Our reviews of Alias: The Complete Third Season (published December 8th, 2004), Alias: The Complete Fourth Season (published March 21st, 2007), and Alias: The Complete Fifth Season (published March 28th, 2007) are also available.
Spying. Stealing. Murder. And you think your family has issues.
Fighting evil, one deliciously tight outfit at a time.
At least that's how many of us XY-chromosome types see the show. But Alias is more than that.
Alias is the latest in a long-line of "superwomen" television shows. From the likes of La Femme Nikita to Dark Angel, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner, Dude, Where's My Car?, Pearl Harbor) proves that you don't have to be built like Arnold Schwarzenegger to be a great spy. And Sydney is definitely a great spy, if only for her chameleon-like ability to change her appearance to suit any situation. But, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Premiering to strong word-of-mouth, Alias hasn't quite been the hit show that ABC has hoped for. Fortunately, it does possess a very strong male demographic (surprise!), which allows the network to make plenty of money from advertisers who covet that highly desired 18-34 male category (me!). But is Alias a good show? Absolutely.
Alias is one of the most complicated shows out there. By complicated, I am not implying "intellectually challenging." No. I'm referring to an amazingly complex variety of ever-changing situations. In her hunt to topple the evil SD-6, Sydney infiltrates the most heavily fortified positions, takes out an army of bad guys, outwits her malevolent boss, and still has perfectly coiffed hair. What a woman!
Facts of the Case
The first season of Alias is filled with twists upon turns upon surprises upon shocking revelations. For a review of a television show on DVD, I would normally give you an episode-by-episode synopsis. However, because so many things happen within each episode, building and evolving the world that creator J.J. Abrams (Felicity, Joy Ride, Regarding Henry) has wrought, and because even hinting at what happens would easily ruin the joy of watching the show evolve, I am not going by that route. Instead, I'm just going to give you the briefest overview of what happens within the 22 episodes from the first season of this spy show.
Sydney Bristow leads an unusual double-life, of which only a select few know. On the outside to her friends, Sydney is a graduate student who works and travels quite a bit for an international bank. In reality, Sydney works for SD-6, an ultra-secret organization purported to be a part of the Central Intelligence Agency. Almost everyone at SD-6 has been lied to because it is not part of the CIA; it is in fact part of an international alliance of evil organizations bent on global conquest. Soon, Sydney learns the truth about SD-6 and decides she must act to topple this group of criminals. She then literally walks into the CIA and becomes a double agent. Soon thereafter, Sydney learns that her estranged father, Jack (Victor Garber, Titanic, Legally Blonde), is also a double agent between SD-6 and the CIA.
Over the course of the season, a theme develops around a legendary visionary, inventor, and artist from the 15th century, Milo Rambaldi. The Alliance has been gathering fragments of Rambaldi artifacts for decades in the hopes that they will lead to the creation of a device of enormous and unstoppable power. As Sydney is sent on various assignments in the hunt to retrieve objects and solve the mystery of Rambaldi's genius, the CIA gives her counter-assignments to thwart SD-6's efforts.
Sydney and her father walk a fine line in working to topple SD-6 and the dastardly Alliance.
Have I mentioned the inordinate number of plot twists and turns in this series? I thought so. It bears repeating, as it is one of the hallmarks of the show. No matter which episode you are watching, chances are good that you won't be able to fully guess what's going to happen next. Whether Sydney's jumping off a building, sliding down an elevator shaft, changing costumes three times in five minutes, slinking her way to some juicy tidbits of information, or dealing with her father, Alias is constantly changing the playing field, ensuring the viewers won't be bored. By the end of the first season, Sydney's life will have been turned upside down at least a half a dozen times. In future years, well, let's just say Sydney ain't seen nothin' yet.
Alias has taken great strides to avoid most of the spy clichés, and it is refreshing to see new ideas bubbling to the surface; but, that isn't to say that Alias doesn't also roll around in a few of those tried and true clichés. At some points, you'd not be far off if you were to mistakenly call Sydney Bristow "Jamie Bond." This show has all the elements of a classic Bond film and more. Sydney has racked up more frequent flyer miles traipsing around the globe than Donald Trump. She's been given more gadgets than Q could dream of, surely making Mr. Bond quite the jealous man. And she pulls off more miracles than MacGyver could ever dream of. Indeed, what a woman!
Perhaps the glue that really holds everything together in this series, beyond the wicked twists and impressive stunts, is the wealth of quality acting in the show. Right at the top is Jennifer Garner, who will always be hot twin Wanda to me. Though not perfect, which I'll get to in a bit, Garner embodies Bristow with a complex set of capabilities and emotions. She comes across completely believable as the overworked banker/college student and as the super spy. Garner breathes life into a character that could have come across as thin, gimmicky, or flat. But perhaps even a notch better than Jennifer Garner is Victor Garber's portrayal of Jack Bristow. No, there is no "perhaps" about it; Garber is a finer actor than Ms. Garner. Jack is a morally ambiguous character, and Garber richly depicts the man torn in many directions. With strained relations between him and his daughter, Garber adds depth and texture to the show. The tension, longing, and complex array of emotions between Jack and his daughter keep you guessing. Is he a good guy? Is he a bad guy? Is he a good father? Is he a bad father? Garber is flat out excellent in his role. At times you find yourself wanting to get past the Sydney scenes and get back to Jack. And going on down the line, the additional supporting characters solidly round out the ensemble: Marshall Flinkman, the babbling gadget guru; Marcus Dixon (Carl Lumbly, Little Richard, Men of Honor), Sydney's partner at SD-6; and Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin, The Sum of all Fears, The Negotiator, L.A. Confidential, the brilliantly evil leader of SD-6.
But no show is perfect and Alias is no exception. Fortunately, its weaknesses are small and forgivable considering the sheer imagination used to craft this intricate show. The biggest problem with the show is also the show's greatest strength: the twists and turns. Sometimes the right angles the show takes are just a bit too out there (avoids using "far" twice), a bit too far fetched. They may be fun, putting a big smile on your face as you shake your head in disbelief, yet how many double-crosses can you throw into the mix? Taken a step further, it's sometimes even hard to fathom the central premise of the show: Sydney Bristow, spy extraordinaire. It's not so much as her, a woman, being a great spy, but the fact that such a beautiful and "slight" woman is capable of such things. Though she may be pure muscle, it's sometimes difficult to believe that someone of her size can do all of the highly physical tasks her character portrays. Even more so, it's often difficult to believe that she can fight and defeat almost every opponent that comes her way. Granted, there's probably a tad of male chauvinism or ego buried in that statement; however, I have heard that uttered by a few women as well. (And, keep in mind, Buffy has some preternatural powers and Dark Angel Max was genetically engineering. Sydney is simply unadulterated woman.) It's just an innate bias against readily accepting that level of girl power. Further, Sydney, who's supposed to be a tough-as-nails spy, is often too emotional. It seems like she will shed a tear at the drop of a hat, and it's eventually going to be used against her. She cares, but she cares too much. Real spies, at least I would assume, need to be a bit more callous and cold considering their line of work. Emotions can be your downfall in the wrong situation. Lastly, there are a few supporting characters that are more annoying than anything. I find Will, Francie, and her boyfriend Charlie to be poorly written. Just about every time they're onscreen, I cringe. Luckily, Will and Francie grow over the season (and over the seasons) and Charlie is nicely "resolved," so I guess the writers realized that too.
Disc 1 / Episode 2 / Chapter 3 / Timecode 25:35
What is perhaps the finest moment in the first year of this show is the appearance of that glorious blue rubber dress. It's onscreen for just a mere second, and you're forced to wait an interminable 45 seconds for its reappearance, but it's worth the wait. Sydney wears many disguises in her super sleuthing, but none come close to matching the jaw-dropping hotness of that dress…though the future lingerie show isn't anything to sneeze at! Men around the world sold their souls at that moment hoping that they'd see that dress again or that their girlfriend would buy a dress like that. In return, all was required was their continued devotion to the show…and that was an easy request.
This DVD set from our friends at Buena Vista is the best release of a television show I've seen. They knew how to put this together right, with an anamorphic widescreen image and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. As I watched the episodes, I forgot that I was watching part of a TV show, as the overall visual presentation was very rich and movie-like. Television has a certain look while movies have another. But, in this case, Alias actually has a movie feel to it. While that could be partially a result of all the fabulous locales that our intrepid spy visits, it's also largely due to the sparkling transfer in this set: robust colors, deep blacks, excellent sharpness and definition, and not a flaw in sight. This is an excellent transfer. Though not as dynamic as most action movies, this set also sports the best sound on a television show. While they all do crisp and clean dialogue, Alias actually uses the subwoofer and the surrounds for ambience and immersion. It's not always there and not as hearty as some may like, but it's the best you'll get from any TV on DVD. Well done.
The bonus materials are a touch above average and offer a nice assortment to take you deeper into the series. Your extra features include:
• Audio Commentaries: These are only on four episodes,
"Truth Be Told," "So It Begins," "Q&A," and
"Almost 30 Years." Your best choice would be to listen to the first
and the last, because they have J.J. Abrams and Jennifer Garner…and
they're actually interesting.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's one thing that has always bothered me about this show. It's been there since the very first episode, and it hasn't changed even now in the third season. Why can't Will, Sloane, and Vaughn buy a razor? Is this show supposed to be set in the '80s when five o'clock shadows were hip and cool? While Will and Vaughn bounce around from shaved to fuzzy, Sloan has never been clean-shaven. To me, that's not stylish; it's lazy. On occasion, Will and Vaughn can get away with it as they're young, studly dudes. But for Sloane, it never works. Sorry, you're too old for that. Let's hope that Season Four sees everyone buying a Mach 3.
It's been quite the fun ride on Sunday nights since Sydney came aboard—and I don't mean it in that way. Though still struggling for a breakthrough audience, Alias is a captivating and enticing show that's filled with devious plot complications, wild stunts, great characters, and groovy gadgets. If you haven't had a chance to watch this show, then you really are doing yourself a disservice, so make the time to watch it. But, be warned: You must watch it from the beginning, and once you do, you will be hooked. This DVD release of the complete first season is one of the best television sets out there. It's a touch thin on the bonus materials, but the transfers are top notch. I recommend this set for your collection.
Alias is hereby found not guilty on all charges. Sydney is but a simple, dedicated graduate student who has suffered a terrible loss. The court sends its deepest sympathies.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
• Audio Commentaries on Four Episodes
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