The Show That Started It All
Hello, and welcome to my third and final (for now) TBT piece centered around my borderline obsessive love of JJ Abrams’s mind and storytelling style. This time it’s a spoiler light look into the pilot of Alias, the show that alerted the world to JJ Abram’s magic as a showrunner and storyteller. I kinda worked this series of articles backwards starting with the last of his fabulous original sci-fi trio of shows, Fringe (airing order: Alias, Lost, Fringe), but Alias is the show that made people take note of JJ Abrams as a serious talent.
Now let’s flash back to the year 2001 and all its low rise jean, glittery crop top glory! I’ll set the scene:
We open to our lead character, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), with BRIGHT red hair, being tortured by two men who appear to be spies or hired guns. They leave her tied to a chair just as the door to her holding room opens.
We then cut to a scene of our same heroine, now brunette and trying to finish an essay in a classroom as her professor tells her her time is up. Next, we see her walking across the lawn of her college with her boyfriend Danny Hetch (a doctor) as she tells him about the “D” she just received in her class. He does his best to cheer her up and then proceeds to start singing “Fill Me Up, Buttercup” at the top of his lungs before promptly proposing right then and there. She says yes and excitedly recounts the proposal to her best friend, Francie (Merrin Dungey), who then asks if she has told her father, Jack Bristow (Victor Garber), and their mutual friend, Will. Sydney discloses that Danny actually called and asked her father's permission like an old school gentleman. We then get a flashback of him making the call to Jack who gives Daniel a very frosty response, asking him if he “even knows Sydney, really”—foreshadowing, as we are about to find out.
Sydney works for a branch of the CIA called “SD-6” hidden beneath the bank she ostensibly works at. She is greeted by fellow agent Marcus Dixon (Carl Lumbly) as they head into their briefing of their next mission. Agent Sloane (Ron Rifkin), the director of SD-6, assigns them to Taiwan to pose as reps from a plastics company to try and locate “the Mueller project” which they believe is in the hands of the Chinese government. Agent Marshall (Kevin Weisman)—the “Q” character in this spy world, if you will—proceeds to show them their new gadgets, such as a a video scrambler disguised as a cigarette lighter.
We finally meet Sydney's friend Will (a baby Bradley Cooper) as they run a track together. You can tell Will is deflated with Sydney’s news of Danny’s proposal, but he tries to hide it.
We cut to Danny and Sydney at home kissing and talking about the future, which prompts Sydney to lead Danny to the shower. Assuming she’s being romantic, he begins to undress, but actually she is trying to keep the bugs in her house from hearing her tell Danny the truth—that she’s a spy. He of course thinks she’s kidding around, then he’s shocked, confused, and bewildered.
We flash back to a torture room as a man (called “suit and glasses” in the credits) enters and holds up a syringe. Sydney's eyes widen, he shoots her with the syringe, and she passes out. He walks away.
In the present, Sydney and Danny are talking at a very loud construction site (again hiding what she’s telling him). Sydney tells Danny how, seven years ago, she was approached by a man who told her she "fit a profile" and offered her a job at a black-ops division of the CIA called SD-6. She needed the money, so she decided to join. Enjoying the work, she advanced quickly, and here she is now. She also tells Danny that he cannot tell anyone about her.
As he begins to say they need to talk more, Sydney says she has a trip, but will call him when she returns. As she and Dixon jet to Taiwan she asks him if it ever bothers him that he lies to his wife. Dixon responds that by not telling her he is protecting her, as it is against the rules of SD-6 to disclose your true work identity to anyone, and tells her that if she only follows one rule of SD-6, it should be that one. I will leave out most other plot details to keep from spoiling this very well done and captivating pilot episode.
Now let’s talk about character and their arcs, because this show has some GREAT ones!
Sydney Bristow: Sydney is a true female TV icon, just like most of JJ Abrams “heroines.” She is fierce but also deeply loving and vulnerable. She can fight or she can cry or she can cry while she fights. I LOVE her. You watch her learn from deceit and take her power back from the men who stole it.
Michael Vaughn: you don’t meet this CIA agent (played by the charming Michael Vartan) and angel human until the last three minutes of the pilot, but believe me that’s all you need to instantly love this guy. How he comes to be involved with Sydney is a bit of a spoiler, but I will say they become partners in the work they do. He is one of those tried and true “good guys,” always striving to do what’s right.
Agent Sloane: he is a character you sometimes like, sometimes hate... he’s twisty and selfish but also lives by a code. Ron Rifkin plays the character to perfection.
Jack Bristow: at first you will be ready to punch this man square in the nose for how he treats Sydney. They are both bitter and distant with each other. Much like Fringe has a father/son redemption story woven through the whole series—Alias is very much a father/daughter redemption story. You will warm up to Jack as the show goes on. He grows.
Agent Dixon: he often is Sydney’s partner on missions and as you will see is almost a father figure to her.
Will Tippin: Sydney’s best friend who’s a news reporter and is obviously in love with her. You will find him sweet and caring and also kinda obsessive when it comes to Sydney. He’s kind of a male “Lois Lane”; Sydney has to save him more than once. The two remain good friends throughout the series, but Will isn’t a regular after Season 2.
Francie Calfo: Sydney’s other best friend and roommate. She is sweet and supportive and her character arc is, in a word, tragic, but has an amazing twist.
Marshall Flinkman: the sweet nerdy genius who can hack any network and make any gadget fit into a lipstick. He goes from comic relief in the show to actually getting a great arc and becoming the hero he dreams about at his desk for the first few seasons.
You will also see so many amazing guest stars! Lena Olin, cold and fabulous as Irina Derevko, along with David Anders, long before his iZombie days. Also appearances by Angela Bassett, Ethan Hawke, Djimon Hounsou...I could keep going.
In its five season run, Alias was many things. Espionage thriller, supernatural mystery, even a romance drama at times. You get car chases, magic caves, explosives, double agents—it’s actually amazing how many things you get in this show. But in the end, this is Sydney’s story of taking her life back from the deceitful men and women that thought she was, to quote the Hunger Games, “just another piece in their game.” Sydney suffers SOOO much throughout the series but in the end she WINS. She gets the happiness that was stolen from her by greed and power back. And, like most of JJ Abrams stories, it’s about love. The people you love, most notably, and how they really are the most valuable treasure you can obtain.
Tidbits and final thoughts:
I didn't get too deep into the shipping because of spoilers! But you can pry Sydney/Vaughn from my cold dead hands. I LOVE them. Their meet cute moment is him offering to recommend a dentist because she had a freaking missing tooth from being tortured, that’s fanfic worthy. They both would LITERALLY jump in front of a bullet for the other. The whole “we work together so there can’t be feelings” trope, sign me the heck up. Like they are tender and caring with each other and you need to watch their whole story, okay?
Watching baby!Bradley Cooper be the “friendzoned” sweetie who is just a normal side character is so funny to think about in this post “Bradley Cooper, Oscar Nominee” world.
Man, the Francie storyline is SO good.
So! Many! Wigs!
Lots of disguises (a few culturally appropriative).
This is still Jennifer Garner’s best work.
This show also goes from 0 to 100 in the mythology department (a pattern of JJ’s shows, as I’m sure you know by now).
Lena Olin is fabulous.
Really, if you think this is just a spy show I got news for you….it’s definitely sci-fi.
It’s still a highly regarded show 17 years later.
The pilot episode is actually named “Truth Be Told,” which I did not realize until I looked up the name for this article, so we got a good laugh here at Truth Bee Told Media.
So I reviewed TBT for TBT on TBT lol
Unfortunately, Alias is not available on any streaming site like Netflix or Hulu. You can buy the episodes and seasons on Amazon and iTunes for as low as $0.99 an episode—the DVDs are around $20 a season on Amazon as well. It has yet to be released on Blu-ray.
If your interest is piqued enough to purchase the series, I promise you will enjoy this story. Especially if you love spy stories or sci-fi—or spy-fi, as I like to call it!
And that wraps my JJ Abrams TBT article series here on Truth Bee Told Media!
TBT is a weekly feature on Truth Bee Told that looks back on some of our favourite TV shows that are no longer on air.