Alias arrived at a fascinating point when it came to television.
The year was 2001 and a lot was changing in the ether around it. JJ Abrams, at this point best known as the writer of Harrison Ford weepie Regarding Henry, Michael Bay blockbuster Armageddon and show-runner of late 90’s teen hit drama Felicity, was nowhere near the producing and directing Hollywood totem he would become. His production house, Bad Robot, had not yet become the nascent Amblin of its generation. And, just nineteen days before the pilot, ‘Truth Be Told’, aired… 9/11 happened.
Abrams’ spy series already had some interesting cache behind it. Alias was a show that emerged on ABC with the intention of riding into the 21st century with a fresh storytelling model. The most successful and important TV shows of the 1990’s had almost all built their success on an episodic, network model of storytelling; 22-26 episode seasons with plenty of stand-alone stories which would serve the show well in syndication. In everything from Quantum Leap through to The X-Files, show-runners moving from the 1980’s into more of a Golden Age of television, in which some of the most key writers in both TV and cinema of the next few decades would emerge, had cleaved to the way it had been done for years.
It would immediately strive for an aesthetic which would tap into a deep reservoir of retro-futurism, both aesthetically and in terms of production. Abrams and his staff came out of the gate leaning heavily into the kind of serialisation most shows in the 1990’s just didn’t do, bar a few trend-setting exception we’ll return to. The concept was both high and complex – female super-spy Sydney Bristow would find herself learning the covert CIA branch she had been working for, SD-6, was in truth the arm of a worldwide crime syndicate, and would work as a double-agent to bring down the enemy from within. Episodes would end on a cliffhanger every week and fold into each other. A surfeit of character and narrative mysteries would propel Syd’s journey along, not to mention a curious central, underlying occult and arcane mythology which tipped the show away from action-thriller and more toward science-fiction.
It didn’t take Alias long, in fact, to get it’s own sub-genre buzz-word: spy-fi, a mash-up derivation of both the espionage and science-fiction genres. Alias felt like it was looking to the past in order to create the future; it had a pulpy, 1960’s adventure vibe updated for modern audiences with tastes forty years on. At times it frequently sported the elegant chutzpah of Mission: Impossible with the sleek style of James Bond – even Sir Roger Moore showed up to underline the fact that Abrams was playing off a great deal of famous and beloved escapist properties he grew up watching, which he channelled into the show which would end up launching his career as, for better or worse, a 21st century Steven Spielberg in the making. A lot would not have happened without the success of Alias.
And yet, here’s the rub… Alias wasn’t ever the breakout, international critical and commercial hit it should have been. When people look back at the formative, pulp science-fiction television shows which formed part of the Golden Age which led to the era of Peak TV we are now experiencing in the digital streaming era, how often does Abrams’ second show get mentioned? Rarely. While people who were fans remain so, often ushering in hushed tones support and praise of Alias to those who it may have passed by, it never made a cultural dent in the way a show such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer did – and when you put that side by side with Alias, there are more than a few aesthetic similarities.
Why, then, does Alias remain a fairly cult, oft-forgotten series?
We should return to the time it launched. 2001. Much was in flux. Models of television, both in terms of production and distribution, were showing the first flickers of change. While we were a decade away from the streaming era, cable TV network were on the rise with daring new TV series that would start to change the paradigm of what was possible on broadcast television. The Sopranos had aired in 1999 and was already beloved of fans and critics alike. The Wire, which many would hail as the greatest TV show ever made, would launch in the summer of 2002. Alias arrived at the mid-point between the fading glory of the 90’s TV power-houses and the traditional models of TV production, and the new era.
The X-Files, one of Abrams’ biggest inspirations in general and also on the covert, espionage aspect of Alias, was in the death throes of its original run. It would be canceled fairly ignominiously in the same summer The Wire would launch. Shows such as Babylon-5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which had begun pushing more heavily into serialised storytelling within genre fiction, had both come to an end – indeed Alias arrived as the first decline of Star Trek after over a decade of TV and cinematic hegemony was beginning, with the end of Star Trek: Voyager in the summer of 2001 and the launch the same year of Enterprise, a show which would signal the death knell of Star Trek on TV for twelve years. Buffy, too, was approaching its twilight years.
While Alias certainly launched with a creative spring in its step and one eye on telling stories in a manner more befitting a faster, slicker age, there was still a sense it had one foot in the traditional models of television. While The Sopranos was pioneering thirteen-episode seasons, reducing costs and allowing more money to be spent on less filler content, Alias remained with 22 episodes for four of its five seasons. On network TV, plenty of shows even today retain that model, but they have now become the exception rather than the rule, and often only because they have a significant franchise or property backing them up – take The CW Arrowverse as a key example, or the Shonda Rhimes empire. In 2001, the 22-episode model was already feeling trad.
We also cannot ignore the political and sociological aspects of the real-world which directly affected Alias from the get-go. As it launched, with a preppy bound into fun, light, escapist storytelling, Alias was facing a dark cloud of American pain, anger and confusion after the Twin Towers were destroyed on September 11th thanks to Osama Bin Laden’s extremist terror organisation. While Sydney was skipping around the globe breaking into the Vatican to try and take down a modern SPECTRE, Americans were haunted by the very real, grounded existence of terrorism on their doorstep. President George W Bush screamed ‘Shock and Awe’. Homeland Security became more powerful than ever before. Americans didn’t have time for fun and games anymore.
You can see this reflected in television that would make a significant mark in the post-9/11 world. Another show which launched in the 2001 season was Kiefer Sutherland-fronted 24, a hybrid of West Wing-politics alongside techno-espionage with a main character, Jack Bauer, who would enter popular culture very quickly thanks to Sutherland’s charismatic central performance.
While its first season would see Bauer as a family man trying to take down the kind of distant, Eastern European threat Americans had been used to hearing about during the Clinton years in the 90’s, with wars in Serbia and skirmishes with post-Soviet Russia, subsequent seasons began to emphasise Middle Eastern villainy and explore the revived, 50’s American fear of the enemy within. 24 was such a rampant success partly because Bauer, for all his increasingly manic faults, was an unimpeachable American hero in an age where one was sorely needed by audiences.
These sensibilities creeped even into Star Trek: Enterprise, as following two seasons of lukewarm ratings and critical suggestions it was just repeating storylines from previous, more successful shows, the third season took the crew of Captain Jonathan Archer in the heart of dangerous, unexplored enemy territory following a devastating attack on Earth, adopting a largely serialised narrative model, a darker aesthetic, and a clear angle of militarising Starfleet explorers into soldiers fighting back against an alien enemy who would try and destroy their way of life. It was too late to save Enterprise from cancellation in 2005, ultimately, but the creative decisions were not subtle – even Star Trek, for all its idealism, was responding to the painful wound that was 9/11 on the American psyche.
Alias never really went down that road. The first season did eventually introduce an internal, FBI investigation element in the episode ‘Q & A’, which was meant to question Sydney’s virtue as a CIA double agent, but it was more an excuse for a money-saving clip show than anything else. ‘The Prophecy’ in Season 1 hinted at the possibility Sydney could well have been that enemy within, as a 500-year old text suggested she would bring ‘desolation’ to the ‘greatest power’, but it was framed in terms of a Renaissance prophecy and hardly clear, definable, “Sydney is a terrorist” terminology viewers perhaps needed in order to consider Alias vital. The fact Syd’s mother is revealed to be a Russian spy with very dubious, terrorist loyalties also touches on the fear of insurgency by the ‘Other’ but, again, it never launched Alias into the cultural stratosphere.
Does this suggest American audiences were done with the kind of progressive escapism the 90’s had revived from the 1960’s?
Possibly. There is a strong argument audiences never really recovered and were able to relax and enjoy this kind of storytelling again until the dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which triggered the still-raging superhero zeitgeist which has defined cinema and television for the last decade. Heroes, while a major success for its first season in 2006 (the same year Alias concluded), suffered badly from confused storytelling decisions from its second year onwards but primarily because it arrived *just* before audiences were ready to embrace the comic-book as a visual medium to define their pop-culture era. Alias, let’s face it, was in effect a superhero series in all but name, and perhaps everything was just a bit too *real* at that stage to embrace it.
Another aspect which could have worked against it was the idea the bad guys were deeply embedded within US government institutions, or at least appeared to be. While it would be very clearly defined that the real CIA, represented by Syd’s chiselled, serious handler Michael Vaughn, were ‘the good guys’, Sydney in the end was trying to bring down an old, white, quite possibly Jewish man who ostensibly represented wholesome American values; Arvin Sloane was experienced, connected, and on the face of it happily married – yet, underneath, was a murderous, cold, obsessive and machiavellian terrorist pretending to be a virtuous intelligence agent, defending American values. It could well have been a bitter pill for audiences keen to believe in their government and public servants to swallow.
There is a strong argument that 2001 also contributed to the bullet in the brain for The X-Files. While the rot had already settled in by that point, and the magic of the original alchemy that made the show work had been lost, The X-Files—a show built on post-Watergate paranoia about corrupt government institutions and American values—ended the year after a critical event in the American societal story which shook their faith in everything they held dear. In the ‘War on Terror’, there was no place for cynicism. People needed to believe they were safe again. It is almost certainly a major reason why Alias, midway through Season 2, underwent a massive conceptual change which altered the trajectory of the series for good.
Put simply, the enemy within was taken out. SD-6, who Sydney had hopped the world trying to foil in schemes as varied as arms deals through to getting hold of 500 year old weapons of mass destruction, were brought down, as was the Alliance it served – a shadowy cabal of global ex-intelligence agents who were posing as legitimate spy organisations in their effort to control the world. In taking down the Alliance, Alias reacted to the idea that we couldn’t trust those we were fighting for by saying “yes – we can”. Sloane was re-conceptualised as even more of a machiavellian Bond villain, a quest-fuelled Blofeld for the 2000’s, and the villainy in Alias from then on was externalised to Russians or Brits or, of course, Middle Eastern, vaguely-ethnic bad guys. It started looking outward.
This is possibly where Alias started to lose, ironically, what made it creatively unique at the time. Alias felt like it was tapping a storytelling well few other shows were doing. Confident from the outset with a range of diverse characters, most of them superbly cast and rich in traits or backstory, it was unafraid to place Sydney in the middle of audacious spy-plots with high concept ideas and heightened, over the top cliffhangers; Season 1’s ‘A Broken Heart’ ends with Syd, mid-car-chase, trying to defuse a bomb planted in the pacemaker of a UN diplomat. It was knowingly pulpy, a bit bonkers, and delightfully silly, but always anchored in the honest, heart-felt performance of then-unknown Jennifer Garner, who carried the series on her shoulders admirably from the opening shot of the pilot.
Abrams, despite not being a major producing force in Hollywood, was able to attract a remarkable array of A-list talent to guest star on the show – actors who you would rarely see appear on a TV show. In the first season alone, Alias welcomed John Hannah (riding high on The Mummy films at this point), the aforementioned Roger Moore (who serves as another nod to the retro age of TV Alias plays off, given he was arguably the biggest British TV star of the 50’s & 60’s) and Quentin Tarantino. Subsequent seasons would feature names such as Faye Dunaway, Ethan Hawke, Rutger Hauer, Isabella Rossellini, Jason Segel, Christian Slater, Ricky Gervais and on and on and on. Few TV series have ever managed to attract such major, recognisable faces, especially so early on, and in that sense Alias presaged the era of TV which would see established film actors take roles in prestige TV shows without any fear it would dent their reputations.
Season 2 of Alias, even after a strong first season, stronger than most, is a genuinely fantastic sophomore year of television. In 22 episodes, it barely puts a foot wrong, even despite how ‘Phase One’ implodes the entire concept in one breathtaking episode and spends the rest of the season reconceptualising what Alias actually is. That makes the fact Season 3, certainly halfway through, falls off a narrative cliff all the more heartbreaking, because it was a stumble the show honestly never really recovered from. While there are high spots in the final few seasons, few could deny Alias peaked in its second year on almost all fronts. From then on, it was treading an element of water as is played in the sandbox it had established, struggling with a fractious relationship it had with its own internal mythology.
Ah, yes. Rambaldi. I’ve mentioned how Abrams considered The X-Files as a major inspiration on Alias, and quite a bit of his subsequent work, and while Alias is quite a radically different series to Chris Carter’s show, they have one major aspect in common: a mythology. The X-Files had a colonising alien race, and Alias has the mysterious, Renaissance-era prophet Milo Rambaldi. They both serve the same narrative function – to act as the storytelling MacGuffin, the underlying glue which pushes the overarching storytelling and character beats forward, even if they happen to be spread out as part of an unfurling mystery. Much like The X-Files, Alias inherited from Abrams a mythology that, truthfully, the show never satisfactorily managed to resolve by the end of its fifth and final season. The reasons vary.
Part of the issue was that Rambaldi, conceptually, was never designed strongly enough to hold water. Abrams is very fond of the MacGuffin in storytelling, the MacGuffin being Hollywood terminology for a ‘thing’ (often an artefact, such as the Holy Grail for instance in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) which drives the narrative quest of a story. Abrams would later develop his own, the ‘Rabbit’s Foot’ for Mission Impossible III, his first, post-Alias sojourn into cinema (MI3 is in many ways partly a big-screen version of the Alias pilot). Rambaldi was the ultimate MacGuffin in that the man himself, and what he was trying to create in the late 1400’s, drove the modern day espionage agencies, esoteric terrorist groups and religious fanatics who were attempting to assemble the puzzle.
In the end, compelling and inventive as the Rambaldi innovations were, it was all just smoke and mirrors. One season Rambaldi’s endgame was an apocalyptic, world-ending virus. The next year it was a Christ-child meant to bring forth his resurrection. The year after that it was the gift of immortality. Alias never settled on what Rambaldi wanted with any degree of satisfaction because the mythology continued changing the goal posts in order to serve the narrative, and it ended up working to the show’s detriment. While the series was never really about the 15th century prophet or his works as such–they were merely the science-fiction engine propelling Sydney’s adventures–the fact Abrams and the team around him never sat down and truly agreed on what the Rambaldi mystery truly meant was a misstep.
Season 3 was where it really began to fall apart, after a first half which did have a level of forward plotting and momentum behind, arguably, the series’ strongest and most compelling season cliffhanger and mystery: Sydney waking up and finding she had no memory of the last two years of her life, with everyone believing she was dead. Though it took a while for the story to get there, Rambaldi ended up being central to the mystery but once the narrative had resolved itself, the writers took a sudden right-turn at the end of ‘Full Disclosure’ which, unlike the Season 2 reconceptualisation in ‘Phase One’, never felt earned and only served to plunge the final half of Season 3 into a morass of rabbit hole plotting which went nowhere.
It almost killed the show. The final episode of Season 3, ‘Resurrection’, ended on a cliffhanger which suggests Syd’s father, aged, taciturn super-spy Jack Bristow (played wonderfully by Victor Garber), was a serious bad guy. In the extended break between seasons, Abrams returned to the fold after spending time focusing on developing Lost (which by this point had become a phenomenon that already Alias was never in danger of matching), and Season 4 retconned the cliffhanger in order to try and write out the other significant albatross that caused Alias problems after its glory year in Season 2: Sydney’s mother, Irina Derevko.
This spirals us back to the question of precisely what Alias *was*, if it wasn’t really a series about a super spy trying to stop the plans of a wizened prophet from centuries past.
Alias was always, from the very beginning, a show about family, specifically parents and children. Most narratives end up concerning families in some regard, given how personal these dynamics are to how we live our lives, but Abrams’ spin on the father-daughter relationship was to make them super spies who had to compartmentalise their lives. Sydney was a bright college girl recruited into an enemy organisation with no idea her father Jack, who she believed quite a dull, distant banker, in fact had been a lethal, skilled CIA agent all along. One of the major arcs across Season 1 was Syd’s subsequent discovery the English teacher mother she believed long dead in a car accident wasn’t just a Russian spy who seduced and betrayed her father, but that she was still alive *and* the major supervillain out there looking to solve the Rambaldi mystery.
Irina then became a main character in Season 2, played with deliciously quiet enigma by Swedish film actress Lena Olin, and functioned extremely well as the dysfunctional family dynamic between Syd & Jack developed further and further, but Olin had only signed up for one season given she was based in New York (Irina would at times disappear for three to four episodes a time, clearly so Olin could have a filming break). By Season 3, Irina was a massive part of the show from both a character and mythology aspect, but for reasons which again vary, Olin didn’t return. Abrams and his writers had to constantly write around Irina in ways which were visible and difficult, when the simple fact is it made little sense for Irina to *not* be involved. The biggest irony is how at the point they’d successfully written Irina out permanently, Olin was ready to re-appear.
Season 4 ended up trying to re-frame the show in a different way from the middle of Season 2. That season was concerned with trying to shake off the complicated SD-6 level spy plotting of the first year and re-format Alias into a simpler, streamlined show, but Season 3 ended up drowning in its own mythology to the detriment of Syd’s character development. It became as much about her romantic entanglement with Vaughn, another key aspect of her story, as the dynamic with Jack. This was partly inevitable due to the strong female fanbase behind Alias in nascent message boards who were ‘shipping’ the Syd/Vaughn relationship, but Alias was always at its best when it was about Syd & Jack’s fractious, complicated sibling-parent relationship.
What the fourth season ended up doing was stripping back a great deal of these issues. Rambaldi almost became He Who Shall Not Be Named as Abrams tried to make Alias much less serialised week on week, and the first half of the season particularly goes back to the kind of bare-bones espionage tales not even Season 1, which didn’t really kick Rambaldi into gear until the final third, had. Season 4 removed a lot of the ‘will they/won’t they?’ from Syd & Vaughn, instead trying to tell interesting spy stories with a less complicated paradigm, while also ensuring the strong supporting characters such as Marcus Dixon, Marshall Flinkman or Eric Weiss, got more of a share of screen time. If any season of Alias feels like original Mission: Impossible, it’s Season 4. While in the end it returned to Rambaldi, this re-focusing on the whole succeeded.
By this point, however, it was too little, too late. Lost had overtaken Alias as must-see television, installing itself as the genre-phenomenon of the 2000’s, and Abrams had one eye on the cinematic career he would kick off with the in-production MI3 (Tom Cruise having specifically picked Abrams to helm the picture because of how much he enjoyed Alias). Garner too was making house with then-husband Ben Affleck and very quickly became pregnant, which show-runner Jeff Pinkner at that stage decided to write into Season 5 – what would end up being a truncated final season of a show a lot of people had forgotten was still on air. Across the internet, many joked that Ben Affleck had killed Alias. There was probably a little shade of truth to it.
You feel there are, at this stage, similarities with another show which not only ended rather ignominiously and half-forgotten, but introduced a pregnancy involving its central character in its twilight years: The X-Files. As I’ve discussed, it served as one of Abrams’ key inspirations for Alias and much of his storytelling beyond this show, but their similar fates perhaps speak to creative parallels between what were two very very different series. Alias was never remotely as successful or popular as The X-Files at its peak but both shows make a conscious choice to give their leading ladies children and, by consequence, end up altering the primary dynamic of the show. In another unusual parallel, both also lose their leading male protagonists in their final seasons.
For The X-Files, Scully’s pregnancy and Mulder’s absence (due to David Duchovny leaving the series) led to its final Season 9 having Scully as a third wheel to Agents Doggett & Reyes, who attempted to fill the traditional, investigative dynamic Mulder & Scully had inhabited for the first seven years. Alias ends up in Season 5 making Sydney a mentor to a new, younger female protagonist named Rachel Gibson, as a way of allowing the same kind of spy stories to be told while Garner was unable to do all the martial arts gymnastics she’d undertaken over the last four seasons. With Vaughn a similar absent centre to Mulder, Season 5 introduces another male protagonist to fill the void and here both shows again parallel one another… because these changes don’t entirely work for either show.
Alias in its final year feels like a show attempting to reinvent itself for a new generation, much like The X-Files was attempting to do. Both series miscalculated how significant the dynamics of its main characters, and the charisma of its main cast, had been to the success of each series. While Sydney Bristow never entered popular culture in the way Mulder or Scully did, she was always a strong, trend-setting female heroine played with grounded strength by Jennifer Garner, who built a subsequent movie career out of the role. Alias always flanked her with a strong, engaging sub-set of supporting characters, whether it was Garber’s SpyDaddy, Kevin Weisman’s geeky Q-proxy Marshall or Ron Rifkin’s endlessly entertaining, snake-like turn as the complex villain Sloane. It had depth on the bench many other shows didn’t.
Season 5 therefore had one eye, before its cancellation, on a post-Garner future. Rachel Nichols would go on to headline her own series in Continuum but her green super-spy in the making never had the chops to replace Sydney, who had become so deeply connected with the heart of the series, fans would almost certainly have never been comfortable with Rachel taking her place. While narratively calling back to the SD-6 years and engaging with a deeper level of serialisation, oddly more akin to Season 3 in some respects, Season 5 felt like a series living on borrowed time and come the cancellation, Pinkner and his staff had the difficult job of trying to resolve five seasons of mythology in just a few episodes.
Truthfully, the climactic run of Alias *does* have a few bright spots. The fates of Jack and Sloane are about as perfect as could ever have been imagined for both of those characters. There are fun returns for characters who made a mark in earlier seasons, such as Will Tippin (played by a pre-A-list Bradley Cooper) and Anna Espinosa. But the final episode, ‘All the Time in the World’, has significant problems. It was facing an almost impossible task, particularly where Rambaldi was concerned. They should really have let him, and the entire mythology, go at the end of Season 4, which was reputed to be a scaled-back version of the series finale Abrams had imagined right at the very beginning of the series. The story of Alias’ life was perhaps not knowing when to let go of a good thing.
It has been over a decade now since Alias ended, and close to 20 years since it first premiered. That’s quite staggering because Alias kicked through the doors of 21st century storytelling with a pulpy, retro-futuristic, stylish vigour not many other series managed to do, rolling with a confidence which delivered two perky opening seasons. The pilot, in particular, is among the strongest opening episodes of an American genre TV show you’ll find. Alias arrived fully formed, locked and loaded, and knowing what it was, which is something you really can’t say about many other TV shows. If anything, the older Alias got, the less sure it became of itself.
Yet while it may not linger particularly strongly in popular-culture, a victim perhaps of political realities and changing trends in storytelling and the television industry, it remains a TV show respected among those who watched it, to the point in recent years there have even been rumblings of a reboot of the concept. Nothing has come of it thus far, perhaps because one of the significant aspects rumoured would be that Rambaldi would be nowhere to be found in any new version of Alias and, in a way, it was quirks such as Rambaldi that made Alias the unusual throwback it was. Abrams has made a career out of taking retro-storytelling and updating it with a modern aesthetic, and it all began with how Alias made its mark, however lightly that may have been.
Truth takes time was Alias’ signature catchphrase. Perhaps the same can be said for Alias itself being remembered and appreciated in the way it deserves to be.
Check out more detailed reviews episode by episode of the series:
- Truth Be Told
- So It Begins…
- A Broken Heart
- Time Will Tell
- Mea Culpa
- The Confession
- The Box (Pt 1)
- The Box (Pt 2)
- The Coup
- Page 47
- The Prophecy
- The Solution
- Almost Thirty Years
Season 2 (2002-2003)
- The Enemy Walks In
- Trust Me
- Dead Drop
- The Indicator
- The Counteragent
- Passage (Pt 1)
- Passage (Pt 2)
- The Abduction
- A Higher Echelon
- The Getaway
- Phase One
- Double Agent
- A Free Agent
- A Dark Turn
- Truth Takes Time
- Second Double
- The Telling
Season 3 (2003-2004)
- The Two
- A Missing Link
- The Nemesis
- Breaking Point
- Full Disclosure
- After Six
- The Frame
- Blood Ties
Season 4 (2005)
- Authorised Personnel Only (Pt 1)
- Authorised Personnel Only (Pt 2)
- The Awful Truth
- Welcome to Liberty Village
- A Man of His Word
- The Index
- The Road Home
- The Orphan
- Another Mister Sloane
- A Clean Conscience
- In Dreams
- The Descent
- Search and Rescue
- Before the Flood
Season 5 (2005-2006)
- Prophet Five
- The Shed
- Out of the Box
- Fait Accompli
- The Horizon
- Maternal Instinct
- There’s Only One Sydney Bristow
- 30 Seconds
- I See Dead People
- No Hard Feelings
- All the Time in the World