By Les Chappell, Heather McLendon, J. Walker, and Cameron White
Season 1, Episode 1: “Truth Be Told”
Original airdate: September 30, 2001
Les: Once again, we have come to the end of our roundtable series. Our highly trained team of covert operative reviewers have accepted a series of very dangerous assignments from such shadowy figures as U.N.C.L.E., CONTROL, IMF, the Firm and the Agency, exploits that have taken them from Central America to Madrid to Eastern Europe. We’ve thwarted elaborate “murder” schemes, overthrown and installed dictators, and used every gadget from the workshop to facilitate our escapes. And more importantly, be it in a tailored suit, catsuit or elaborate makeup, we’ve all looked damn fine while doing it.
So it’s time for our final assignment. As we did with the space opera roundtable when discussing the Battlestar Galactica pilot, I wanted to select a comparatively more recent show to close the roundtable out, something that would both reflect how far the genre has evolved over the years and also something members would have familiarity with. Looking at the list, the pilot for J.J. Abrams’ Alias was an obvious choice, as it’s a show that was (and continues to be) critically praised for both its action/adventure scenes and cerebral approach to the world of intelligence. Also, following our successful discussion of “33,” this would give us a chance to discuss yet another wildly acclaimed pilot without getting too deep into the universe of a show whose mythology bordered on ludicrous at times.
Not that “Truth Be Told” isn’t a convoluted piece of television—in many ways, it’s the most complicated show we’ve discussed over the course of this roundtable. Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) is juggling a life as both an graduate student in English and a highly trained covert operative for a branch of the CIA called SD-6. When her boyfriend Danny proposes to her she makes the risky choice to tell him about her double life, and he makes the stupid choice of leaving her a drunken voicemail about it, leading him to be swiftly terminated by SD-6 and her placed on their watch list. This triggers a series of events that leads her to be shot at by her agency, learn she’s been working for a group of rogue spies, fly to China to steal an experimental device, and endure a series of tortures and gunfights when the operation goes south. By the end of it not only is she a double agent spying on SD-6 for the CIA, but she’s learned that her long-distant father Jack (Victor Garber) isn’t an exporter of airplane parts but filling the exact same position.
What impresses me about Alias in comparison to other shows we’ve is the way that it manages to ground itself early on without diving deep into the world of espionage from the start. Abrams has said several times in interviews that the idea for Alias came when he was writing for Felicity and had the half-serious idea of turning her into a spy to solve plot issues, and at several points during the first half of the episode—Sydney in class, being proposed to, at home with her boyfriend, alone at the restaurant—the atmosphere feels like Felicity or a similar WB-style drama. And then the action ramps up to feature such things as Sydney mapping out an entire restricted Chinese bunker with the aid of a lipstick-embedded scanner and a signal jammer concealed in a lighter, ninja-kicking guards in the face and dodging an Agency kill squad. (I particularly loved the early transitions between these real-life scenes and her torture in Taiwan, doors opening and closing to take us to a completely different world.) The music choices help out a lot as the show has a distinctive and eclectic soundtrack—Vertical Horizon, the Cranberries, Cat Stevens, Peter Gabriel, Stereo MC and Sinead O’Connor to name a few—that pairs the right tracks with the right scenes and lets the brain shift accordingly.
The other aspect is how unflinching the show is in portraying the high stakes of this game through the senior operatives, Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin) and Jack Bristow. Sloane doesn’t hesitate when he calls in the hit on Danny, and doesn’t flinch when he’s explaining to her what happened: “Security section became aware of the breach and performed their function…. Information about this agency must be treated like a virus. There is only one response to a virus, and that response is containment.” And Jack breaks protocol to save his daughter’s life but goes about it with an utterly workmanlike approach, saying that a one-way ticket to Switzerland under false papers is her only chance of survival. We’ve talked before in I Spy about the toll this job takes on you, and we get to see that tool illustrated on Sydney as she strides three times through the SD-6 office this episode. First she’s reporting for a day at the office sporting her post-engagement glow with a mild case of nerves, the second time she enters covered in her fiancee’s blood with a shell-shocked expression of rage, and the third she enters beaten to a pulp with flame-red hair and completely dead eyes.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for Ms. Bristow. Last week I bemoaned the fact that after Cinnamon Carter and Emma Peel we had gone on somewhat of a downward spiral when it came to female agents, and that trend gets a roundhouse kick to the face this week—because holy hell, Jennifer Garner is fantastic in this role. Even after only one episode, I can entirely see why our friend and colleague Emma Fraser nominated Garner’s performance for our Lead Actress in a Drama Hall of Fame category, as she displays a range in this episode that is impeccable. She sells every part of Sydney’s character, be it her raw emotional response to the death of Danny, her icy stares at Sloane and her ability to talk back to her torturer even when he’s yanking out her teeth.
I’ll hand the discussion off to everyone else now, saying in closing that once again it’s been a pleasure to embark on one of these thematic roundtables with my fellow agents/reviewers. There were some very good shows and some very bad shows, but we pulled it off without losing a single operative and had some typically lively chats. Very pleased that I won’t have to disavow knowledge of anyone.
Cameron: It’s good that you pointed out the Felicity comparison, Les, because while I was watching this pilot, a whole host of comparisons came to me that I wanted to mention. Buffy, of course, is the obvious one (J.J. and Joss came to know each other while working on their respective shows at the little network that could until it couldn’t, the WB) in part because of the connection between the main character’s journey and the genre-tastic stakes. Or, in other words, an episode of Alias should ideally ask, “What’s the Sydney of it all?” the way the Buffy writer’s room would ask about Buffy Summers. There’s also the Buffy-inspired Kim Possible, the Disney Channel cartoon whose main character had an aesthetic that was undeniably inspired by Sydney Bristow. Though Kim Possible‘s villains were arguably more cartoonish than those of Bristow’s world, both main characters struggle to balance a spy life with a normal, school-going life.
But a third comparison struck me as I was watching Sydney make off with the J. J. Abrams Red Dot Plot Device (see also: that stuff from the first Abrams Star Trek film). Sydney’s whole world comes crashing down in this pilot in part because she wasn’t working for the people she thought she was working for. I was suddenly forcibly reminded of some of Marvel Comics’s spy ladies, in particular Jessica Drew/Spider-Woman and (to a much greater degree) Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff. In fact, the scene at the very end, with Sydney and… uh, Victor Garber at the grave of Sydney’s deceased fiance reminded me of a panel from the Black Widow story arc The Name of the Rose, penned by the wonderful Marjorie Liu and inked by Daniel Acuna.
I call upon these comparisons in part to draw attention to how resilient Alias is as a pop culture entity. Like its main character, the show endures as a testament to building a good television spy drama around a single, well-rounded character played by an actress with the range and skill set to match. And as with everything else J. J. Abrams has directed, whatever you may think of his shows and films, the man knows how to craft poetry in motion. The aesthetics of this show are probably far better than they have any reason being, but then, I think I could say the same for any element of Alias. Cheeky overachieving pilot, you!
J.: It’s astonishing how much story gets told in these 66 minutes. I watched the first season of Alias when it aired, and I remembered all of these story beats, but I honestly thought they were stretched out over the first several episodes. I recalled the revelation that SD-6 was not, in fact, a branch of the CIA coming in episode two, and Sydney’s decision to turn double agent for the CIA happening at the end of episode three. My memory, obviously, isn’t what it used to be. (I thought I was having another memory lapse during Danny’s funeral, which I could have sworn was scored with Peter Gabriel’s gorgeous “Here Comes the Flood” when it aired but clearly was not here; a little research proved that I actually was right, and the music has been changed for the Netflix release. Boo.)
It’s a ton of information to take in, especially when a good chunk of the early going is devoted to those Sydney-at-school scenes no one seemed to like very much. But I really liked how much story is crammed in hereit was a brilliant way to toy with the audience’s expectations. By this time, we’re all so familiar with spy tropes that Alias doesn’t need to waste time getting us up to speed: Sydney says, “I was trained as a spy,” we’re shown about six seconds of her doing mild martial arts, and we’re ready to believe she can do whatever crazy ninja tricks she has to. When the obligatory gadget master shows up, there’s not even any time wasted introducing him or explaining that he’s the gadget guy: he just shows the gadgets, and we all get it.
Playing into those tropes and expectations gives the shocking reveal the impact it needed, so that we feel it just as Sydney does. When we learn SD-6 isn’t really CIA, but instead a rogue agency in the employ of a (admittedly somewhat cartoonish-sounding) cabal of supervillains, all of the rules we thought were in place vanish. It’s a very “Abrams” twist; a comparable moment might be the reveal of the polar bear in the Lost pilot, another signal that we’ve entered a place where our expectations are meaningless.
Les, you talked about the soundtrack earlier, but I’d like to single out the score, composed by longtime Abrams collaborator Michael Giacchino. It’s an amazing mix of traditional orchestral pieces and catchy, driving techno-rock rhythms, and the latter truly serves as the pulse of the action pieces. It gives those scenes a not-unwelcome video game feel.
Heather: Damnit, Les (et al.), I did not need yet another show to add to my Netflix queue. I was perfectly fine with never having seen Alias. I had no desire to see it. Now, after watching the pilot, I’m hooked. This show knows how to deliver a solid piece of television.
Similar to capping our space-opera roundtable with Battlestar, I’m glad we’ve ended this one with Alias. It’s fascinating and delightful to see how far (and yet how similar) the genre has come. The most obvious difference is the sophisticated combination of complex, multi-layered storytelling and darker tone. Many of the shows we’ve reviewed here have either been purposefully goofy or campy; or they’ve wandered into absurdity in an attempt at weighty material. Alias has very weighty material. Even though I predicted the demise of Danny mere minutes after meeting him, the violent scene of death and Gardner’s agonized, stomach-pinching response was a sharp break from the other spy shows. Les and Cameron have already spoken to the complex nature of the pilot. Here we see the beginnings of J.J. Abrams’s penchant (obsession?) with puzzles, long-form narrative and interlacing narratives.
It was also fun to see old pieces of the spy genre. Marshall’s geeky, awkward presentations of high-tech gadgetry bring to mind Q from James Bond. The gadgets themselves are merely 21st-century versions of its earlier predecessors. The spy genre seems to have a fetish with gadgets—that, or, writers assume viewers expect them. Alias follows another trend that nearly all others have had in this roundtable: that of partners. Sydney and Marcus work together on their missions. With the exception of Mission:Impossible (which had a full team) all the roundtable shows have focused on partners, their missions, and the other people within their lives. Here we do not have solitary operatives, like 007 or Jason Bourne.
I was pleasantly surprised at the cinematic tone to the Alias pilot. It’s longer length and ambitious plot feel more film-like than its predecessors. There is definitely a procedural element to Alias but it expands its narrative beyond the weekly plot. I agree that the grad school and friendship/romance scenes feel a mite like teen TV. I hope the grad school subplots gradually go away as they are not the show’s strongest aspect (not even close) and they feel jarring whenever we encounter them. I understand that their purpose is to show the girl-next-door quality to Bristow (all that shiny, perfectly brown hair and midriff tank tops), which should supposedly make her spy activities all the more impressive. But truly, she is impressive enough when she’s operating as a double-agent. We don’t need to be reminded of her acting range through paper assignments and grades.
Random notes: I couldn’t help but think of The Americans with all of Sydney’s wigs / disguises. We seriously need a show about spy wigmakers; there’s a show somewhere in there. Screenwriters of America, please make this happen. I was also slightly flummoxed by the physical appearance of Sloane because he shares several features with Robert Lindsay, who plays the hilarious demented Examiner in BBC’s Spy. I now desperately want a show with the two of them as retired, rogue spymasters.
The roundtable will be taking a couple of weeks off at an undisclosed location for debriefing, and discussion of our next subject. Watch this space for further announcements once we’ve finalized the lineup.