Alias: The Complete Third Season Review
Please note - this review contains spoilers for both previous seasons of Alias and will reveal a number of key plot points from the third season. If you do not wish to have this spoiled, you should skip to the DVD section of the review.
The third season of many TV shows often marks, for better or worse, a turning point. After the first season usually sees the set up of all of the plot threads, the second ups the thrills and throws in a few surprises and it is down to the third series to build on this and yet offer something more to the fans. Many shows lose their way at this point - 24's third season didn't match those that came before while Enterprise went on to churn out one dull uninspired episode after another and Roswell continued its downward slide into obscurity. Likewise, sometimes the opposite is true - Buffy had really hit its stride at the end of the second season and went on to greater things in it's third year (albeit faltering in later seasons) and shows like Deep Space Nine introduced new elements into the mix that helped it stand head and shoulders above every other Trek series that had come before.
So, how does Alias fare? The ingredients are all there - a stunning conclusion to Season Two left fans with many questions that they hoped would be answered over the coming episodes, not least the question over where Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) had been for the two years since she was apparently killed in a fire. The ensemble cast works well together, the writing to date has been top notch and it's hard not to like a series that delights in surprising the viewer and doing the complete opposite to what is expected. There was, however, one big issue - the comparative absence of J.J. Abrams for the duration of the season due to outside commitments. Although still holding the reigns Abrams left most of the writing and directing to the rest of the production team and without his subtle guiding touch keeping the series in line the writing is never as sharp and it's rare for any of the stories to reach the heights of the previous two years.
However, it's not all bad. Garner goes from strength to strength in her portrayal of Sydney - a woman who has lost two years of her life and returned to find the man she loved has moved on and got married. She finds her father has been arrested and locked away indefinitely and the man she fought for two years to bring to justice had been released as part of a deal with the US Government. Everything she had depended on and had given her strength was gone. All of the characters tread new ground during the season - and there is a sense of foreboding that isn't present in the previous two years. This adds up to a much more downbeat feel, and one thing that the Alias writing staff do well is find new ways to torture their characters, both emotionally and physically.
Sydney's relationship with her father, Jack (Victor Garber) is much stronger than previous years and despite Vaughn's marriage in the two years since Sydney's disappearance there is still a strong emotional tie between the characters that is exploited throughout the season. The relationships on display are always believable and the cast all do a fantastic job of making everything work.
Once again there is an impressive guest cast - possibly, the best so far. There are major recurring characters from both season one and season two and a number of new faces which no doubt will continue to appear when you least expect it. Kill Bill fans will be pleased to know that both David Carradine and Vivica A Fox make appearances this year and Quentin Tarantino returns as McKenas Cole, having last seen being taken into US custody during the first season. Tarantino is not the only director to make an appearance, and David Cronenberg appears in two episodes mid-season. On top of this there are appearances by Ricky Gervais and Isabella Rossellini. Much like The Simpsons, Alias appears to be a show of choice for international 'celebrities' and big Hollywood film stars.
The main issue with Season Three is the story seems to stall - it's not clear quite where things are going and at times the plot seems to meander. It also seems that the overall arc isn't quite as tightly plotted as previous years especially with regards to David Anders' character, Julian Sark, and Melissa George's Lauren Reed. Anders in particular worked much better as a recurring villain and the move to the main cast means that the writers were committed to dropping him into pretty much ever episode - something that Abrams himself has commented on in the past and Anders relegation to a recurring role for Season Four is evidence that the writers know that this was a problem. Melissa George on the other hand came into a difficult role as Sydney's love rival, and for the most part she did a good job. However, the sudden reveal that she is in fact a double agent mid-way through the season just doesn't quite ring true.
Alias has always been about shades of grey - other than Sydney, no character is portrayed as either totally good or totally evil. Each has their own motivations and these are rarely obvious. Even Sydney's father, Jack, has a very dark streak and it's clear that nothing would get in the way of him doing what he needs to. His allegiances are suspect at best and he continues to be in contact with Sydney's mother despite her betrayal. Sloane (Ron Rifkin) has become more likeable over the years - firstly being portrayed as the root of all evil, over time he has shown sides to his character that have been almost likeable. However, much like Jack his obsession with Milo Rambaldi is a constant threat and he would do anything to discover Rambaldi's true intentions. As the season progresses emotions become more fraught and we begin to see new sides to a number of characters - Weiss (Greg Grunberg) gets a much meatier role this year and Vaughn (Vartan) becomes more open as a character who is eventually betrayed by the woman he has married.
There is so much to Alias that it is impossible to cover in any kind of depth. Abrams has created a series that has many levels - at its most basic it's great trashy spy television series, yet this is selling Alias short. The writers, the cast and the crew all contribute to make Alias far more than the sum of its parts and with that in mind it is a highly recommended show. The ongoing plot makes it an impossible series to jump into mid-way through but its very nature will make even the most casual viewer try to watch every episode.
Oddly, for the third season, Buena Vista appear to have taken a dislike to the Amaray packaging that adorned previous releases. Instead we have a smaller digipack in a plastic slip case that takes up less space yet doesn't match the other sets. The series is presented on 6 discs.
Disappointingly the picture quality for the third series is not all it could be. Having seen most of the series previously in a cropped 4:3 broadcast on UK satellite channel Bravo, I was looking forward to viewing the series in the correct aspect ratio with all of the benefits that a DVD transfer should offer. However, all is not well - which I'll come onto shortly.
Firstly, the transfer is, as expected anamorphic and in the correct 1.77:1 aspect ratio. The colour range is strong with deep blacks offering good levels of shadow detail while the colour palette is vibrant. The big problem comes with the grain that is obvious at varying degrees at all times. Darker scenes and earlier episodes appear to suffer more greatly than lighter scenes and later episodes but this isn't universally the case and is an obvious problem throughout.
The DVD release of Alias comes complete with a fantastic Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. In terms of television releases, this is one of the best so far with significant use of all of the surrounds and a crisp, clear, deep sound stage. The series makes good use of music and this is complemented here by the quality of the transfer and good solid bass.
- The Two - fan commentary by Erin Dailey and Jennifer Wong
An interesting commentary by two of the shows fans. Given their non-professional nature, it's surprisingly not that bad - both obviously know a lot about their favourite show and in some ways casual viewers could gain more here than they may from some of the more conventional commentaries on later episodes.
- Conscious - Actresses Jennifer Garner and Melissa George, Director Ken Olin
A bit more of a fun commentary - Jennifer Garner is by far the most engaging contributor to the commentary, and both she and Melissa George are obviously having a good time talking about the episode - opening almost instantly with giggles. Olin offers a more grounded, if somewhat dry element which keeps things on course. It's always good to hear the cast members talking about the series as it is clear they all get along and enjoy their jobs. Amongst other tit-bits, they talk about David Cronenberg's appearance in the episode and the challenge he had to learn the script with very short notice.
- Full Disclosure - Laurence Trilling (Director), Jesse Alexander (Writer), Scott Chambliss (Production Designer)
This is the big pay-off episode - the one where we finally discover just what Sydney has been up to for the missing two years. It's quite a revealing story and sets up plot elements for the rest of the season. As such it's interesting to get the viewpoint of both the writer and director. It's a surprise to hear that there was external pressure to get this episode made - and the writing team were forced to fit a story that should span a number of episodes into the space of one. The contributors also draw out the parallels between Milo Rambaldi and Leonardo Da Vinci - and explain some of the influences that helped develop the 'legend' of Rambaldi. All of the contributors are knowledgeable and again it's clear they enjoy talking about the show - which makes these commentary tracks somewhat infectious.
- Facade - J.J. Abrams (Writer / Creator), Jack Bender (Director), Greg Grunberg (Actor)
At last, we get to hear J.J.Abrams thoughts - both on this episode and also the season as a whole. It's clear he's not entirely satisfied in the end product, but he still has a lot of affection for the show and this comes across here. Facade is one of his favourite episodes of the season - it's self-contained and doesn't get caught up in the meandering plot of the overall arc. Both Bender and Grunberg also have a lot to say and all three speakers bounce off each other well. They also talk enthusiastically about Ricky Gervais' appearance in the episode and it is something of a missed opportunity that he didn't contribute to the commentary track. There are also a couple hints with regards to the direction Alias could be taking in its fourth season.
Animated Alias: Tribunal
A short six-minute animated 'story' set during Sydney's missing two years. It's an interesting addition, although doesn't expand in any great way on what we already know. It's noticeable that no major cast members make an appearance, and Sydney's few lines could easily have been taken from other episodes from the past three years. The 'episode' is very reminiscent of the anime segment of Kill Bill - albeit not quite with the same production values. In some ways it would have been nice to have an extended episode that took advantage of the format rather than this relative curiosity.
Alias Up Close - Behind the Scenes
Split into six parts, this feature has a total running time of around an hour.
- The Guest Stars
The feature kicks off with a look at the season's guest actors and includes interviews and behind the scenes footage with contributions by Djimon Hounsou, Isabella Rosselini, Vivica A. Fox and some much-needed comic relief from Ricky Gervais.
- The Assistant Directors
Interviews with the Alias' assistant directors covering their contribution to the show.
- The Stunt Team
More interviews, this time with the stunt doubles from the show. Alias is a series with plenty of action, so the stunt team are hugely important in terms of making the on-screen events believable.
- The Effects Team
Another set of cast interviews - much like the stunt team, the effects team make a big contribution to the believability of the series with a limited effects budget. Also features some behind-the-scenes effects footage.
There are also sections on creating props and the show's sets. All in all, this is a surprisingly in-depth look at what goes into making a show and it touches on areas that aren't conventionally covered in this kind of feature.
Burbank to Barcelona
A great look at the way the team manage to make LA look like huge numbers of world-wide locations. It's hugely interesting to discover just how easy it is to make LA look like Moscow, London or any other major city you care to mention.
It is somewhat of a relief to get to the bloopers - after 22 hours of straight faces, it's hard to believe that some of these people can actually smile and it seems odd to see people like Jack Bristow (Victor Garber) and Dixon (Carl Lumbly) with wide smiles on their faces.
There are seven deleted scenes from various episodes. One thing that they lack is a commentary so there's no explanation for the cuts - although for the most part it seems to be down to pacing with all of the excised material being relatively slow and inconsequential.
A couple of promotions featuring Jennifer Garner (American Football) and Michael Vartan (the Stanley Cup). Pretty pointless filler! There are also a number of previews stuck to the front of the first disc that can only be skipped using the chapter buttons.
Season three of Alias has its flaws and they're pretty obvious. The writing isn't as tight, the plotting is a little haphazard and the cast changes don't quite hit the right spots. However, Alias is still fantastic fun - deadly serious subject matter that isn't taken too seriously, if that's possible. The DVD release is good with a wide array of extras and an excellent soundtrack slightly marred by less than perfect picture quality. A highly recommended release that should please fans - however newcomers would be well advised to start from the beginning as there are lots of spoilers to previous years throughout season three.
8 out of 10
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8 out of 10