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Television: Alias

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Slick, smooth, sexy and fascinating ...
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The cast of ALIAS (from season 3)
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Michael Vartan looks annoyed that ALIAS is over!

Update June 2006. Alias the show is gone, kaput, finished aside from the reruns, DVDs, and talk of a reunion telefilm sometime in the future. it was a wild ride and a fun run of a series that didn't always make a lot of sense but was almost always compelling and well-acted. Although Lena Olin was terrific as Mama, was anyone sorry to finally see her get what she deserved -- and at her daughter's hands? After a slow start, the two hour finale was, in a word, terrific, and how nice to see that Rambaldi-freak finally get what was coming to him -- entombed forever -- and immortal to boot! A splendid wind up.
Update October 1st, 2005. Okay, if you saw this past Thursday's season premiere, you know now Michael Vaughn's big secret as well as his final [?] fate [remember people have come back from the dead on Alias before, and we're dealing with a show which once utilized a technology that could change a person's DNA in a matter of days, so reviving Michael Vaughn may not be all that much of a challenge, funeral or no funeral]. Look to this page for periodic updates on, and reviews of, the show's fifth season.

WHY WE LOVE "ALIAS!"
by WILLIAM SCHOELL
[William Schoell is the author of MARTINI MAN: The Life of Dean Martin and many other biographies and books on the performing arts.]

Season five airs in the fall 2005.
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The first three seasons of ALIAS are all available on DVD.

“Some people go miniature-golfing with their parents – we go to India and look for nukes.” -- Sydney Bristow/ALIAS.

Okay. You have to take Alias with a grain of salt. Others have already commented that here is a show about a woman who is not only a spy, but so is her father, her mother, her aunt, her sister, her sister's father, her boyfriend, her best friend – need I go on? Actually, Alias is not the first story to present families of spies, which has been a fairly popular theme in a lot of novels. You can even accept that Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) can speak virtually every language imaginable, fight in every style of combat known to man (or woman), and be basically a kind of super-woman because of her genius IQ, her well-honed physical abilities, and the fact that something was done to her as a child during a weird Russian-based experiment. The gadgetry may be a little intense and suspect at times, the plots a bit absurd, and occasionally the show veers into out and out science fiction (remember those “doubles” of Francie and others), but what holds the show together no matter how crazy it gets is Jennifer Garner and the show's strong emotional component. Alias is almost constructed like a particularly good and outrÚ soap opera.

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Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow

                            A SPY SOAP OPERA
 
For instance, characters who have never been previously mentioned suddenly appear at the drop of a bullet. Romance plays a strong part in the storylines, as does the emotional havoc of coming from a dysfunctional family. And there's the “continuing drama” aspect to the show, just like a daytime serial. Watching the first three seasons of Alias on DVD in a matter of weeks [I watched the fourth season “live” with everyone else] I was struck by how the whole thing plays like a fascinating, multi-leveled “saga” with all kinds of characters and connotations. No, it ain't Shakespeare, but it is a lot of fun, and there have been quite a few sequences that have, for lack of a better word, a certain “depth,” or at least an emotional resonance, to them. (One of my favorite moments comes from season one, when a little boy whose father has died impulsively reaches out to hug Michael Vaughan, who is representing the CIA at the man's funeral.)

Jennifer Garner is the glue that holds it all together. Not just a “sexy babe,” Garner can actually act, and she has a deeply expressive face that is perfect for mirroring all the intense emotions and hurts felt by Sydney Bristow. A lesser actress would play Sydney like a super-cool superspy who has no feelings, a one-dimensional Wonder Woman, but Garner makes her very human underneath the skill and bravado. Her fellow cast members are also good: Ron Rifkin is nothing short of superb as the evil but dimensional Arvin Sloane (thank goodness they've thought of many different ways to keep him on the show); Victor Garber with his clipped, direct delivery vividly gets across his character's angst and anger, showing us that this man has never been the same since finding out his wife only married him to use him (and murder his associates); Carl Lumbly as Marcus Dixon radiates a troubled but essential decency; Kevin Weisman is a sheer joy as the lovable technical genius Marshall; and Michael Vartan displays a sensitivity that explains why Sydney loves him and makes him more than just the usual CIA stereotype. Some of the original cast members have left the show (Merrin Dungey as Francie and Bradley Cooper as Will) but they were also very good. Dungey managed her transformation from sweet best friend to the murderous doppelganger who killed her (and tried to kill Sidney and Will) with aplomb, and Cooper made Will another likable character whose association with Sydney, whom he clearly loved (although she seemed not to know or acknowledge it even after they went to bed together and he told her how long he'd been waiting for it), really did him very little good.

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Michael Vartan as Agent Vaughn

                               MILO RAMBALDI
 
One of the stranger aspects of the show is the obsession with the fictitious (yes, fictitious, don't bother doing a google search for him; all you'll get is references to Alias) "Milo Rambaldi," a fifteenth century prophet, architect and all-around genius who makes Leonardo Da Vinci seem like a congenital idiot. Apparently Rambaldi thought up computers and sophisticated weaponry and DNA manipulations centuries before anyone else, so spies all over the world are in a rush to get hidden Renaissance documents of his that will tell them how to build super-bombs and so on. Rambaldi even created a fluid that when injected in one of his descendants (Sydney's half-sister Nadia) will cause her to write out a secret formula in code – a message truly from beyond the grave! Rambaldi pretty much dominated most of the episodes of the first three seasons, but he was put on the back burner during season four until the spectacular final episodes when one of his “weapons of mass destruction" nearly leveled a Russian city.

Besides Arvin Sloane, who is obsessed with Rambaldi and his secrets, the show has had other fascinating villains. There was Anna Espinosa of K-Directorate, a nasty spy bitch who came into conflict with Sydney in the first and fourth seasons. Sydney had some great “cat-fights” with her, as well as with Allison (the duplicate Francie) and Lauren, Michael's wife in seasons two and three. Michael Sark, the baby-faced blond sociopath, was around for many an episode. Dr. Jung Lee (Ric Young) only appeared sporadically, but his appearances were memorable, practicing his particular form of dental torture on various cast members – what a creep! Our heroes battled SD-6 (part of “The Alliance”) in the first season, “The Man” and his associates in season two, and “The Covenant” in season three. Who was the head of the Covenant, and what happened to Lauren's equally evil mother? Maybe someday we'll find out.

Guest stars on the show included a memorable Isabella Rossellini as Sydney's aunt, Katya, who tries to kill her and has the hots for her father; Faye Dunaway, perhaps a bit too mannered as an investigator for The Alliance; Amy Irving in a sterling turn as Arvin's dying wife Emily; and filmmakers David Cronenberg and Quentin Tarantino as, respectively, a memory researcher and a member of the Covenant. These last two are not really actors; Cronenberg was uneven in his role, and Tarantino, amateurish, although he did have a couple of nice moments. Lena Olin is excellent as Sydney's mother, Irina, who was presumed dead more than once and turned up alive and well in the season finale.

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Ron Rifkin as the fascinating Arvin Sloane

THE GOOD AND THE BAD

Along the way there were some very special episodes as well as some especially dumb moments. For instance, in the first episode Sydney goes to CIA headquarters (after learning she was working for an evil, secret organization and NOT the real CIA) wearing the same bright red wig and outlandish outfit she wore on her mission – gee, you'd think she wouldn't want to be noticeable showing up at CIA HQ to turn in the people who murdered her fiancÚ and have tried to kill her. Much later we learn that Irina's organization keeps a “bible,” a technical manual of all their contacts – is that a good idea? The good guys on this show bend and downright break the rules so often they would have been drummed out of the CIA if not the country, or wound up in prison (as they occasionally do, to be fair) before the first season was over. On the other hand, there are truly sublime moments on the show that help you suspend disbelief, such as Jennifer Garner's strong and utterly perfect reaction upon finding her fiancÚ's dead body in the bathtub, setting the emotional tone for the whole series. Then there was the episode when Sydney and Marcus must remove an explosive device from a man's chest in the back of an ambulance and they race to stay out of range of the car behind them because one of the passengers holds the remote detonator to the bomb – and the man they're operating on keeps threatening to wake up – now that's classic stuff! And the episode when Michael Vaughn and Sark try to defuse a bomb on an airliner was certainly a nail-biter with plenty of twists. In fact, virtually every episode has its surprises, which is what keeps us watching.

The emotional reactions and depth of the characters, an underlying “seriousness” behind the absurdity (although this is primarily a “fun” and entertaining show) keep it on a higher level than its obvious models, the James Bond movies and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Still, an occasional and delightful UNCLE-like moment creeps in, such as when two men are kidnapped when their elevator car is literally torn out of a building and lifted away by helicopter, and the whole business with a person being turned into a duplicate of someone else virtually overnight by manipulating their DNA. Still, these demon doubles caused a lot of trouble.

So now it appears that Michael Vaughn may not be all he appears to be. Frankly, I always thought he dumped his wife, Lauren, rather coldly, and this was before he found out she was a traitor, so his life with Sydney may not be all she might have hoped for.

I, for one, will be watching.

Michael Vartan
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What secrets does "Michael Vaughn" hide behind his charming exterior?
Mailbox, Spinning

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Entire contents copyrighted 2004 - 2005 by William Schoell and Lawrence J. Quirk, except for items written by other authors, in which case said authors retain the copyright of their work . Opinions expressed by individual authors and reviewers are not necessarily the opinions of High and Low NY.