"Truth Be Told" (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 9/30/2001)
So here’s the thing I want to get across as we start this long journey: Alias isn’t a perfect series, by any means. But I do think it’s the most important show of the past ten years that’s been completely swept under the rug. It’s important not so much for its overt cultural impact as the implicit resonances that the show has had on so much that’s come after it. I suggested that TV Club Classic cover this show for two reasons. The first is that I selfishly wanted a reason to rewatch the entire series. The second is that I have a sneaking suspicion that few shows have had a greater impact on the television landscape today.
That’s a bold statement, to be sure. But I don’t think it’s very far off. Alias debuted on September 30, 2001. Not even three weeks after the Twin Towers fell. Over on FOX, 24 was still a few weeks away from debuting, having to tweak its pilot based on real-life events. Alias wasn’t so much concerned about the real world so much as a possible, much more interesting one. It’s the actual birth of what I’ve dubbed in the past "Earth-J.J.," a cohesive world in which everything J.J. Abrams ever produced exists on the same, slightly-left-of-center planet in which Arvin Sloane, Alvar Hanso, and James T. Kirk at some point all saw the same sky and breathed the same air. They didn’t do so at the same time, but they did so in the same world.
But if Alias explored the possibility of this new world, then it also explored what was possible and what was tolerated in serialized television mythology. Obviously, Alias didn’t invent this genre, but it certainly pushed it to new pop heights, going further than perhaps anything before it. And then, it just stopped, seemingly crushed under the weight of its own narrative burdens or a sea of network notes. When I first watched this series from start to finish as it initially aired, I was only barely cognizant of the mechanisms that went into producing television shows. All I knew is that there was this show that completely and effortlessly pushed every pleasure button in my brain, and then almost as suddenly, it ceased to do so.
Was I right to uniformly love everything that preceded that breaking point? Was I right to condemn everything afterward as a shadow of the show’s former self? That’s what I hope to explore in the coming weeks and months with this Classic series. I remember the high level parts of this show: Sydney, Spy Daddy, Sloane, Sark, Rambaldi, all of the highlighted letters in the city names that I kept trying to arrange in order to produce meaning. But I also forgot several key aspects, like the fact that the dude from The Hangover made his big splash in this show. That’s a pretty big thing to forget, but then again, Alias slipped my mind as much as it slipped the collective cultural mind. It sits on the shelf, which allows me to see Jennifer Garner wearing a lot of wigs but doesn’t allow me to get at the deeper things that this show did. Perhaps just as importantly, it also doesn’t allow me to get at the deeper things this show failed to ultimately do. Again: Alias isn’t a perfect show, but I think its flaws are as instructive as its successes.
A lot of that discussion will unfold as the season/series progresses. For now, we’re here to talk about the pilot. And what a fantastic pilot it is. I’m not really anxious to get into a “Greatest Pilot Episodes of All Time” discussion, since that boils down to apples and oranges quite quickly. But the nimble inventiveness of the Alias pilot still stands up today. Plenty of early 21st century pilots seem dated already, but not this one. Part of that is the technology used in the show, but a large part of it stems around the fact that J.J. Abrams didn’t overemphasize the specific cultural landscape at the time in which this show was filmed. Think of it as the difference between an early, reference-heavy Dreamworks Animation film and a Pixar one from the same time: The former dates itself within a few years, while the latter has lasting impact due to its apparent timelessness.
What’s striking about the pilot, above all, lies in two things. The first: how much plot this sucker covers. The second: how much the multitude of twists feels earned, as opposed to simply exploitative. It originally aired as a 69-minute pilot, with no commercial interruptions. But it doesn’t feel an additional 30 minutes longer than a normal episode of television. It simply feels like the right amount of time to constantly and effortlessly dislodge the worldviews of both Sydney Bristow and, by extension, the audience. Were the series of narrative reversals a way for us to catch up with what Syd already understood, then the script would feel like a bunch of “GOTCHA!” moments meant to show superiority. Since we’re taking the journey with her, it ultimately aligns us with her journey and therefore gets us on her side from the get go.
Then again, she is slightly ahead of us until she enters Credit Dauphine for the first time. But that is symbolic of the way Alias keeps misdirecting what type of show this is. Every time you think you have this show figured out, along comes another detour, taking you down another road. It would feel manipulative in less confident hands, but misdirection and distrust is built into the spy world and thus feels organic. We understand intuitively from the iconic shot of Syd underwater with her shock red hair that something’s amiss, but neither we nor she truly understands the full implication of it until hour’s end. The show feels like Felicity… until it doesn’t. It feels like a spy show… until it doesn’t. Stripping away what Sydney knows doesn’t limit the narrative; instead, it opens it up to infinite possibilities.
All of this is academic without compelling performances. Having seen the show once through already when it initially aired, I ascribe certain character notes to people that barely get screentime in this initial hour. But while certain major figures barely register here, that’s not the point. The point is to put Sydney Bristow front and center, and the pilot does that in spades. It’s not just the action sequences that thrill (although I forgot just how LONG the show makes you wait for her to kick some ass), but it’s the smaller moments that Jennifer Garner sells so well in this star-making performance. Killing Danny in the first episode could be a cheap way to earn audience sympathy, but the way Syd treats him in their small amount of screen time makes that character matter. Watch the 10,000 thoughts that go through her mind while Danny kisses her belly, dreaming of children. Watch her struggle to find her voice upon finding him dead in the bathtub. Watch her take Danny’s advice from the old answering machine message to record a new one. It’s a helluva lot of fun to watch her strut through LAX as Will’s sister, but it’s the smaller moments that sell Syd as a three-dimensional character.
The other person that gets a good chunk of character work is Jack Bristow, played by Victor Garber. Spy Daddy gets a ton of good stuff here, from his gruff phone conversation with Danny to the way in which he sheds skin after skin until getting to something approaching the real him. The way that Abrams shoots Jack informs the type of character he is: Look at the swooping shot in the cemetery that casually reveals him standing there the whole time. That type of stealthy omnipresence gives weight to the idea that for all his absence in Syd’s life, he’s actually been shadowing her all along. He hasn’t been able to fully protect her, but he’s done what he can, given his compromised, highly dangerous triple life. And yet, the pilot doesn’t end on hugs and puppies. It ends on an uncertain attempt to start trusting each other. It’s a statement about spy life, but it’s really about family life.
Most of the shows I currently love are about makeshift families that bond over circumstances beyond their control. But I particularly like shows that throw a familial bond as well into the greater mix. Lost and Fringe certainly have those elements, to name a few later Abrams-inspired works. But so do shows like Justified, Archer, and a myriad of others that take up space on my DVR. (Chuck pretty much stole the model outright with its mixture of work family and blood relations.) Having a group of disparate people find commonality in the 21st-century world is all well and good. But having actual family along for the ride matters in a fairly substantial way. While Vaughn, Francie, Will, Dixon, and Marshall all become important touchstones for Syd over the years, it’s the Bristow family that stands at the emotional core of everything for her.
All of this character work is necessary, because this Alias pilot is not simply a series of bait-and-switch moments to keep us off-guard. It’s also a stealth sci-fi show, making its true nature in plain sight. On one level, the Mueller Device at the center of the spy action this week is a type of MacGuffin. On the other hand, it introduces the show’s central mythology without actually announcing it. Fans that are rewatching the show along with me know what that red ball means, and the identity of the person that scrawled out its instructions in that ancient language. J.J. Abrams later went on to insert an overtly genre element into his pilot for Lost, but here he keeps both the device (and Sloane’s real interest in it, and its creator) under wraps for now. I’ll be keenly interested to keep notes going forth regarding how the show deploys this aspect of the show in my rewatch, as the way in which subsequent shows have dealt with what I’ll call “the Alias problem” in years since really all comes back to that little red ball.
If it sounds like I’m dancing around the topic versus delving in, well, I am. I imagine that a non-small section of the people reading this will be watching the show for the first time. So I am going to try and hint at, but not overtly discuss, aspects of the show that will come at a later date. I want to be as inclusive as possible with these weekly reviews. I think having spoiler threads in the comments below is fine, and probably necessary, so people that want to talk about elements yet to come can do so. I'll even include vague semi-spoilers at the end of my observations so veterans can see a few things that they might have missed. But I’m not pointing out certain hair-raising moments to those yet unequipped with the antenna to pick them up. There’s equal pleasure in rediscovering this somehow already-lost gem and unearthing it for the first time. Far be it from me to ruin that pleasure for either group. I’m just thrilled to be a part of that process for the foreseeable future.
- What’s great about the iconic Run, Lola, Run look isn’t how Syd looks in it, but rather how she goes about creating it. It’s a relatively Bourne-like maneuver, showing how she casually incorporates Amy’s look to hide in plain sight. A lesser show would have had a scene with Syd overtly complimenting her hair. This show has the confidence to simply have Amy stand out at the funeral reception and let the pieces fall into place organically.
- Danny has a horrible voice for karaoke.
- So many firsts in this episode: the first shot of Credit Dauphine, the first awkward Marshall monologue, and the first of the 5,892 slo-mo Syd running sequences. Seriously, if you’ve bought these DVDs, you’ve also bought yourself five seasons of workout videos. Nicely done.
- Loved Syd/Dixon talking about headsets. It’s a Pulp Fiction-esque way to introduce these two coworkers and says a lot about their relationship together.
- Another first: the increasingly ubiquitous use of starting an episode mid-mission, then backtracking for the rest of the ep to build back to that moment. I think it works like gangbusters here, but Lord, did the show use it as a crutch going forth.
- Voiceovers can be tricky things to pull off, but using Syd’s explanation to Danny as a way to give us a quick background into her entry into SD6 was highly effective.
- As mentioned before: The show waits an incredibly long time to get to Syd fighting. Not sure any pilot now could ever wait that long. And what a fight it is: The creative use of the car antenna stands out, but as with most Alias fights, it’s crisp, well-directed, and does a fairly good job hiding the body doubles.
- It’s worth listening to the audio commentary that Abrams and Garner do for this episode, if you have the chance. Some of these commentaries fall into mutual appreciation society sessions, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff in this one.
- “The truth is, Danny; this is a courtesy call. Like, when you say to your neighbor, ‘We’re having a loud party on Saturday night, if that’s alright with you.’ What you really mean is, ‘We’re having a loud party on Saturday night.’”
- “If there’s one rule you don’t break, that’s the rule you don’t break.”
- “You killed the man I love.” “No, Agent Bristow. You did.”
- “I appreciate you not naming me. That was… kind.”
- Semi-spoilers, so skip to the comments if you don’t want to know: Marshall mentions a major number during his speech. And boy, people sure talk about Syd’s mom a lot, don't they?