Pop Culture

Like Sydney, ‘Alias’ kept reinventing itself

When “Alias” debuted in 2001, the advertisements for the show featured star Jennifer Garner in a brilliant red wig. Besides being an homage to Tom Twyker’s thrilling film “Run Lola Run,” whose similarly take-charge female star had bright-red hair, the ads also illustrated one of the show’s early trademarks: Garner’s multiple costume changes as undercover CIA agent Sydney Bristow.

In most episodes, Sydney would show up in exotic locations, from eastern Europe to South America, and enter glossy places such as dance clubs or office buildings dressed in a spectacularly campy and outrageous costumes that were frequently topped with incredible wigs. After interacting with others in character, often speaking languages other than English, she’d proceed to gain access to a high-security area and kick major butt, as CIA agents regularly do, especially when they’re backed by a hip soundtrack.

Sydney’s multiple costume changes also worked well as a metaphor for the series itself, which over its five-season run has reinvented itself perhaps more than any other modern TV drama.

Despite that constant reinvention, which was aimed at keeping the series creatively fresh, the show never quite gained back the momentum it had in those early costume-heavy days.

“Alias,” which bows out on May 22, began with what seemed to be a simple premise: Sydney Bristow was a graduate student and an undercover CIA agent who worked for a black ops division of the agency called SD-6. She soon discovered, however, that she was not working for the real CIA, but for a terrorist organization, and she became a double agent. Her desire to help take down SD-6 was due in no small part to the fact its leader, Arvin Sloane (played smarmily by stubble-covered Ron Rifkin) had her fiancé assassinated when Sydney told him that she worked as a secret agent.

Spy vs. SpyWorking with Sydney to help destroy SD-6 was her handler, real CIA agent Michael Vaughn; naturally, they quickly fell in love with each other. The nature of their jobs, however, made that love impossible to realize, because it would compromise both their mission and their lives. In addition, Sydney’s co-workers, including SD-6 partner and friend Marcus Dixon and quirky comic-relief tech guy Marshall Flinkman, were not aware that they were working for a terrorist organization.

As if all of that wasn’t enough to complicate Sydney’s life, there was her strained relationship with her estranged father, Jack (played with determination, yet few facial expressions by Victor Garber) who also worked as a double agent inside SD-6. And in season two, we met Irina Derevko, Sydney’s mother, who was herself a spy, although for the KGB. Together, Sydney, Spy Daddy and Spy Mommy, as they’re affectionately known, formed a trio desperately in need of family therapy.

Despite the family-centered nature of much of the show’s drama, the series was not just, as it was sometimes described, “Felicity working for the CIA.” Instead, it slowly built a mythology that made it much more   than “24.” There was so much conspiracy and prophecy that viewers needed an Excel spreadsheet and an Absurd-O-Meter to keep track of everything, even though it all ultimately ended up meaning very little.

Over its five-season run, the series changed directions at least three, perhaps four, times: in the middle of season two, when SD-6 was demolished and Sydney and Vaughn were finally able to kiss in public; at the beginning of season three, when Sydney woke up having lost two years of her life as a brainwashed spy; and at the beginning of season four, when Sydney joined a real black ops division of the CIA called APO.

The effect of the first “reboot,” as fans refer to the changes, was to effectively kill the series’ major tension. The CIA took down SD-6, which, of course, was just a small part of a big, sticky web, and Sydney was able to level with her friends and develop a slightly more functional relationship with Vaughn.

Although it was clearly difficult for the writers to sustain the initial double-agent premise over time, that’s what gave the series its emotional weight and drama, and without it, Sydney just treaded water in her wigs.

The middle reboot went in an entirely new direction, and lost its way, marrying off Vaughn and spreading out the old SD-6 crew.

This last reboot is notable because it sought to bring everyone back together and return “Alias” to its roots. Marshall and Dixon returned, and, implausibly, Arvin Sloane came back to lead the new CIA organization. As before, he was eventually revealed to have betrayed his friends and family.

And along comes babyThe fifth and final season was a sort of mini-reboot, as it introduced new characters, one of whom, Rachel, came to work for APO after discovering that she’d been working for an SD-6-like operation.

The fifth season also resolved the fourth season cliffhanger, in which Vaughn revealed that his name wasn’t really Michael Vaughn and that he’d been working inside the CIA for reasons other than duty to his country. But that, like many of these latest twists, was a shock that drifted off to sleep with very little follow-up. Vaughn was later shot and killed, but by the time Michael Vartan was ready to make a cameo, we discovered that he’d survived and was in hiding.

These twists were remarkably anti-climactic, mostly because “Alias” set a high bar for itself in its early years, striving for more than silly, shocking plot twists. While the writers tried very hard, they could never quite recapture the tension that existed inside SD-6. As this sometimes complicated, often ridiculous plot unfolded, the series lost its greatest hook: the dilemma of a woman caught in the middle of a web of lies and conspiracies that she never really wanted to be part of, especially those that involved her family.

When Lena Olin appeared as Sydney Bristow’s duplicitous mother at the beginning of the second season, the series reached its creative peak. Watching Sydney navigate her relationship with her parents as they negotiated their relationships with one another and, eventually, went on missions together, “Alias” was at its best.

That was true even during the final season when one such mission ended with Sydney giving birth with her backstabbing mother at her side, a scene which played on all of viewers' emotions at once.

Not bad at all for a show that liked to play dress-up.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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