Following the Buffy marathon of recent times, I noticed that NowTV were offering all five seasons ofAlias, JJ Abrams’ series about a high-kicking secret agent. Starring Jennifer Garner as CIA operative Sidney Bristow, I always thought Alias was something of a natural successor to Buffy, with the idea of a female action hero transcending genre. Alias is more science fiction/espionage than fantasy/horror, but it also has elements of fantasy in terms of the show’s Maguffin: the Rambaldi artefacts. There are also unfortunate levels of torture, although our hero doesn’t generally need a man to rescue her. She does have a support network which is mostly male, though the occasional appearances of her mother and the later addition of Melissa George as a rival agent does mitigate that problem.
Watching these shows back to back you are struck by the extraordinary levels of violence in both Buffy and Alias, and the ways in which brute force is presented as the solution to a number of different problems, or as a way to settle an argument or simply shut somebody up. Alias does also contain some sexy visuals, but it never goes very far, and if Jennifer Garner (or, later, Melissa George) does dress up in stockings and suspenders, it’s only in order to get close to somebody and do them harm.
Alias lacks the wit and humour of Buffy, though it does have some laugh-out-loud moments, and, following the earlier show’s lead, pulls out some audacious plot twists. At the end of Season 2, for example, Sydney Bristow wakes up in Hong Kong after losing consciousness in a fight at home in L.A. She soon discovers that two years has passed, and everything about her world has changed.
Probably my favourite feature of the show is the legendary Milo Rambaldi, a renaissance era genius in the vein of Leonardo who not only invented all kinds of advanced technologies but also issued a series of prophecies. The obsession that major character Sloane has for Rambaldi artefacts rings true, and of course they provide a number of excuses for Sidney to go on missions.
No show ever did cliffhangers better than Alias, although the payoff was rarely a match for the anticipation generated. Watching it week by week, back in the day, it was must-see TV for me. Having the luxury of an on-line boxed set means I can just binge on about four episodes in a row. The cliffhangers still work, though.
I thought I knew the show too well to watch it again, but that turned out not to be the case. The story arc of Season 1 in particular surprised me, as events that I thought had taken a couple of series to come to pass, seemed to happen in very quick succession. This left a black space on my inner roadmap, and I’ve been enjoying watching all over again. My girls, big Buffy fans, not so much. Perhaps suffering Boxed Set Fatigue, which is a thing.
Alias had a great cast of characters and a love of Bond-style gadgetry. In the end it was burdened by the weight of its backstories and interpersonal relationships, in much the same way that shows like ER, The X Files and NYPD Blue were. A shame, but an inevitable consequence of not wanting to do an adventure-of-the-week type thing. Season-long arcs have a lot to answer for, and for a showrunner, a tough balance to strike.