Fed up of chasing a great show like Alias around the TV schedules? Then why not just watch an entire season on DVD instead. Andy Hall looks at the excellent second season box set, out on June 7th.
For a show that’s as good as Alias is, it’s a surprise that UK television viewers have never exactly had an easy ride following it on the small screen. No surprise that terrestrial viewers have come off worst; season one was picked up by Channel Four, only to be given the Angel treatment of being put on too early in the evening, then cut to ribbons. Four dropped the show after season one and it was picked up by Five for season two. After a very prominent advertising campaign it was soon dumped to a late night slot. Even satellite viewers have not fared that well, as Sky also dumped the show to a graveyard slot about two thirds of the way through season two. Season three now resides on Bravo, in “glorious” non-widescreen format. So if you are a dedicated fan of the show and happen to live in the UK, you may be best served by buying the DVD box sets, and here we have the complete second season for our viewing pleasure.
For those of you who are new to the show, the simplest way to explain things is: don’t start here, go back and see season one first – you really won’t know what’s going on here unless you do. This is a show that demands full attention; every episode is part of an entire arc, and you cannot dip in and out of it. But the background is this: Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) was recruited to work for SD-6, initially believing it to be a branch of the CIA. But she soon finds out, via her father Jack (Victor Garber) who also works at SD-6, that it is in fact a branch of a criminal organization known as The Alliance. The majority of the staff of SD-6 believe they are working for the CIA, and are blissfully unaware that they are not serving their country. Heading up SD-6 is Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), a cold and Machiavellian character who operates SD-6 towards his own obsessive agendas. Sydney and her father work for the CIA, operating counter-missions to complete SD-6 operations but providing disinformation to them in order to disrupt their activities whilst maintaining their cover.
The second season opens by continuing the “cliff-hanger” at the end of the first, with the huge revelation that Sydney’s mother is not only alive, but is in fact Irina Derevko, an undercover KGB operative who was originally “assigned” to be Jack’s wife Laura, and who Sydney believed had died when she was a child. Derevko (Lena Olin) – now a private operative – then turns herself in unconditionally to the CIA. From her Hannibal Lector-like cell, she supplies information which helps the CIA in their battle against SD-6 and The Alliance. All her intel seems to be helpful, and she begins to win over he trust of both Sydney and the initially very reluctant Jack. But can she really be trusted? In the meantime, Jack and Sydney continue their undercover work at SD-6, with Sloane continuing his obsession with the works of Milo Rambaldi, and the introduction of Sark (David Anders) to the SD-6 mix.
After a solid first season, Alias really got into its stride in this second outing. Bringing in Sydney’s mother was an excellent addition, with Lena Olin’s performance particularly memorable as someone who may or may not be trustworthy. The whole season really runs as one big story arc, with every episode being part of the “big picture” and no stand-alone episodes wasting time. Which brings us to the “shock” episode of the season, in Phase One. Originally shown immediately after the Superbowl on US television to get the biggest possible audience, this episode, while not totally re-inventing the show from the ground up, does make some big changes to the dynamics of the story. After some complaints that the show was too complicated, there were worries that this would be a “dumbing-down” episode. Whilst it may make some things a little more clearly defined, it certainly doesn’t take away from the show’s complexity; rather it shakes up the plot-line, and prevents things from becoming stale. It even has time to launch another major story arc which will take us through to the final twist at the end of the season.
Weaknesses? To be honest there are not many, but maybe the early episodes immediately after the introduction of Derevko are a little slow, with the show really kicking into life with the Passage double episode. There isn’t a lot of time for many lighter moments either, with only the episode The Abduction providing some funny moments as Marshall gets his first assignment in the field. The only major gripe is some outrageous product placement, with a car badge (which will get no further publicity here) getting photo close-ups on many occasions.
Alias really has it all: excellent storylines, strong characters, and great action sequences, particularly considering the constraints of a television budget. One of the best TV shows to come out of the States in a long time; this is definite “must-see” television.
If you saw this show on Sky Digital (at least the first time it was shown) then you will have seen a similar widescreen presentation to the one here, only we obviously don’t have the annoying DOG cluttering up the screen. The picture is clean and crisp with only the occasional evidence of graininess. One slight annoyance is that a good quality image makes some of the slightly artificial looking CG composite scenes more noticeably fake. But that is nit-picking, and this is a good quality image.
Unlike TV broadcasts, here we have a full Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation. Whilst not the most aggressive mix you will have heard, it is certainly better than a stereo TV presentation, with decent ambient use of rear channels. During the occasional moments when it is required to deliver, it does pack a reasonable punch, just don’t expect too much.
Spread across the six discs there are a number of extra features available. The majority of this is on the sixth and final disc, though obviously commentaries are located with their respective episodes.
There are four commentaries on the episodes Phase One, A Dark Turn, Second Double, and The Telling, all featuring a different selection of cast and crew. Creator JJ Abrams moderates Phase One and The Telling, and is joined by Jennifer Garner, Greg Grunberg, Michael Vartan and Victor Garber (on the phone) for the former, and Ken Olin, Merrin Dungey, Ron Rifkin and Kevin Weisman for the latter. Director Ken Olin (no relation to Lena Olin) moderates Second Double with actors Bradley Cooper, Carl Lumbly and Terry O’Quinn. All three of these commentaries are entertaining, with the JJ Abrams ones perhaps being the best, even if he does dominate the proceedings a little. Both the Abrams’ commentaries make use of the excellent idea of when alternate or revised takes are mentioned, the video branches out to these then back again. Also, these three commentaries certainly give the feeling that everyone in the cast gets on with everyone else very well, as there is plenty of good humour between them. The final commentary on A Dark Turn is a crew-only affair, featuring Ken Olin again, joined by writers Jeff Pinkner and Jesse Alexander. Writer John Eisendrath is also credited in the menu selection, but doesn’t actually appear to be here. Although they do discuss some interesting facts about the scripting of the show, too often this comes over as either too self-congratulatory or a rather mean-spirited mocking of acting and plot-holes. Hence there are four commentaries, of which three are very good, and one is disappointing.
The main featurette is The Making of The Telling, clocking in at an impressive forty-five minutes. This is in no way “promotional”, just a complete run-through of what it took to get the final episode of the season to the screen, from location scouting, production meetings and set construction, through to post production, scoring and ADR. Giving a real feel for what it’s like to put an action TV show together, with all the budget and time constraints that apply, this is essential viewing for fans of the show.
The second featurette is The Look of Alias, running for around twelve minutes. With Sydney Bristow donning a different disguise in practically every episode, the costumers and the wig makers have a very busy time coming up with new looks. This featurette takes a look at their work.
There are a selection of deleted scenes available; although there is no commentary there is an introduction by JJ Abrams, who tells us that time and budget constraints prevent much additional material being shot, before leading onto a menu of the seven scenes.
As with the season one set, there is a blooper reel here. Blooper reels are frequently dire affairs, full of actors showing off and lots of “you had to be there” moments. But this one is actually funny (for the most part) and it’s fun to see people who are normally deadly serious (ie Jack “Victor Garber” Bristow) with big smiles on their faces.
There are a selction of radio interviews with JJ Abrams, Victor Garber, Kevin Weisman and Jennifer Garner. Altogether these run for over half an hour and are done by radio DJs who are genuine fans of the show, so there are plenty of interesting questions (and answers), rather than just being totally promotional.
Rounding things off is The making of the video game showing how the game of the show was put together, complete with voice contributions from the actors. Finally, there are a number of US TV Spots, which much like those for Stargate SG-1, take a great show and somehow make it look bad.
One of the best shows from American television gets a very good DVD release. Technical quality is good, and there are a decent set of extras (asking for more commentaries would just have been greedy). Highly recommended.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum