TV

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Facade’ (3×15)

When ABC laid down the edict midway through Alias’ second season that the series needed to become less impenetrable to audiences, Facade in many respects feels the closest the series has yet come to providing the show the network perhaps wanted it to be.

Facade, barring one or two continuing narrative aspects, character beats and story ideas, is perhaps the most truly stand-alone episode of Alias yet. It is also, in many ways, certainly one of the best episodes of the third season, if not the entire series. It links to Season Three’s arch villains the Covenant, and ties directly back to a small dangling thread from Full Disclosure, but Facade is the first experiment with crafting a contained, focused narrative that could be watched independently of understanding the myriad amount of complex mythology and character stories Alias is built upon. In narrative construction, it also owes the biggest debt to date to one of the series’ primary influences: the 1960s iconic spy series Mission: Impossible.

Why now? Why create an episode like this as the show enters the last third of a season?

Though the primary reason is to build an episode around the special guest star of the week, Ricky Gervais, there is also a strange logic to Facade’s placement at this stage in Alias. It would have worked in the fourth season, a year which embraces stand-alone storytelling intentionally in the first half of the season, but Facade also exists within the strange nether-space of Alias between two distinct stages of the series’ mythology: the Prophecy and the Passenger. After Six and Blowback certainly advanced the duality inherent in the dynamics of Syd/Vaughn, Sark/Lauren, but from a narrative perspective they advance nothing of importance. Lauren doesn’t even feature in this episode at all. Alias is in a holding pattern that only starts to shift from Taken, next time, onwards.

In the third season, there is no better place for Facade. It exists almost independently of many of the plot lines and character stories around it. Maybe, in the strangest of ways, that’s a major reason why it works so well.

TV Review: THE OFFICE – ‘Downsize’ (1×01)

The opening episode of The Office establishes, in broad strokes, the majority of storylines and thematic ideas that will run across the entirety of the two series and fourteen episodes of the show’s run.

Downsize first and foremost introduces the key, signature character of David Brent, our protagonist as played by co-writer/director Ricky Gervais, and placed him in context. Brent, almost immediately, works as a comedic creation. Gervais, and co-writer/director Stephen Merchant, provide an opening scene which gives us a very clear flavour of who Brent is – a self-aggrandising joker desperate to impress, yet without the arrogance that would distance him from the audience. Gervais plays Brent so painfully cheesy and wilfully, blissfully unaware of how uncool he is, that you can’t help but immediately find him funny. His opening monologue, delivered to an incumbent forklift driver called Alex, is a perfect introduction.

Gervais and Merchant then swiftly introduce the office setting that will be crucial in their depiction of a workplace purgatory; a status quo of middle England static inertia, characterised in how drab Slough—the location of paper merchants Wernham Hogg—is presented in the credits. Concrete edifices, a holdover from the brutalist architecture of the 1960s that infested towns across England; roundabouts; eternally overcast skies; and finally the view of an office building that could be any industrial estate in the country. The interior is equally unremarkable, and indeed was constructed as a set around a largely defunct office space that Gervais & Merchant wanted to retain the shabbiness off – a sense of eternal coffee stains and badly cleaned interiors. The employees themselves appear lifeless and drained of energy for their work.

It is perhaps the introductory to camera moment for Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman), one of the audiences’ relatable surrogates, that perhaps sums up the initial impression of the setting of this new comedy. “I’m a sales rep, which means that my job is to speak to clients on the phone about quantity and type of paper, whether we can supply it to them and whether they can pay for it… and I’m boring myself talking about it…”

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Blowback’ (3×14)

While it is tempting to consider the mid-stretch of Alias Season Three as a devolution of complexity and craft, in which the show spins its wheels, Blowback does at least attempt to adopt a tried and tested narrative trope in which to tell a fairly bland espionage story.

It splits the episode between two perspectives, that of Vaughn and Lauren, as writer Laurence Andries charts the continued, steady self-destruction of their marriage, even before the truth about Lauren’s duplicity emerges. We see the same mission, as the CIA unit attempt to stop the Covenant stealing a ‘plasma charge’ from an unseen Philippine terrorist outfit called Shining Sword, from each of their vantage points, with Vaughn blissfully unaware that his wife is one of the Covenant agents he and Syd are chasing down. In this, the audience are ahead of our heroes and complicit in Lauren’s continued duplicity, but Blowback looks to try and depict the cracks in their marriage, in true Alias fashion, through high-concept spy theatrics.

Andries chooses to borrow from Rashomon, the classic 1950 Japanese drama from auteur Akira Kurosawa, which is generally considered one of the first significant pieces of on-screen fiction to manipulate both time and perspective in the story of two men recounting the interlinked stories of a bandit, a wife, a samurai and a woodcutter, as their narratives re-tell the same events and overlap, each providing a unique and often self-serving perspective on what happened. Rashomon brilliantly plays with perceptions and highlights the nature of subjectivity, in how we are often the heroes of our own story, and it simply takes a tweak in how an event is observed to alter the context of the entire meaning of the moment. It is a compelling and philosophical piece of work.

Blowback is, to be charitable, neither, but it should be commended for experimentation and working to frame Vaughn and Lauren’s place in relation to their work and life through such a prism. It is a clever way to show just how intertwined their professional lives are at this stage.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘After Six’ (3×13)

In many ways, After Six can be considered indicative of the kind of fan-baiting series Alias became in Season Three after the daring apogee of Full Disclosure, a sign of what it runs arms-opened toward in the latter half of the season.

Crossings established that Syd & Vaughn were not going to remain apart as per the new, Julia Thorne-era paradigm, and that the writers were determined to find a way to untie the difficult knots of storytelling that had replaced the UST of the early seasons with a trauma-driven, grief-stricken change in circumstance preventing them being together. Work would need to be done in order to return them to a romantic state, work that takes the rest of the season in all honesty, but Alias would be intent on giving the fans what they wanted: the SVR (Syd-Vaughn Romance). Season Three, as a result, begins in After Six to deliberately angle the series away from Syd & Jack’s relationship as the dramatic focal point, as it is when Alias operates at its best, toward what becomes a knotty quadrangle.

Having Lauren turn out to be a Covenant agent is not a bad twist in and of itself, indeed it makes a modicum of sense on several thematic levels for Alias as will become apparent in what happens to Vaughn’s character at the back end of the season. However, it very deliberately is a convenient way to lessen the problematic moral realities of Syd & Vaughn becoming romantically involved when one of them is married. After Six begins to explore this but everything is offset by how immediately pantomime Lauren becomes as she partners, both literally and sexually, with Sark across this episode. She wears dark eye shadow. She tries out revealing lingerie. She seduces Covenant bosses and savagely murders them. In perhaps one of Alias’ most chilling moments, Lauren watches Sark strangle a man to death while having a casual, loving phone check in with her husband, talking about making them some supper.

After Six, therefore, begins the recalibration of Alias into a more simplistic series driven by sex, betrayal and more traditional forms of spy plotting. It is sporadically entertaining but, at this stage, that’s about all.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Crossings’ (3×12)

How do you follow an episode like Full Disclosure? It is hard to envy Crossings, an hour of Alias that, to some degree, is a necessary change down in gear.

Being aware that Full Disclosure was, in part, meant to span the length of the third season, Crossings could in an alternative universe ended up an early outing in a fourth season exploring the consequences of the Julia Thorne arc, yet it is forced to find a space in the wake of some monumental revelations on a personal level for Sydney, seismic Rambaldi secrets laid bare, and a major twist for one of the series’ lead characters. Josh Applebaum & Andre Nemec’s second script as writers on the show chooses to focus on the easiest of the three, and indeed by and large Alias never really gets into the fallout of the bigger two aspects of the previous episodes. Crossings is a sign of the times to come for the show.

After the events of Full Disclosure, one might suggest that Crossings refers to Sydney’s emotional state as she moves from the missing two years, and the seismic personal changes that wrought, into a new space. “I’m moving on” she tries to reassure Vaughn as they grapple with the terms and conditions of their relationship, but it’s as convincing as the idea of Alias itself truly moving on into a new space. Crossings is no metaphysical piece, no sequel to Passage on a thematic level and any kind of rite for Sydney. Crossings is rather Alias moving into a safe space, a comfort zone, and almost immediately a far less intriguing, complicated and nebulous arena. It’s not even a step back, as such. It’s a step sideways.

Season Three will get back there in much less elegant fashion than in the first half of the year, but perhaps appropriately for an episode set primarily in North Korea, Crossings is Alias walking into a dramatic no man’s land.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Full Disclosure’ (3×11)

Had Alias’ fifth and final season ran to twenty two episodes much like the rest of the series, Full Disclosure would have been the exact midway point of the show. We should consider it as such because only Phase One, the second season’s format shattering powerhouse, comes close to being the most important episode in the history of Alias.

There is so much to discuss around Full Disclosure, tackling the episode is almost daunting. It is not just a culmination of the first half of the third season but the entire Rambaldi mythology to date, at this point. The revelations and contextualisations of that mythology here do not make sense as a mid-season point of clarity, or even had they been placed at the end of Season Three. These are series ending secrets being revealed, theoretically, or narratives that one might have expected following The Prophecy and the cornerstone of the Rambaldi mythos established in the first season would have played out in the final season of Alias. The fact Full Disclosure is a necessary, swift wrap-up of an ongoing storyline that the previous ten episodes had unfurled is, in hindsight, quite criminal.

If this sounds like I am suggesting Full Disclosure is a supremely important episode to Alias, then you would be correct. It is. There is something quite staggering about it’s reach and effect, especially considering it was designed to fold up the unpopular Julia narrative and restore Sydney, and the series, to something approaching normality and a sense of security, when initially the plot was designed to run for the whole of the third season. It very much parallels Phase One in that regard as both were the result of network edicts to conclude complicated narratives that they feared were alienating the core audience. Phase One turned out as a genuinely brilliant, propulsive and clear hour of television, condensing and concluding the SD-6 storyline with remarkable brevity given what came before. The same can not be said of Full Disclosure.

The series, and Syd as a character, never reaches the layered and complicated intensity of this episode again. Everything that follows feels like an extended epilogue to the mythology and Sydney’s journey.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Remnants’ (3×10)

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, as the saying goes, and Remnants is perhaps the chief example of that with Alias up to this point.

The return of Will Tippin, as played by Bradley Cooper, is an unexpected boon to an episode that arrives right in the middle of one of Alias’ most rollercoaster, knotty and complicated story arc resolutions, as Sydney’s lost time begins to unfurl itself as weaved closely into the advancing stages of the Rambaldi mythology. Will did not need to exist within the tapestry of Remnants; from a narrative point of view, another character could have logically filled the position Will does here, either another guest character or one of the main cast. Yet the manner in which writer Jeff Pinkner finds a way to reintroduce Will, provide details of how his life has changed in the ensuing two years, and tether him to the ongoing plot of Syd’s missing time, the ‘death’ of Andrian Lazarey, and ultimately the Rambaldi mythos, is surprisingly adept. It’s a reach but it’s not a crowbar.

The title itself doubles down on what Remnants essentially concerns: Alias coming to terms, finally, with the consequences and fallout from Season Two. The Nemesis sets the scene for this by reintroducing Allison Doren, and Remnants pays it all off by adding Will to the concoction. Will becomes not just the key to unlocking Syd’s lost two years, but the emotional mechanism for her to break down and come to terms with the trauma of being transformed into her dark reflection. In Conscious she kills that id, destroys the idea of Julia Thorne, the sinister double, in order to ultimately access and re-connect with Will, and he serves a function beyond exposition or narrative connectivity to what the Covenant are planning to provide both a balm, a hint of salvation, and indeed a moment of pause and reflection. Will allows her, for the first time in a long time, to briefly be just ‘Sydney’.

Remnants is all about Alias’ continuing mission, one it has been engaging with on some level since Phase One, to let go of both its own past and, more generally, the 1990s it was born from.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Conscious’ (3×09)

Conscious operates in quite a formative space, not just for Alias but many of the works from J. J. Abrams production house that would overlap and follow it.

After the grim but effective exploration in Breaking Point of Alias’s position externally as a post-9/11 series rocked by the traumatic mass hysteria of terrorism on American soil, Conscious moves inward. It contextualises many of the thematic ideas not just of the third season but of Alias as a whole, specifically the inherent duality behind the concept. Sydney Bristow spends her life being two different people, herself and whatever ‘alias’ she adopts week by week on mission. When the narrative structure disappeared after Phase One that enabled this, Season Two brought in the Helix doubling technology and established, particularly by The Telling, two sides of a psychological join in Allison/Francie – the darkness and the light. Season Three brought that inherent duality into Syd’s character herself through her missing time and Julia Thorne, apparently an externalisation of the darkest impulses that the show has worried about since the beginning.

It’s worth noting in many ways that Alias has always been a little bit obsessed with the idea of the virtuous American mother/wife/girlfriend being not what they seem, and in Syd’s case it also extends to the idea of the hero being corrupted. The revelations about Laura Bristow, the lionised, dead before her time image of the perfect American wife, shatter that visage with the reality of the duplicitous, enigmatic Irina Derevko. Allison Doren murders the innocent, unaware Francie and works to corrupt the CIA’s operation from within through assassination and brainwashing, prepping Will Tippin as a ‘Manchurian Candidate’ in the making (fitting given the character was built on cinematic conspiracy templates). Julia Thorne is the ultimate expression of the fear about Sydney, that she might be an Irina in the making, or a programmed assassin, or a 500 year old prophesied bringer of mass destruction. Conscious is Alias’s psychological method of coming to terms with this anxiety, especially after Breaking Point.

What Syd finds as she enters the recesses of her subconscious manages to both forward the key narrative arc of the third season while making explicit the core thematic idea of the entire show: the greater enemy is within, not without.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Breaking Point’ (3×08)

Though moving away from anything that could be described as an Alias episodic ‘formula’, Breaking Point is not just one of the best episodes of Season Three but, perhaps, of the entire series.

A natural culmination of the third season’s story arcs to date, Breaking Point is where Alias has arguably been heading for almost two seasons. Breen Frazier’s script, as the arrested Sydney is carted away as a suspected terrorist to the menacing, isolated Camp Williams, renditioned and tortured by US military forces for intelligence, is the natural extension of the first season’s episode Q&A, in which Syd was detained by the FBI (supposedly) after she was directly linked to apocalyptic quatrains in the Rambaldi manuscript. Jack said at the time that they could “conceivably hold her without trial for the rest of her life” and the same applies here. Camp Williams is not presented as the kind of detention facility people leave, or certainly leave as who they were before.

There are plenty of connections back to The Prophecy arc in the first season over the conclusion to Syd’s missing two years storyline, but one of the most interesting is how Alias approaches terrorism in this context. After spending several years operating as a post-Cold War series as America’s unipolar might is challenged by domestic insurgents and glamorous external villains, Breaking Point finishes the work began in Q&A—and continued in episodes such as Fire Bomb in the second season—in transforming Alias, born in the shadow of the attack on the Twin Towers, into a post-9/11 series. Breaking Point could be an episode of 24 or Homeland. It debuted at the height of 24’s popularity, as The Sopranos was coming to terms with the New York tragedy, as Star Trek: Enterprise was exploring the reactionary cost of American imperialism in its fictional future. Though a series built on retro, cod-1960s escapism, Alias boldly crosses a threshold in Breaking Point as it explores the reality of American political extremism in reaction to the existential fear of terrorism.

It makes for one hell of a powerful, dark and disturbing hour of Alias. This might be as grim as the series gets.

Try to Be Open to This: Experiencing MAD MEN

We are all chameleons. We are never just one mood, one variation, one fixed point in time and space. This is the lesson Mad Men seeks to impart to the viewer.
It has been five years since the final seven episode run of Mad Men concluded it’s seventh and final season on AMC, and there is an argument to be made that Matthew Weiner’s series stands as one of the final assortment of critically acclaimed series to air on cable television before the age of streaming, a capstone on the Golden Age of Television ushered in during the 1990s and truly crystallised by The Sopranos. Weiner served as a staff writer on David Chase’s seminal, psychological deconstruction of the modern American family, the immigrant experience and the organised crime world, and Mad Men began just as The Sopranos came to an end. They make for a remarkable companion piece; different in setting, style and tone yet tethered in how they tragically expose the fragility of the American Dream.
Donald Draper, played with true majesty by Jon Hamm, serves as a historical forerunner of James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. Both are complicated, traumatised men, haunted by maternal rejection, toxic in their approach to sex and femininity, and struggling to reconcile their personal demons with their professional (or in Tony’s case criminal) lives around them. The difference with Don, existing at the beginning of the 1960s through to the arrival of the 1970s, is in how he presents. Tony almost revels in his gauche, open handed viciousness and virulence, even as he works in therapy to try and understand or temper it, where as Don is the picture of masculine restraint, refusing to acknowledge his own internal pain and even his true identity as Dick Whitman, an orphaned boy born into poverty who escaped the midwest and reinvented him as the picture of American success on the East Coast.
Mad Men, amongst many things, is about Don’s own reckoning with identity as he traverses a fast-changing social and cultural landscape, his journey toward change, and indeed whether change is even possible. If The Sopranos externalises the corruption of 20th century America, Mad Men internalises the foundation of it. Don is the dream and the nightmare in one beautiful, opaque package.