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Alias – A Retrospective Review

Monday, September 1st, 2008 at 3:26 pm

Watching Alias during it’s original run was a frustrating process. In the beginning, every show ended in a cliffhanger. Later, the pacing and quality faltered, which led to long periods of disappointment. Despite that, it was amazing when everything managed to come together. I recently watched the entire series in marathon format for the first time since it aired, here are my thoughts. Spoilers for each season follow, I strongly suggest not reading any more if you haven’t seen the show and plan to.

Season 1

The Alias pilot is the best pilot in recent memory. Unlike most shows, the writing, production, and acting are top notch. The pacing is perfect, and the surprises keep coming without feeling forced or cheesy. The rest of the season is just as well done. Abrams keeps the perfect balance between Sydney’s two agent lives and her personal life. People die, actions have consequences, and even though there are a lot of twists, none of them seem forced or tacked on.

While the pace understandably slows a bit from the pilot for the normal episodes, it still keeps up the energy and plot development. Changes come quickly, and rewatching the show, it surprised me how much of what I remembered as great Alias is in the first season. The only negative to the season is the aforementioned cliffhangers every episode, although it’s not nearly as much of an issue while watching DVDs as it was when there was a week between episodes. Overall it is a shining example of great TV, and as good a first season as any show has had. There really isn’t much to say other than go watch it.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Season 2

Season two has a different feel than the first season. The action centers more around CIA operations rather than SD-6 ones, and the tension on everything is cranked up. In Phase One, the infamous “Superbowl” episode, they change everything by destroying SD-6 and the Alliance. What becomes clear on further viewings is that although they didn’t actually destroy SD-6 until Phase One, it had been sorely neglected for the first half of the season. There are very few of the mission/counter-mission instances that the first season was built around, and getting rid of SD-6 doesn’t  really change the tone or execution of the season much.

Phase One is the best episode after the pilot, and the murder and replacement of Francie with a double at the end is a bold move most shows would not have done. Despite that, it marks the end of one of the aspects of the show that made Alias so great, Sydney’s interaction with her non-spy friends. With Francie an enemy agent and Will brought fully into the CIA, everything goes fully spy, all the time. I personally think this, not the other changes to the show, are what began it’s decline. Without the normal person counterpoint to ground things, the over the top spy stuff just gets more and more unbelievable.

Despite that, the rest of the second season is still great. It plays out like the fourth act of a movie, and ends with the great moment of Sydney finding out Francie is a double, then their brutal fight. After that is one of the biggest resets and cliffhangers in TV history, with Sydney waking up two years later in Hong Kong. It’s a perfect setup, and potentially a great way to get out from under the tension and pace that has built up over the last two seasons.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

Season 3

Unfortunately, they don’t pull it off. After a good start with plenty of interesting twists and new situations, the first half of the season completely stalls out. It focuses almost entirely on the mystery of what happened to Sydney for the last two years. The good part of that is the personal drama she goes through, trying to pick up the pieces of her life. The bad is the poor pacing and ultimate answers in Full Disclosure. It’s revealed that she wiped her own memory to hide yet another Rambaldi artifact. This is silly for a number of reasons, the biggest being that Sydney thinking she would be ok with missing two years is completely out of character. It would also have been far easier to just destroy the artifact, which they even mention in the show, yet never explain.

One part of this season that did work well was the arc of Lauren, Vaughn’s wife. They actually manage to make her a likable character before reveling her to be a traitor. It is truly a shock when she is revealed. Unfortunately, that is the highlight of the season.

After that, the season just keeps getting worse. The problems include but aren’t limited to:

  • Sloane flip flopping from good to evil and back so often you start to not care.
  • Reuse of gadgets and spy scenarios.
  • The Francie double is turned into some kind of supersoldier, yet gets killed by an untrained reporter.
  • Rambaldi changes from a mysterious prophetic Galileo into a omniscient magician.
  • Every few episodes Rambaldi gets a new endgame and is retconned into more history of the characters, even where it contradicts what we already know.

The jumping the shark moment happens when Sydney has to “fight” a multi-arm robot in a secret government installation, it’s completely ridiculous. The first two seasons were believable if you were willing to stretch things a bit. The third season takes it way out into comic book territory, which is doubly bad because Sydney no longer has a “normal” life to ground the show.

The season is not unbearable to watch, but it can definitely turn into a chore depending on your suspension of disbelief limits.

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

Season 4

The fourth season starts with an unapologetic complete reboot of the show. They even go so far as to have a character say “Last year sucked”. Everyone is once again working all together for a secret organization with no accountability, under Sloane. If you can accept the game of organizational musical chairs, it starts off well, with minimal Rambaldi and a lot of spy action in the vein of the first season. The first three quarters of the season are much better than anything in season three, although the last quarter lags a bit, with too much Rambaldi.

Returning to the formula of the first two seasons breathes new life into the show, and makes it entertaining to watch again. Having Elena Derevko as the season’s  main villain fails, mainly because no reasonable explanation for her wanting to commit genocide is given. They again spend a lot of time setting up some elaborate conspiracy with Nadia’s entire life, but in the end it doesn’t seem to matter. The way they bring Irena back to life is also pretty contrived and unbelievable. The season ends in a very annoying, though well done, cliffhanger car accident in the middle of a big reveal.

Overall it’s a very solid season of TV, and while not as outstanding as the first two seasons, it’s still very entertaining and worth watching.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Season 5

Another round of cast changes and fake death starts the fifth season, although since Vaughn’s return was planned from the start, it works much better than the previous fake deaths. Prophet 5 is a decent enemy, which was missing in the fourth season. They also completely ignore Rambaldi until the end of the season, which was a good choice. The new characters work for the most part, and old characters show back up more and more as the season progresses to finish things off.

The finale is well done, Sloane finally gets what he deserves, and they leave enough of an opening that a movie sometime in the future wouldn’t be a stretch. Rambaldi’s ultimate plan is not revealed in a satisfactory way, unless you consider it being to screw over Sloane from 500 years in the past. It seems like a whole lot of work to set up multiple Rube Goldberg contraptions just to reveal an eternal life serum to people you already know will just die, since you are a prophet. Still, it’s a good season, and the Rambaldi nonsense is no more cryptic and frustrating than it has always been.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Overall

Even though it’s a flawed show for most of it’s run, the production values, acting, and action sequences are great throughout the show. For the first two seasons it is a great show, for the last two seasons it is a good show. You could probably skip the third season entirely and not miss much.

While Rambaldi artifacts and lore are good McGuffins in the first two seasons, after that they become overused. Even in seasons four and five when they dial down the Rambaldi nonsense, it still hurts the show when they do bring it up. I can’t help but think the show would have been much better if they gave the enemies in the last two seasons more conventional goals and motivations.

Overall, it’s a great show, and easily grabs and keeps your attention. Many of the biggest problems the show had while airing aren’t valid when you can watch it marathon style. It has aged well so far, and with the exception of outdated cell phones, even the early seasons seem like they could be new this season. I strongly recommend the first two seasons to everyone, and the rest to people who really enjoyed the first two.

Overall: ★★★★☆ 

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