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ALIAS – ‘A Free Agent’ (2×15 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

There is a strong argument to be made that A Free Agent is the episode in which the second era of Alias truly begins.

Phase One, in a direct attempt to reconceptualise the series, destroyed in one episode the entire conceptual framework of how Alias worked in order to eradicate the complexity of the double-agent spy narrative Sydney Bristow found herself within, collapsing SD-6 and the Alliance beyond them like a house of cards in swift, stylish fashion. Double Agent, succeeding it, was originally meant to air ahead of it, and serves as an unlikely breakwater, geared around a major A-list guest star and while it introduces a key part of the series’ mythology in the Helix doubling technology, it feels strangely divorced from what came before and what follows after. A Free Agent is the direct follow-up to Phase One. It is the episode that deals with the fallout and consequences of SD-6’s collapse, on multiple levels, and kickstarts the new threat Season Two will deal with.

Namely: the threat of Arvin Sloane as a super-villain, freed from the restrictions of his role in SD-6, and allowed to blossom into the character Ron Rifkin has steadily, through the nature of his ambiguous and deadly performance, steered the character toward. A Free Agent also, directly, even up to the nature of its title, deals head on with the reality of Sydney’s existence in the espionage world. She has always been a reluctant hero, dragged into the CIA’s mission to destroy the Alliance after the loss of her fiancee. All she wanted, upon learning the truth about SD-6 and Sloane, was to escape. “I did everything for the CIA I said I would, and I’m done” she claims, determinedly, planning to quit the CIA. A Free Agent does something the audience, even without realising it, needed: it provides a new mission statement for Syd, at least for the time being. A reason for her to continue being a spy and for Alias, logically, to exist.

That reason, interestingly, turns out to be the realisation that Sydney, existentially, is trapped. A Free Agent establishes Sloane as a personal and ideological opponent she needs to, logically, overcome in order to escape this life. The title becomes an ironic one.

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ALIAS – ‘Phase One’ (2×13 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Every television show has that one, signature episode which stands out as the series at its best and often its most iconic. Phase One, for Alias, is very much that episode.

It has passed into the cultural lexicon in American TV as “the Super Bowl episode” of Alias, in that it was chosen by ABC for the very prestigious honour of airing directly after the Super Bowl, America’s biggest watch sports event in mid-February by some distance, and in the days where network television ruled the roost, many shows would save major two-part episodes or important narratives to air in the slipstream of the Super Bowl, aware that they had a larger guarantee of attracting a major audience. Phase One was originally designed, structurally, to air *after* Double Agent, but once J.J. Abrams—with some advice from his wife—realised the powerful potential of Phase One, and quite how much of a game changer it was, the running order was adjusted and Phase One aired after the 2003 Super Bowl…

…to the lowest audience numbers in that spot since 1975! Though perversely it was still the highest rated episode for reviewing figures the series ever achieved. This is a reflection on how Alias, despite being supported well by ABC who believed in it and Abrams enough to consistently renew the series, even when the numbers were eclipsed substantially by Abrams’ next series Lost from Season 4 onwards, would consistently struggle to find an audience, even in the wake of the most watched television event of the year and the fact that Phase One ends up being, for all intents and purposes, a second pilot for Alias. It is structured and designed entirely to close the book on the knotty espionage premise introduced in Truth Be Told, do away with SD-6, the Alliance and Sydney Bristow as a double agent, and reboot the series with a streamlined, if not simplistic and uncomplicated, premise going forward.

As a result, Phase One is not only the best episode of Alias since Abrams’ pilot, it is also arguably the show at the peak of what it was capable of. It is the closest Alias ever comes to true TV greatness and a motion picture scope and gravitas.

ALIAS – ‘Passage – Pt 2’ (2×09 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

The second half of Passage is proof positive that Alias might have benefited more often by indulging in the traditional two-part episode structure of old, given how well it makes use of the breathing space afforded to it by part one.

The Box, as we previously discussed last season, played structurally with the classic two-part event episode by seeding a high-concept idea within the ongoing, serialised fabric of Alias, in a different manner to Alias’ penchant for ending stories week by week in a truly serialised fashion with a cliffhanger, frequently Sydney-in-peril. This lessened over time, with many Season Two episodes having the confidence to end on an emotional beat, but connected narrative structures remain – take how Salvation flows into The Counteragent, for example. Passage, like The Box, has a condensed conceptual idea—Syd, Jack & Irina work together on a mission—that only exists within the construct of these two episodes, while helping the forward the broader arcs of the season.

Passage therefore has the space to establish the global stakes—in this case stolen suitcase nuclear weapons inside contested Kashmiri territory—and establish the emotional stakes—here surrounding whether Syd, Jack and the broader CIA can trust Irina enough to let her out of her cell—which gives this entire story a greater depth than some Alias episodes are afforded. It is a sign that Alias can break from the traditional Season One template of a mission Sydney goes on with a specific objective, broken up into two or three set-pieces per episode. The mission in Passage *is* the episode, and it works entirely to service the Bristow family drama. Not until Season 4 premiere Authorised Personnel Only will Alias again give itself the two-part framework to tell a story in quite this manner.

That is part of the reason Passage works so well, indeed rarely for the second part of a story, it works better than part one and the establishment. Passage also works because the payoff is as satisfying, if not more so, than the setup preceding it.

ALIAS – ‘The Indicator’ (2×05 – Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

One of the key thematic ideas running through the genre output of Bad Robot as a company, and particularly JJ Abrams as a producer, is that of destiny. Alias, for the first time head on, truly confronts this concept in The Indicator.

This is an episode more important to the broader direction and thematic core of Alias than it may first been given credit for. It exposes a huge personal secret from Sydney Bristow’s past which casts her relationship with her father Jack—one I’ve argued since the very beginning is what Alias is really all about—in a striking and devastating new light. It ends up directly connecting to season finale The Telling, in how it reveals Project Christmas as a spy children training program, and consequently manages to establish the parameters for Syd’s amnesiac assassin arc across the first half of Season Three. It even connects to the series finale, All the Time in the World, which returns to the idea of an innate intelligence within the Bristow/Derevko line that is pre-disposed to espionage, but the message is that such conditioning can ultimately be broken. The Indicator re-frames Syd’s entire life as pre-disposed by some level of spy destiny, and questions whether or not this was inevitable, or she is entirely a product of what her parents made her.

A key skill of Alias, and why to my mind it is one of the great, underrated American television genre series, in how well it actualises parental ideas and tropes. The nature vs nurture debate continues to rage; are serial killers who came from loving family homes a product of their parents, or is there a genetic or psychological basis for their crimes? Alias literalises the idea of nurture by having Jack explicitly manipulate Syd as a young girl into exploiting what a CIA psychologist describes as “proficiency with numbers, three dimensional thinking, problem solving”, and coding into her subconscious the aptitude that allowed her, when SD-6 came calling, to sail through training with the highest scores and commendations. It is hard to say whether Abrams and his team of writers planned this revelation in advance, despite a mention of Project Christmas in Season One’s Masquerade, but it retroactively fits as a causal explanation for Syd’s super-spy abilities.

The Indicator does not necessarily linger in the memory as a classic or iconic individual episode of television, but without doubt it changes the entire context of Syd’s life as a spy, her childhood and her relationship with Jack. In that sense, it’s a game changer.

Shock and Awe: X2 – X-Men United (2003)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Bryan Singer’s sequel, 2003’s X2…

Though far more of a muscular and accomplished film than its predecessor, X2: X-Men United would never have worked without it.

X2 is in danger of being overlooked in our era of dominant comic-book movie franchises and behemoth superhero pictures as one of the key, formative pieces of cinema in the genre, something we must work hard to avoid. Bryan Singer’s sequel is a skilled piece of work which does precisely what a follow up is designed to do – build on the foundations of the previous film, add complications and greater depth, and provide a heightened, meaningful experience. X2 does that very successfully. It is The Empire Strikes Back to X-Men’s A New Hope. It even has strong shades come the denouement of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in how it punches you with an earned sacrifice on one hand, while promising a rebirth on the other. X2 feels like a picture that everyone involved had been constructing in their minds long before it was ever committed to celluloid.

On that basis, X2 feels on some level like the first truly meaningful X-Men movie but one that needed the prologue of the original 2000 film in order to function in the manner it does. When Singer came back to helm the sequel, he combined screenplays by David Hayter—who penned the previous movie—and Zak Penn, brewed up with rewrites from Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, in order to fuse together a film which develops many of the established character arcs from X-Men, placed the film distinctly in a post-9/11 context, and digs deep into the ideological and existential conflict between Professor X and Magneto – namely whether mutants should believe in humanity or reject and destroy them. It does this while never forgetting the human cost of being different, exploring the difficulty of living with what genetics, evolution, gives you in a less than tolerant society.

X2 does this with a poise and panache that few comic-book movies have equalled since.

ALIAS (Season 1) – Overview

The first season of Alias, the show that put superstar producer-director JJ Abrams on the map, has aged remarkably well.

Airing in 2001, a matter of weeks in the wake of the traumatic September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Alias had the unenviable task of providing overblown, B-movie, pulp escapism to an audience reeling from the most existentially terrifying attack on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Abrams, fresh off his first TV series Felicity (starring the later-to-be-famous Keri Russell) and a career penning screenplays across the 1990’s for major Hollywood blockbusters, had to try and sell a show which captured the retro, cult aesthetics of 1960’s adventure shows and movies he had grown up with – Mission: Impossible, I Spy, the James Bond series – shot through with a stylish, slick, modern action sensibility.

It was a hard sell. Audiences gravitated far more to the intense, dour, revenge fantasy of 24 and all-American hero Jack Bauer, who steadily across a decade in which Americans and Western Europe turned their gaze toward Islamic fundamentalism and the threat of the Middle East became more of the superhero Americans wanted. If he was The Punisher, a man of dubious morals ready to compromise his soul for the greater good, then Alias’ hero Sydney Bristow was Captain America; virtuous, homely, and a reflection of wholesome American values, wrapped up inside familial and emotional angst that recalled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Audiences never truly took Sydney to their breast, to their heart, and almost immediately Alias became a cult genre hit, never to explode fully into the global mainstream.

The sad thing about this is just how well executed Alias’ first season is, one of those rare shows that arrives almost fully formed and very quickly steps into a unique tone and rhythm, only building on that start to deliver twenty two episodes which provide a real sense of payoff.

Mission Impossible III (2006)

Mission Impossible III may not be the strongest outing in the franchise, but it may be the most human.

Surprisingly, this works as both a strength and to the film’s detriment in the eyes of many. For everyone who considers Mission Impossible II the weakest episode of the saga, which you can find my thoughts on here, not far behind will be a detractor of JJ Abrams’ sequel to John Woo’s own take on Bruce Geller’s kitsch 1960’s series. This, to me, is hard to fathom, and not simply as a big fan of Abrams and the dominance his works have achieved on pop culture, both in television and cinema.

The reason this revisionist disdain for MI:3 is strange to me is because Abrams’ movie arguably saved the franchise, and allowed Tom Cruise to not just reinvent his character Ethan Hunt but position Mission Impossible as a series which blended fantasy escapism with a relatable heart and soul.

ALIAS – ‘Parity’ (1×03 – Review)

If Alias, in its opening two introductory episodes, flirted with the idea that the show is a post-Cold War espionage thriller attempting to understand and resolve the consequences of the 20th century’s longest-running and defining ideological conflict, then Parity absolutely goes for broke and seals the deal with a loving kiss. 

The third episode, the first not penned directly by series creator J.J. Abrams, cements and solidifies existing, introductory concepts and brings in key new ones which will help frame Alias as a show with a sense of unique, genre identity. In many respects, Alex Kurtzman-Counter (as he was named originally, before losing the Counter) and Roberto Orci’s script is one of the most crucial in Alias’ first season. It is the first episode which directly picks up from the cliffhanger established in the previous episode. It introduces one of the most interesting (and underused) characters the show ever gave us. And, most importantly, it truly kickstarts the mythology Alias would embrace, grapple with, struggle with, and never truly satisfy its audience with over the next five years. Parity is a key, early touchstone for Abrams’ series.

Alias (Series Overview + Reviews)

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.

Not Alias.

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.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Has 1990’s TV Paranoia Returned?

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Have you been unsettled lately watching The Handmaid’s Tale? Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, a set text certainly in the UK for English A-Level students which has never entirely left the academic consciousness, is now being talked about everywhere. Why? Because it’s scaring people half to death.

Not many people may be aware that it had been adapted before Hulu turned it into a hit TV series. In 1990, German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff—one of the New German Cinema wave of the late 60’s and early 70’s which included better known luminaries such as Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog—directed a cinematic version with the late Natasha Richardson in the central role of ‘Offred’, the titular handmaiden forced into indentured sexual slavery in the largely infertile Christian hegemony of Gilead, formerly the United States. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay, no less, but later worked to have his name removed from it.

What matters is that very few people remember The Handmaid’s Tale has ever been committed to celluloid before Bruce Miller’s adaptation for Hulu, which has very quickly gained critical and commercial traction on both sides of the Pond. If it’s not quite water-cooler television on the level of Game of Thrones, for example, then it’s gaining viewers and significant commentary amongst people as it airs. In the US, Season One ended in June and in the UK, it’s about to end next week. The response has been the same: a deep sense of unease.