Alias: The Complete First Season Review
Please note, there may be some spoilers below. If you wish to avoid them please skip to the DVD section.
Starring Jennifer Garner (Daredevil, Catch Me If You Can) as Sydney Bristow, Alias is another show that takes us inside the US intelligence structure. Sydney works for what she believes to be a branch of the CIA known as SD6 - a role that she must keep secret to protect herself and her loved ones. However, when her boyfriend proposes, she tells him the truth about her secret life and this leads to his eventual murder. Devastated, Sydney then discovers from the real CIA that SD6 is part of a terrorist organisation known as The Alliance. She is recruited to the CIA as a double agent feeding back information on her missions in an attempt to bring down the Alliance once and for all. And, all of this is in the first episode.
The pace throughout the first series is astounding - there are new revelations in each instalment, and almost every episode ends with a major cliffhanger - usually involving Sydney's life being in danger. The plot twists and weaves around yet never feels (at least in the first season) as if it's getting out of control, and the line between good and bad is as blurred here as it is in something like 24. There are double agents galore - Sydney and her father, Jack (Victor Garber), working for both SD6 and the CIA and Sydney's mother, Laura/Irina Derevko (Lena Olin) had infiltrated the CIA for the KGB before being supposedly killed in a car accident.
The series often strays into X-Files/Buffy/Angel territory too with one of the central plot strands being the discovery of a prophecy by Milo Rambaldi, Pope Alexander VI's chief architect, and Arvin Sloane's (Ron Rifkin) ongoing search for Rambaldi artefacts. Again, I'm only barely scratching the surface and it'd be near impossible to cover every angle even in the most in depth review.
Another break from the norm is the frequent appearance of big Hollywood names in the guest cast including Quentin Tarantino, Roger Moore and John Hannah in just the first season alone (later seasons see the return of Tarantino's character as well as appearances by David Carradine, David Cronenberg, Isabella Rosselini, Vivica A. Fox, Christian Slater, The Mummy's Arnold Vosloo and for fans of The Office, Ricky Gervais). For a small screen production this is an impressive feat!
The performances throughout are very good - of course the series is totally carried by Jennifer Garner and she's perfect for the lead role. Victor Garber is also outstanding as Jack Bristow, a man who has distanced himself from his daughter in order to protect her yet can be totally brutal as and when required. Ron Rifkin's performance as Sloane again is excellent - again he can be brutal, but in a different way to Jack Bristow, yet he also often gives an impression of vulnerability when people he cares for are under threat and the apparent death of his wife Emily in particular is very well portrayed. The rest of the supporting cast are excellent - I haven't even mentioned other characters such as Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), Sydney's contact within the CIA and later a love interest, Sydney's friends Will Tippin (Bradley Cooper) and Francie Calfo (Merrin Dungey), or her SD6 colleagues Marcus Dixon (Carl Lumbly) and Marshall Flinkman (Kevin Wiesman) yet they all play their part in the overall story well and none feel out of place. Series creator JJ Abrams previously worked on the US series, Felicity, and this is definitely a departure from his previous work which also includes screenplays for Armageddon, Joy Ride (or Roadkill in the UK), the upcoming big screen Superman retelling expected in 2006 and another new television series - Lost.
One potential weakness, and one that's hard to avoid given the nature of the series, is that the ongoing 'will Sydney's role as a double agent become exposed' question that is attached to most episodes of the first season - thankfully, this isn't played to extremes and often just adds another layer of tension, however as Abrams himself insinuated in a number of interviews, if the same plot device was used week-in-week-out throughout future seasons of the series, it would become very tired. The other potential risk is that having a cliff-hanger every week could result in the writers trying to better themselves and make each subsequent cliff-hanger more unbelievable than the last. Again, this isn't a problem with the first series per-se.
The first season of Alias is very tightly plotted with plenty of standout surprises that keep you guessing right up till the end. Some of the plot devices do become a little over-used in later seasons - the cliff-hanger at the end of every episode seems a little to contrived at times, but for the first year it's very fresh and it's hard to find anything major to complain about. There are very few filler episodes, and other than one major 'flashback' episode, Q&A, that explains the whole premise of the series needlessly there aren't any particularly weak points. And, who can complain when we get to see Sydney dressed up in a different sexy disguise each week?
Alias Season One was originally packaged in a cardboard slip case/digipack. This has recently been replaced with a three Amaray cases in a slipcase to match Season 2. The series covers six discs.
Presented at 1.77:1, Alias was filmed for widescreen broadcast in the US. As such, this is the correct aspect ratio. We've got a nice sharp anamorphic transfer that occasionally errs on the dark side, but in terms of picture quality it is first rate with a superb colour range and excellent shadow detail.
I was unable to notice any print or encoding artefacts, and there are no noticeable compression issues. The discs were viewed on both a 32" widescreen television and also a projector and neither output device showed any picture flaws.
The one drawback is the sharpness of the transfer in that it makes some of the CGI scenes stand out. Given this isn't a direct result of the DVD transfer this doesn't affect my rating.
The series was shot with a 5.1 channel soundtrack, and this has been replicated here. It's a very good track for a television series with good channel separation and a wide sound stage. All five speakers undergo quite a workout and the subwoofer channel is used frequently. Given that to date the series hasn't been broadcast in Dolby Digital 5.1 in the UK, this is by far and away the best the series has sounded.
Alias has been graced with an excellent set of extras for this DVD release - I'd go as far as saying we could be looking at some of the best extras to appear on a DVD release of a modern television series. We're treated to four excellent commentary tracks which I'll explore in more detail below as well as a great in-depth look at the pilot episode that is far more detailed than anything I've seen focusing on one particular episode of a TV series to date...
Truth Be Told featuring J.J. Abrams and Jennifer Garner
The pilot episode gets one of the better commentary tracks with Abrams talking in detail about his plans for Alias. It's very much a retrospective look at the pilot episode and Abrams shares some titbits of information on his other projects (most notably Armageddon). Garner is slightly less talkative but in all, this commentary is a good starting point and a good introduction of what is to come
So It Begins featuring cinematographer Michael Bonvillian, producer Sarah Caplan and director Ken Olin
The second episode of the series receives a more in-depth commentary from the writer, director and producer. It's definitely more of a nitty-gritty look at the episode as opposed to Abrams and Garner's more retrospective and woolly look at the pilot. There's plenty of interest to glean from listening to the commentary, although I feel the lack of any actor's contributions may make this a little drier than the others on this set.
Q&A featuring executive producers Alex Kurtzman-Counter, Roberto Orci and John Eisendrath
Another actor-less commentary and unfortunately probably the weakest of the four. No surprise then that it's for the weakest episode of the season. Q&A is very much a clip show - no doubt written to bring viewers who have joined the series late up to date without the need to go over all of the previous episodes. It felt a bit redundant the first time I watched it, and subsequent viewings including one with the commentary track haven't really helped matters. In all, the contributors are fairly talkative - focusing more on the fact that it is a clip show rather than anything more detailed.
Almost 30 Years featuring Jennifer Garner, Bradley Cooper, Victor Garber, Michael Vartan, Carl Lumbly, Merrin Dungey, Ron Rifkin and Kevin Weisman
This is the most fun commentary of the set with all of the main cast members taking part - mostly to poke fun at each other. A very entertaining commentary track and well worth listening to once you've seen the final episode. It's often the case that TV casts claim to get along, but in this case it's pretty obvious that there is already a lot of bonding. The one exception appears to be Victor Garber (Jack Bristow) who disappears partway through and seems quite stoic and serious in comparison. This, along with the first commentary on the set certainly stands out as being the best.
Pilot Production Diary - this is a detailed look at the series pilot. Running to 19 minutes, you'd be forgiven for expecting this to be the usual EPK fluff that masquerades as featurettes on most DVD releases. Instead, I was surprised to discover that we actually have quite an interesting documentary on the making of the first episode narrated by J.J. Abrams and consisting largely of raw footage from the filming and interviews with cast and crew focusing on specific scenes and sequences.
Stunts - a look at some of the stunts that Sydney in particular is subjected to throughout the season. Surprisingly, we discover that Jennifer Garner does a lot of her own stunt work although there is of course a double for some of the more strenuous and dangerous scenes.
Deleted scenes - There are 6 deleted scenes taken from various points throughout the season. Unfortunately they lack any sort of context that could have been provided by way of introductions or an audio commentary and therefore it's difficult to see reasons for their removal other than pacing and to fit within the allotted time for each episode. It's nice to have them here, but I would have liked to have at least known where they fit into the overall arc.
Gag reel - I'm sure you know what to expect here. It's largely a short reel of fluffed lines and the resulting hilarity. Nice to see that it's not all serious on set but in all, there's no real value added to the set as a result.
Likewise, the Playstation 2 game trailer, is just a case of cross promotion and adds nothing other than a brief glimpse of the PS2 game based on the series.
Alias is an excellent series that is sadly overlooked in the UK. Given the recent drought in decent television and the upsurge in 'reality TV', it's a shame the UK networks can't invest some of their viewer's money in decent programmes like this. Thankfully, Buena Vista haven't let us down and have given us an excellent set of discs that complement the series well.
The picture and sound quality are top notch and other than my slight reservations with regards to obviousness of some of the CG work, there's nothing here to detract from the quality of the series. The set is backed up with good extras including two very good commentary tracks and the featurette looking at the pilot episode.
9 out of 10
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