From the very first episode to the series' final moment, Alias never failed to keep me on the edge of my seat. Dramatic, funny, thrilling, action-packed and smart, it's a series that if you own on DVD you can't resist watching "just one more episode", and before you know it the evening is gone. There are so many twists and turns that you may have to come up for air once in a while, but will undoubtedly find yourself diving in for more. The first two seasons are almost flawless, and the other three still sit head and shoulders above 90% of television produced in the last 20 years. In fact, almost a decade after it's conclusion Alias still ranks amongst my favorite shows, thanks to its stellar cast, gripping score, intelligent writers and great production values.
Let's look at that cast. Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow is the glue that holds it all together, but my favourite character would have to be Arvin Sloane. Ron Rifkin's exceptional performance as Sloane turns this character's journey through the seasons into an almost Shakespearean tragedy about ambition, sin, loss, guilt, redemption, obsession and fate. Coming close behind would be Victor Garber as Sydney's father Jack Bristow, and Kevin Weisman as tech-geek Marshall Flinkman.
They are joined by; David Anders as the quite brilliant Sark; then there's Lost's Terry O'Quinn as FBI Assistant Director Kendall; Bradley Cooper as Will Tippin; Michael Vartan as Vaughn, Melissa George as Lauren Reed; Heroes Greg Grunberg as Eric Weiss; Continuum's Rachel Nichols as Rachel Gibson; there's even a recurring role for Quentin Tarantino! And it's all bought to the screen by JJ Abrams.
Alias was kind of a female James Bond/Jack Bauer show, and one which harkens back to the spy-fi genre as many elements are quite fantastical, primarily the ongoing Rambaldi storyline. It was a breath of fresh air when it first arrived in 2001, and has aged incredibly well. But if you've never seen the show you're probably wondering what Alias was about...
After the protagonist, Sydney Bristow, discovers that rather than working for a secret branch of the CIA (called SD-6) as she believed, she is in fact working for the sort of people she thought she was working against, she goes to the real CIA who tell her to keep working there, but as a double agent. Sydney does this but it isn't easy, she has friends there and must now lie to them on a daily basis without knowing if they are innocent pawns as she once was or whether they know what SD-6 really is. The only person there she knows she can trust is her estranged father, who is also working for the CIA within SD-6 as a double agent...
It sounds complicated - and this is just the set up introduced in the pilot - but it's so highly addictive. Each week Sydney would be sent on a mission somewhere in the world where she'd often have to trick her way into a secure building, fight a load of minions and escape with whatever she was sent to retrieve. Typically she'd be accompanied by fellow SD-6 agent Marcus Dixon (played by Carl Lumbly) or her CIA handler Michael Vaughn. To assist with her missions she'd be given pieces of equipment by Marshall Flinkman - to make another James Bond comparison, he's really Q to Sydney's (female) Bond.
Season 1 is the most fun. The emphasis here is on the action, the gadgets, the globe-trotting, and Sydney's efforts to avoid being exposed as a double agent for the CIA. Still, the show does not shy away for the dark sides of espionage (after all, Sydney does lose her fiancé and some of her teeth in the first episode alone!), and Jack Bristow's often morally questionable tactics remind us that this is a world where the lines between good and bad are not always clearly defined.
Season 2 introduces Sydney's long-considered-dead mother, Irina Derevko (with a fascinating performance by Lena Olin), which creates further emotional and moral complications for Sydney and Jack. Halfway through the season the initial premise of the show changed, taking off in a different direction. Family dynamics, unexpected enemies and intense action make this season arguably the most popular of the show.
Season 3 is the most Rambaldi-driven, puzzle-like and plot-heavy of all the seasons. Sloane is at his most ambiguous, you really never know if he's good or bad from one week to the next. The highlight of this season though, is the twisted, amoral couple of Sark and Lauren, who consistently steal the show from the official leads of Sydney and Vaughn.
Season 4 has a frustrating start, because it puts most of season 3's great plot lines on hold, and goes off in a series of stand-alone episodes that don't even end on the series' trademark cliffhangers - and I love the cliffhangers! With that said, many of those episodes are very enjoyable, the introduction (though technically it was done in season 3) of Sydney's little sister Nadia (the incredibly beautiful Mia Maestro) works well, and the pace does pick up in the second half.
Season 5 is the most controversial, especially for the way it handled the apparent death of a main character. It's also shorter than the others (17 instead of 22 episodes), which makes parts of it, especially near the end, feel a little rushed. Garner was pregnant in real life, and it was written into the show, so during the first half of this season most of the action was handled by the other characters, including some new arrivals who all have their merits. The advantage that season 5 has over season 4 is that it returns to the puzzle-like, one-clue-leads-to-the-next format of seasons 2 & 3, which means very few slow spots, and the ultimate Rambaldi secret was finally revealed.
I always felt that Rachel Nichols was bought in in season 5 to possibly continue the show had it gone on for more years without Jennifer Garner (who had a blossoming film career), and I think she could've done a good job. It certainly would've been a soft reboot and may have given the show a boost. For the last couple of years there has been talk of a reboot, or an event-series continuation, but it's unlikely to ever feature all the cast that made Alias such a great show.
Looking back now you realise that it would be impossible to just jump in at any other point in the series than the opening episode of season 1. Ultimately, as a weekly serialised drama, that was to its detriment - viewership wise. But in this era of on-demand, box-sets and binge viewing it is perfect.
Alias was packed full of action, fight sequences, mad gadgets, and a dazzling array of disguises for both Sydney and her fellow agents. There was double crossing, intrigue and a plot so convoluted it could make your head hurt at times, but this all helped to make the show simply superb. If you've never seen Alias just watch the opening episode and I guarantee you'll be hooked.