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!
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, the wigs, and the 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.
Just because Garner is so outstanding doesn’t mean the rest of the cast isn’t 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), a pre-famous Bradley Cooper is appropriately awkward as Syd’s friend-zoned buddy Will, while Carl Lumbley and Kevin Weiseman are respectively effective and hysterical as Sydney’s coworkers Dixon and Marshall. And finally there’s Victor Garber, who plays Sydney’s estranged and mysterious father Jack Bristow. Not only does he 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.
Oh and Michael Vartan makes an appearance as Sydney’s soulmate, Michael Vaughn. However his screen-time in the pilot amounts to all of 10 seconds.
Bits & Wigs
– I love Alias‘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?
– I never liked Danny so I’m glad he never lasted more than one episode. His proposal (singing “Build Me Up Buttercup”) is admittedly heartwarming though.
– Too funny: Danny calling Jack and asking for permission to marry Syd. Jack’s response is crazy severe (see 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 soundtrack is also excellent.
– Marshall introducing all the spy gadgets is a comedic gem. Weisman’s performance is kind of transcendent 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. The way she does so is very true to the character: she raises the volume and takes him into the shower where nothing is bugged, but unfortunately she still suffers the consequences of her decision later on. I also love how we don’t see Danny’s 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 in freshman year by a covert branch of the CIA and that it gave her purpose after her mother died.
– 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 that just gives me goosebumps as we see how good at their jobs the two agents are. At the last second, Syd runs into her soon-to-be torturer but is let off the hook as she plays the bimbo-looking-for-the-bathroom shtick. 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 walking out of the bank completely disheveled, and seeing her car being towed – talk about a depressing metaphor!
– Sydney’s snark as she’s being tortured is very Buffy-ish. Especially the “BITE-ME” trick she plays on Suit & Glasses (that’s the torture’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? It’s even more heartbreaking than her having dinner on her own in the 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 when they block her exit by 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 too funny.
– 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. And that shot of her kicking his face into the glass? Gorgeously framed.
– Syd’s “Daddy?” when Jack arrives is just priceless and iconic. It does a fantastic job of cutting the tension.
– 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).
– Jack mentions that SD-6 is part of a terrorist network called The Alliance of 12. Sounds innocent enough.
– There are two Syd-running-in-slow-motion scenes in the pilot. The first when she’s on the track field, 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.
– It’s horrifying to watch Syd scream in pain as her teeth get pulled out. This show doesn’t hold back!
– 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 great.
– 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?
– Cheer-worthy moment: Sydney strutting into SD-6 and slamming the Mueller device on Sloane’s desk, cementing her “loyalty”. And then of course her hilariously taking the week off because she’s got “midterms”.
– That stunning sight of our flame-haired heroine walking through hordes of same-looking people on the street… and then 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.
– 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.
– The fact that Jack is grateful that Syd didn’t name him in her report. Awww.
– How great is the pilot’s final scene with Sydney at Danny’s grave as Jack appears? It’s here she learns that they must learn to trust each other after a troubled history. In fact, the entire theme of the series can be encapsulated in that single line “I guess we’ll have to learn to trust each other.” The final moment is also a flawless bookend to the pilot as Jack hands Sydney her CIA phone and it rings for the first time and her brand new life begins. “Hello?”Awesomeness!
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 Alcamist. 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.
Trouble by Cat Stevens
No Man’s Woman by Sinead O’Connor
Never Grow Old by The Cranberries
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.