Alias: Season 1 (2001)
Review by ScottC

Series Created by J.J. Abrams
Starring Jennifer Garner, Victor Garber, Ron Rifkin, Michael Vartan, Bradley Cooper, Carl Lumbly, Merrin Dungey, and Kevin Weisman


Released by: Buena Vista
Rating: NR
Region: 1
Anamorphic: That's affirmative.

My Advice: Own It. You heard me, get up and go buy it!

Most of us have had a job during college. For example, I worked at a video rental store. But Sydney Bristow’s (Garner) job is a little different. While she is getting her Masters in English, she works as a secret agent for SD-6, a secret and therefore deniable section of the CIA. Under the command of Arvin Sloane (Rifkin), with her partner Dixon (Lumbly) and resident uber-techie Marshall (Weisman), she partakes in missions that would make James Bond shit his knickers. Her life is going good until her boyfriend proposes.

This isn't the bad thing, but Sydney decides to tell her SO about her work with SD-6, a big no-no. She discovers how big a no-no this is when she comes home to find her fiance murdered. Furious that SD-6 went this far to protect their secret, she quits. This also makes her a target. While fighting an assassination team, she is rescued by her father, Jack (Garber). Her father explains to her that he doesn't sell airplanes parts, but actually works for SD-6 too. But SD-6 isn't with the CIA; it is an independent organization that hires out its espionage services for whoever has the cash. She resolves to take SD-6 down by working as a double agent for the real CIA. With her 'handler' Vaughn (Vartan) and her father, also a double agent in SD-6, she has to keep her co-workers and her bosses at SD-6 unaware of her new alliances, keep her friends unaware of her other life, and try to reconnect with father.

When television is overflowing with frivolous reality television and sit-coms desperate to be the next Friends, Alias is like a breath of fresh air. I think it's safe to say that what Buffy, the Vampire Slayer was for horror, this show is for the spy genre. Amidst the kick-ass fights scenes and the cool gadgetry, you are given complex characters and plots that draw you into their world. While we see Sydney speak foreign languages like a native and outfight gangs of thugs, we also see her trying to cope with working for the man who had her fiance killed and trying to reconnect with a father who has his own secret demons to deal with. You end up with a balance of action and emotion that keeps each from becoming too overpowering.

This also helps strengthen the suspension of disbelief when confronted with the mystery of Milo Rambaldi, a 15th century seer and gadgeteer whose prophecies and blueprints are sought by both the CIA and SD-6. While the focus of the show is obviously on Sydney, Abrams gives us subplots that give more depth to the show. And Abrams loves to refer back to previous episodes to see if you’re paying attention. Sometimes the various plot lines get dropped or go on too long, but they also allow the other actors in the show to shine.

Abrams lucked out with Jennifer Garner. It is rare to find someone who can manage the physicality of the action genre and still have the acting chops to give her character some dimension. Garner's portrays Sydney as a professional who supremely capable in your job, but her personal life is a mess. She has Vaughn, who knows about her complicated life, but they would be killed by SD-6 if discovered together. Then there's Will, who is available, but she must protect him by continually lying to him about SD-6. While she can be a little weepy as times, Garner deftly compensates this by getting severely pissed off when appropriate.

Elevating are Victor Garber and Ron Rifkin, two worthy stage actors who give wonderful multilayered and subtle performances. Garber's Jack has buried his emotions to fulfill the needs of being a double agent, but having Sydney in his life has caused all the regrets and sadness to flair up. His almost-soulless professionalism is as chilling when motivated by simply completing a mission or protecting Sydney by any means necessary. And Rifkin's Sloane is not your typical moustache-twirling villain. He seems to have a genuine concern for Sydney and true love for his dying wife while still being a ruthless calculating bastard. You can almost see the plans within plans whirring behind his eyes.

As befitting a DVD box set, several special features are included. Besides the usual gag reel and television spots (instead of trailers), we get commentaries on four episodes. For the pilot 'Truth Be Told', J.J. Abrams and Jennifer Garner talk about what it was like shooting the pilot when the show's future was uncertain. Abrams remarks on the difficulties of establishing a show's tone at the first episode where the characters and locations are still unknown. Even then you can see the various elements that the show will implement from the SD-6 briefing to Garner's many, many wigs. Garner, on her part, tells of her love of the physicality of the role, even during many of her own stunts.

The second episode 'So It Begins' has director Ken Olin having to deal with stunts and heavy action scenes when most of his work has been in standard drama. Also he and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain and producer Sarah Caplan discuss working out the kinks in the show. For example, Sydney is wearing a tight blue dress that she looks great in, however she can't kick the bad guy without embarrassing herself. In 'Q&A', the writer and producers discuss writing an episode than brought new viewers up to speed on what is going on while still moving the story along. This and the previous commentary tend to lean towards the technical side and really aren't that entertaining. And the season finale 'Almost Thirty Years' has the entire cast talking about their experiences doing the show. There is more joking around and giving out praise in this commentary, but you can feel genuine camaraderie among the cast so it can be forgiven.

The two other major extras are a post-production diary that shows Abrams putting together the pilot and focusing on the major stunt scenes. Even for television, there are a lot of elements that go into putting all the pieces together. Showing how one scene can have bits from shots in studio, location, and post-production tweaking makes you appreciate how complicated a show like this can be. The other featurette is 'Inside Stunts' where fight scenes are discussed. This tells you how they worked to develop Sydney's fighting style (using kickboxing techniques and the environment around her) and it's quite interesting. You forget that fighting on camera still requires the actor to stay in character.

In short, Alias is good TV and this boxed set is a worthy first season installment. Fans of the show should buy, and non-fans should watch, enjoy, then buy.

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