There’s nothing wrong with Alias‘ pilot. Absolutely nothing.
J.J. Abram’s script is one of the most impeccable openers to ever grace television screens. Much like his later breakout success (Lost), Alias‘ debut dumps you right into the middle of the action and expects you to keep up. Beginning with a mysterious red-haired woman being tortured and drowned, the pilot zips and zags between the past and the present until both timelines collide in expert fashion. This is also a script that doesn’t force-feed you exposition at every turn. It’s frequently confusing – Sydney is an agent inside a covert branch of the CIA that’s not really the CIA and she soon finds herself working for the real CIA to bring the fake CIA down… you got all that? – but that’s the beauty of it. This is one clever script that pulls no punches and doesn’t insult your intelligence. Incredible!
A Spy is Born
Of course Truth Be Told would never work if Jennifer Garner wasn’t so perfectly cast in the role of buttkicking extraordinaire Sydney Bristow. This was Garner’s star-making turn – she won the Golden Globe during the show’s first year and was nominated for an Emmy the next four years – and it’s easy to see why. She’s charming as the girl next door, and she’s also wildly believable in the show’s numerous action sequences. Unlike say Sarah Michelle Gellar (who was terrific on Buffy but rarely did any stunts), Garner is fully committed to the role’s physicality. She’s right there in the frame duelling out asskickings and her gusto is more than apparent. Most amazingly, she disappears into her various aliases and becomes the characters, right down to the accents, wigs, and colorful costumes. Other series tried duplicating this formula (think Eliza Dushku on Dollhouse), but Garner’s diverse range of skills allowed her to assume the mantle of Agent Bristow with flying colors.
Meet the Spyfam
Garner is outstanding, but the rest of the gang is stellar too. Every single member of Alias’ supporting cast is meticulously cast. Ron Rifkin is enormously unsettling as Arvin Sloane – the ruthless leader of SD-6, Merrin Dungey is hilarious as Sydney’s oblivious best friend Francie, and a pre-famous Bradley Cooper is appropriately awkward as Syd’s friend-zoned buddy Will. We also have Carl Lumbley and Kevin Weiseman who are respectively effective and hysterical as Sydney’s coworkers Dixon and Marshall.
Finally there’s Victor Garber, who plays Sydney’s estranged and mysterious father Jack Bristow. Not only does Jack also work for SD-6, he’s the “other” double agent working for the real CIA. It’s a wonderful reveal that further complicates Sydney’s life in fascinating ways. In fact, the pilot’s final scene with the two at Danny’s grave is so memorable. It fact, encapsulates the show’s entire theme in a single line: “I guess we’ll have to learn to trust each other.” This final moment is also a flawless bookend to the pilot as Jack hands Sydney her CIA phone and it rings for the first time, kicking off her brand new life. Pure awesomeness!
Bits & Wigs
– I love the show’s credit sequence. It’s super simple with the show’s title appearing with bullet shots and that blood-pumping theme music. Loyal fans know that you can even catch the Rambaldi symbol if you pause a certain frame.
– Slick transition with Sydney dreading the threat behind the door as we cut to her professor entering the classroom.
– Syd writing her paper until the very last second and distracting her teacher is pretty adorable isn’t it?
– Danny’s proposal (singing “Build Me Up Buttercup”) is admittedly heartwarming.
– Too funny: Danny calling Jack and asking for permission to marry Syd. Jack’s response is crazy severe (read it below).
– Sydney making her way to the underground levels of Credit Dauphine (the bank she supposedly works at) is really well done. It’s a quick moment, but notice how she removes her new engagement ring in the elevator.
– Further proof of Syd’s skills: she quickly fixes Dixon’s headset during their conversation.
– Some mythology for the show’s future is laid down: Oscar Mueller is a modern day alchemist who was killed, and his device is a big focus of the pilot (and the series moving forward).
– Not only is Michael Giacchino’s musical score brilliant (much like it is on Lost later on), but the choice of music is also excellent.
– Marshall introducing all the spy gadgets is a comedic gem. Weisman’s performance is exceptional in its nuance with all the stuttering and mannerisms.
– The number 47 is a very pivotal number on Alias for the show’s entire run. It makes its first appearance here during Marshall’s speech.
– Will’s face when Syd announces she’s engaged is gut-wrenching. No wonder he decides to go for another run!
– There’s a lot of insight into Sydney’s psyche when she reveals the truth to Danny. You can see it all over Garner’s face as she stares at the man she loves and decides she can’t keep secrets from him.
– Notice how Syd raises the music volume and takes Danny into the shower to tell him the truth so no one can listen in. I love how we don’t see his reaction to her bombshell. He merely leaves her in the shower on her own.
– Love the montage as Syd tells the story of how she was approached by the CIA in her freshman year. We also learn that her mother is dead and the job gave her purpose.
– Another spot-on transition: the plane flying above Sydney and Danny as we cut to her on the plane with Dixon as she questions him about telling his wife the truth.
– One heck of a masterfully edited sequence: Danny leaving the drunken voice message (which ends up being his demise) as Syd and Dixon infiltrate the gala using Marshall’s various spy gadgets. It’s a pulse-pounding scene as Syd runs into her soon-to-be torturer but is let off the hook as she plays a drunken bimbo. Epic!
– So Jack knew that Danny would get killed. This won’t end well!
– The scene with Syd making it home and finding Danny’s slain body in her bathtub is one of the most unforgettable things I’ve ever seen on TV. Garner’s astounding performance goes straight to the heart with her voiceless cries. She then gets in her beaten-down Toyota and drives with a purpose before choking Sloane for his actions. If only she took him out for good!
– Even more beautiful editing as Sydney is interrogated by McCaulough, who is expertly played by Angus Scrimm. The whole scene fittingly feels like one bad dream.
– Syd reads Sloane’s lips – another talent of hers!
– Syd walks out of the bank completely disheveled and sees her car being towed away. It’s so darn depressing.
– Love Syd’s “BITE-ME” trick with Suit & Glasses (that’s the torturer’s unofficial name in the Alias fandom).
– When Will’s sister appears at the funeral with red hair, we start putting the pieces together as viewers. I love that.
– How sad is the sight of Syd drinking wine on her own and erasing the joint voicemail message? Another heartbreaking moment: She has dinner on her own in a romantic restaurant.
– It’s a quick touch, but Syd’s professor is lecturing about a woman who “loved a man and lost him”. Subtle!
– Love how Syd anticipates the attack in the parking lot by spotting the laser. And then we see how resourceful she is calling Francie and having her call back to throw her attackers off.
– Francie complaining about the worst day ever while Syd is under attack is just priceless.
– Throughout the show’s run, Sydney always uses her environment to kick ass, and that touch is evident in the parking lot fight when she uses the car’s antenna to free herself from her attacker. There’s also a stunningly-framed shot with her kicking her opponent’s face into the glass?
– Syd’s “Daddy?” when Jack arrives is iconic. It cuts the tension beautifully.
– Jack’s car stunt is too cool! What a dad!
– The fact that Syd tries to squeeze Jack’s face in case he’s wearing a mask. If only she knew what season three would bring (yup, Alias goes bonkers eventually).
– Some exposition for you: Jack mentions that SD-6 is part of a terrorist network called The Alliance of 12. They sound chill.
– There are two Syd-running-in-slow-motion scenes in the pilot. The first is when she’s on the track field, and the second is her running out of her dad’s car. The transition here is very dream-like and creepy as the hand slides over the frame to pick up the teeth-puller. Ouch.
– The show doesn’t hold back: Syd’s screams during dental surgery are horrifying.
– In case you were wondering, Will is a journalist. Also, he gives Syd his sister’s credit card and passport. The whole red thing from the funeral is paid off well!
– Everything about the infiltration montage is on-point: Syd transforming in a public bathroom and dying her hair, making her way through the airport and complimenting the cashier’s lipstick to distract her, stealing the car from the thug who arrogantly blows smoke in her face, and finally climbing the building walls and crawling through the vents. The musical score is particularly nifty!
– I love how the present and past timelines meet up: Syd gets knocked out outside the lab, but wakes up from her surgery ordeal. Genius!
– It’s so darn satisfying to see Syd flip the tables on her torturer (and LITERALLY flip over him while still on her chair). If only she actually pulled out his teeth too, but that blow to the groin is also gratifying.
– Syd using the sticks to make short work of her attackers – badass choreography.
– The sight of Syd with two Lara Croft-style pistols. Woah!
– So the Mueller device basically created a floating red ball that bursts into water. This can’t be good…
– The fact that Syd runs out of bullets and decides to blow up the WHOLE lab so she can make her escape (and the music kicking in at the right moment). #Resourceful
– So umm, I don’t mean to nitpick, but how could Syd possibly travel halfway around the world looking like THAT with the Mueller device in hand? It’s a bit of a suspicious sight.
– Cheerworthy moment: Sydney strutting into SD-6 and slamming the Mueller device on Sloane’s desk. And then of course her hilariously taking the week off because she’s got “midterms”.
– It’s a stunning sight to see our our flame-haired heroine walking through hordes of people on the street and not blending in at all. And then of course, she vanishes.
– Love the uncomfortable scene with Syd pronouncing herself as a “walk-in” at the CIA because the receptionist is visibly taken aback by our heroine’s appearance. Only Jennifer Garner can look this good with red hair.
– It’s quick moment, but Syd notices a picture on Vaughn’s desk of himself with what seems like his girlfriend.
– The chemistry between Sydney and Vaughn is already apparent in their first scene together as she’s quite defensive over his insinuations that she might be a “triple” agent. Then there’s that lovable moment where he notices she needs a dentist. As a viewer, you just want to give Syd a hug after everything she’s been through.
– A real awwwww moment: Jack being grateful that Syd didn’t name him in her report.
– “Hello?”. What an ending!
Jack: First of all, Danny, the truth is this is just a courtesy call. Like when you say to your neighbor, “We’re having a loud party on Saturday night if that’s all right with you.” What you really mean is, “We’re having a loud party on Saturday night.”
Sloane: We’ve kept our eye on this guy for quite some time. He fancied himself as a modern day Alchemist. His IQ was recorded as one of the highest on the planet.
Dixon: Then again, he was riding a moped.
Will: My sister set me up on a blind date.
Sydney: Was it good?
Will: For the date, it was. Yes.
Sydney: You didn’t like her?
Will: I didn’t mind her so much I don’t like my sister anymore.
Sydney: (to Danny) I always hoped I would find someone to give my life meaning. That person is you. I just met the agency first.
Danny: (leaving a voice message) You’re not there. Well, I know you’re not there. You’re not there or in San Diego. You could be anywhere doing anything. Which is the crux of the issue. Can I live like this? Not knowing where or why or when? Can I live in the dark? And the answer the only answer I came up with, Syd, was was yes. Syd, I don’t care. The whole world’s a nightmare anyway. It’s all dangerous, no matter what we do. I couldn’t live with myself saying goodbye to you because of risk. It’s all a risk. I But the kids thing that, we have to talk about, because I want kids. I love kids. But maybe there is a way out ’cause people aren’t spies forever. At some time people have to be able to say that they used to be spies. I miss you, Syd. Come home.
Sydney: You killed the man I love!
Sloane: No, Agent Bristow. You did.
McCullough: (to Sydney) Have you ever been so entertained by the cleverness of a crook that you hoped he’d get away with it
Sydney: I’ve got bad news for you, man. I’m your worst enemy. I’ve got nothing to lose.
Zhang: That’s not exactly true. You have teeth.
Sydney: I just want to say… start with the teeth in the back. If you don’t mind.
Sydney: (after handing Sloane the device) I’m taking the week off… I’ve got midterms.
Zhang: The pill I gave you helps the pain. I could tell because you stopped screaming so loudly.
Vaughn: Let Mr. Weiss know if you need anything else.
Sydney: New pen. This one’s dying.
Vaughn: They’re reviewing your statement. You wrote a lot.
Sydney: I know.
Vaughn: I mean, it’s like Tolstoy long.
A masterclass in every way, the Alias pilot is an absolutely perfect mini-blockbuster.
Note: Check out my retro review of the show’s five seasons. Here’s hoping I get to review every episode individually one day.