Alias: The Complete Third Season Review
The great delight of Alias, for me, has always been its escapism. When all said and done, the series is fluff, pure and simple, but it's compelling fluff, and it provides a level of fantasy and excitement that would be impossible if it were slavishly realistic. In a true to life version, Sydney Bristow's day to day operation as a CIA agent would probably be mind-numbingly dull and filled with paperwork; in fact, had a real agent been involved in even a fraction of the encounters that she has faced, they would no doubt have been killed multiple times or at the very least put behind bars. Sydney, in all honesty, is closer to Lara Croft than any real secret agent. But that's what makes the show so thoroughly enjoyable: for all its attempts at evoking drama and empathy with the main characters, it is at its heart an adventure caper, and when watched with that in mind, can be thoroughly rewarding.
The third season sees Alias go in new and even more outlandish directions. The show has always been extremely unrealistic, but here it goes from silly to completely ludicrous. Essentially, Season 2 ended with Sydney having survived an attempt on her life by an assassin whose appearance had been genetically altered to perfectly resemble her best friend (see what I mean about the implausibility?). Waking up somewhere in the Far East, she discovers that she has been missing, pesumed dead for the last two years, and has absolutely no memory of where she has been. Everything that was familiar too her has changed: her boyfriend, fellow agent Michael Vaughan (Michael Vartan), is now married, her arch-nemesis, Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), has been officially pardoned and now runs an aid agency in Zurich, and her father, Jack Bristow (Victor Garber), is behind bars for collaborating with a known terrorist (Sydney's mother, naturally). With thousands of questions and seemingly no answers, Sydney sets out to unravel this baffling mystery.
Many people who happily swallowed even the silliest elements of the first two seasons had a hard time accepting the developments of this third year, and in a way, I can sympathize. In the real world, the notion that a terrorist like Arvin Sloane could not only escape the death penalty but be officially pardoned and allowed to go traipsing off to Switzerland is laughable, as is the notion that Vaughan would so quickly marry after the supposed death of his girlfriend, or indeed that both Sydney and Jack could so easily regain their standing within the CIA. However, these crazy twists have been with Alias since the very start. This is, after all, the show that has asked us to swallow the ridiculous Rambaldi prophecies, and how many times in the first two seasons was Sydney almost discovered in her role as a double agent by Sloane, only to worm her way back into his favour? In the zany world of Alias, the viewer has no choice but to accept all this nonsense. Any attempt to take it seriously or apply actual logic to it can only lead to disappointment.
From the beginning, Alias has always attracted an impressive array of guest stars, with the likes of Ethan Hawke, Roger Moore and John Hannah all lending their talents. This season is no exception, with David Carradine, Vivica Fox, Erica Leerhsen, David Cronenberg and Quentin Tarantino, to name a few, popping up, albeit usually only for a few minutes. Ricky Gervais also shows up in one self-contained episode (actually one of the strongest of the season), but while he mercifully doesn't dance like a monkey, it's difficult to see him as anyone other than that twat from The Office. The regular cast do strong work, although the show is, as always, stolen by Ron Rifkin who, in the role of Sloane, thoroughly outflanks anyone unfortunate enough to appear in the same scene as him, with an exceptional combination of compassion, sarcasm and deliciously evil campness. Jennifer Garner, to be honest, has never been that great as a dramatic actor, but she holds her own in the various action scenes (where she does the majority of her own stunt work), and when that fails she always has her line-up of attention-grabbing sexy costumes, which for some reason she continues to wear, even on missions that demand the utmost secrecy.
My one major complaint about the third season, though, is the poor job that it does of tying up some of the loose ends left at the end of the previous season. Most glaringly, Lena Olin and her character simply vanish off the face of the earth (due to contractual reasons, it would seem), and although an effort is made to convey that she is still very much active, her absence is glaring. This is also true, on a lesser scale, of Will Tippin (Bradley Cooper) who, at the end of Season 2, seemed to be dead. At the start of the third season, it is mentioned in a very off-handed way that he is in fact alive and in witness protection, but this is not brought up again until the middle of the season, where he resurfaces for a single episode before slinking off into hiding again. It is at moments like these that my already stretched suspension of disbelief is unceremoniously snapped, since it destroys the illusion of a self-contained world and clearly points to external issues in the real world.
Alias is a show that is never going to stand up to close scrutiny. It is entertainment for the masses, and for all its attempts to make the audience invest emotionally in its characters, it is still a complete work of fantasy and one that is difficult to take seriously. Still, as far as popcorn entertainment goes, Alias is very satisfying and incredibly addictive. It is the sort of show where it is possible to watch a dozen episodes in one go and still be ready for more, which in my opinion is the best way to experience it. Thankfully, now that Season 3 is available on DVD without the disruptions of adverts and having to wait till next week to see whether or not Sydney will escape from almost certain death (gee, what do you think?), viewers can do just that.
Like Season 2 (and like the re-issue of Season 1), Season 3 comes in a cardboard slip-case housing three amaray cases, each of which contains two discs. This is a very functional method of presentation in my opinion, infinitely preferable to the overly-cumbersome fold-out cases that many of 20th Century Fox's Region 1 releases feature, or the "book"-style cases used for the UK releases of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Be warned, however, that the back of each amaray features synopses for each episode, and the temptation to read them and thus spoil many of the surprises is often great. Each disc contains four episodes, apart from the final episode, which contains only two, with the rest of the space given over to bonus materials.
Of all the TV shows that I have seen released on DVD, Alias has consistently looked the best. The UK releases of the first two seasons fell just shy of reference quality, and put many big budget Hollywood movie releases to shame. For Season 3, the overall image quality is very satisfactory, but fails to live up to the standard set by the previous two releases. Especially in the early episodes, scenes with low lighting show a great deal of grain (perhaps the result of a new cinematographer, Donald Thorin, replacing Michael Bonvillain, who shot the first two seasons). This in itself is not necessarily a problem, but given that four 45-minute episodes are crammed on to each disc, the overall bit rate was, perhaps unsurprisingly, inadequate, resulting in some noticeable artefacting. The good news is that, for the most part, the level of detail is exemplary, and after the first one-third (or thereabouts) of the episodes, the artefacting becomes minimal.
As with the previous seasons, Alias has embraced full-on 5.1 audio, which sounds consistently very good. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't quite live up to the standard of an action movie blockbuster, but the audio sounds remarkably full for a TV show, and there are no distracting drop-outs or distortions on display. Subtitles are included in a multitude of languages, including English, for the episodes themselves. Sadly, however, the extras are subtitled in every language except English.
First, the bad news. Buena Vista have, for some reason, neglected to port the fan commentary on the first episode over from the US release. The good news is that all the other extras seem to be present and correct, although this sadly leaves us with a paltry three commentaries.
Actors Jennifer Garner (Sydney) and Melissa George (Lauren) join with director Ken Olin for Conscious, in a track that takes its time to finds its feet but eventually becomes more engaging as the speakers loosen up and actually start remembering some anecdotes about the making of the episode. Olin in particular does a good turn with an imitation of Garner's Southern mother.
Director Lawrence Trilling, writer Jesse Alexander and production designer Scott Chambliss team up to tackle Full Disclosure, and discuss this crucial episode from the perspective of story structure and the show's mythology, but also discussing the more visual aspects. This is a largely technical commentary and will probably be of less interest to those only looking for cute on-set anecdotes, but it gives a great insight into the work that goes into the show behind the scenes.
Finally, creator JJ Abrams, director Jack Bender and actor Greg Grunberg (Weiss) provide a laidback and informative commentary for Facade, which Abrams describes as the best of the season. A number of different topics are covered, including how this episode ended up being something of a blueprint for the fourth season, with its largely self-contained shows, as well as the fact that the show, which involves terrorism, began airing at around the same time as the 9/11 attacks. A lot of time, unsurprisingly, is spent discussing Ricky Gervais' contribution to the show, and how difficult it was to get him involved.
The Museum Of Television & Radio: Creating Characters is a brief excerpt of a discussion featuring JJ Abrams, Jennifer Garner, Keri Russell, star of another Abrams-created show, Felicity, and its co-creator, Matthew Reeves. At only ten minutes, it's a shame that more of it wasn't included, as the topics discussed are very interesting.
The Animated Alias is a curious inclusion. As its title suggests, it is an animated mini-episode. Running at 6 minutes, it takes place during Sydney's period of disappearance and is not required viewing by any means. Anime, especially fake anime, has never really been my cup of tea, and the extremely limited animation and poor writing make this something of a chore to watch.
The next section is Alias Up Close, which encompasses six featurettes covering various aspects of the show: the guest stars, the assistant directors, the stunt team, the effects team, and props. These make for an interesting look at the show, with the focus on the assistant directors and props especially providing an insight into areas of production that are often not discussed.
Burbank To Barcelona shows how the production team create the illusion of the various different countries visited throughout the show, using a combination of CGI, blue-screen, the use of existing locations and set dressing.
The compulsory Blooper Reel is also included, and unlike most features of this type, it actually proves to be quite funny, partly because the show is so strait-laced that it comes as something of a relief to see the cast members engaging in such hysterics.
Seven Deleted Scenes follow, none of which really seem to expand on what made the final cut in any significant way. It's also a shame that no commentary or introductory remarks are provided to set the material in its proper context.
Finally, Team Alias encompasses two exceptionally cheesy TV spots featuring Jennifer Garner and Michael Vartan providing lead-ins to sports events. The Garner spot, covering an American Football player, is by far the most skin-crawling, although Vartan's, which involves him freaking out over a hockey trophy, is only slightly better.
Alias: The Complete Third Season continues Sydney Bristow's engaging and hopelessly melodramatic adventures in fine form. This DVD release, while not perfect, provides a very good audio-visual presentation of the film and a number of enjoyable extras, which fans of the series will definitely not want to miss out on.