame Vaughn and Lauren’s place in relation to their work and life through such a prism. It is a clever way to show just how intertwined their professional lives are at this stage.

Continue reading “ALIAS – ‘Blowback’ (3×14 – Review)”

TV, Writing

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Blowback’ (3×14)

While it is tempting to consider the mid-stretch of Alias Season Three as a devolution of complexity and craft, in which the show spins its wheels, Blowback does at least attempt to adopt a tried and tested narrative trope in which to tell a fairly bland espionage story.

It splits the episode between two perspectives, that of Vaughn and Lauren, as writer Laurence Andries charts the continued, steady self-destruction of their marriage, even before the truth about Lauren’s duplicity emerges. We see the same mission, as the CIA unit attempt to stop the Covenant stealing a ‘plasma charge’ from an unseen Philippine terrorist outfit called Shining Sword, from each of their vantage points, with Vaughn blissfully unaware that his wife is one of the Covenant agents he and Syd are chasing down. In this, the audience are ahead of our heroes and complicit in Lauren’s continued duplicity, but Blowback looks to try and depict the cracks in their marriage, in true Alias fashion, through high-concept spy theatrics.

Andries chooses to borrow from Rashomon, the classic 1950 Japanese drama from auteur Akira Kurosawa, which is generally considered one of the first significant pieces of on-screen fiction to manipulate both time and perspective in the story of two men recounting the interlinked stories of a bandit, a wife, a samurai and a woodcutter, as their narratives re-tell the same events and overlap, each providing a unique and often self-serving perspective on what happened. Rashomon brilliantly plays with perceptions and highlights the nature of subjectivity, in how we are often the heroes of our own story, and it simply takes a tweak in how an event is observed to alter the context of the entire meaning of the moment. It is a compelling and philosophical piece of work.

Blowback is, to be charitable, neither, but it should be commended for experimentation and working to frame Vaughn and Lauren’s place in relation to their work and life through such a prism. It is a clever way to show just how intertwined their professional lives are at this stage.

Continue reading “TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Blowback’ (3×14)”