TV Counters Intelligence

On TV's Alias, at Least, Espionage Remains a Matter of Frivolous Fun

Let's get this straight. Alias starts when the CIA recruits Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) as a college freshman. She doesn't have many friends and needs the money, so she takes the job as a lark--the department stores at the mall not having any openings at the moment. Turns out Syd kicks butt at spying: In the usual montage she learns martial arts, blasts the heart out of painted targets, and spies on campus lefties. (Oops, wait, she doesn't do that. My bad.)

Eventually, she finishes school and keeps up the extracurriculars so she can go to grad school--Ph.D. stipends paying less than that elusive gig at the mall. Soon her hunky boyfriend Danny (William Atterton) proposes, so she has to tell him about her secret life, and he freaks but then later calls her up and pours out his feelings in a drunken monologue, professing that he loves her and wants to have kids with her, and that after you're a spy you can do other things, which is absolutely loving, except that Syd's employers are listening with Secret Spying Equipment, and so while she's in Hong Kong sneaking pix of this secret installation with her lipstick camera, their apartment is trashed and he is terminated, which really ruins her mood, though not for long. Next thing we know, she's back in Asia, working this Raggedy Ann/Run Lola Run red-stringy-hair look and getting tortured by some sneering sadist who starts with her back teeth.

This has happened to a lot of us, but Syd's case, it turns out, is different. See, Syd discovers that she's not working for the CIA but for a renegade organization that has its own bureaucracy, technology, and goals, led by Sloane (Ron Rifkin), an icy skull of a man whose plots are so nefarious that they don't make any sense. So then she starts working for the CIA itself as a double agent within SD-6, which it turns out her estranged dad (Victor Garber) also works for, also as a double agent. Which means that Syd sets out on her incomprehensible missions having to complete not just the assigned Evil Mission but also a Good Counter-Mission without alerting the people at SD-6, even if a lot of the time the counter-mission turns out to be pretty much the same as the first mission.

Of course this is deeply silly. The show tosses around mysterioso mumbo-jumbo organizations like "Alliance of 12" and "K Directorate," all gleefully jockeying for primacy in the infernal-doomsday-device marketplace. On the CIA itself the show maintains a strenuous neutrality, presenting a slow-reacting bureaucracy rife with careerist blockheads, but one at least sharp enough to know who its enemies are and where to find them--a slight touch-up, maybe, on the know-little suburban isolates Seymour Hersh has been savaging in the New Yorker. Unlike the sanctimonious The Agency, which immediately after September 11 started running ads boasting that its agents protect America, "no matter what the cost," Alias thankfully never presents itself as anything more than pure escapism. Syd hops from L.A. to Egypt to Berlin to Virginia, kick-boxes Arab security guards, repeatedly runs up against her sinister yet somehow sympathetic Cuban-Russian counterpart, and even digs up, then disarms, a nuke stuck in someone's grave.

It's utterly ridiculous and implausible, but also giddily fun, spiced by the hilarious disparity between the show's amiable preposterousness and the deep seriousness of every actor who appears before the camera. Creator J.J. Abrams is best known for Felicity, and Garner guest-starred there before enjoying a few minutes on her own in Fox's Significant Others. The vibe here--intense emotional storms coming out of a drizzle of sadness--follows those semi-soaps. Garner looks pensively downward a lot, her finely sculpted, patrician cheekbones summoning a realistically twentysomething angst only slightly leavened by the fact that she's just, say, fled a soccer stadium ringed with armed guards after memorizing a 30-digit binary sequence before some green goo vaporizes it. All the actors, or at least the youngsters, supply meaningful catches in the voice, pained hesitations that by now convey an entire world of inward suffering. Feelings that can't be expressed, inconsolable longings, and all that. The old guys do their best clenched jaws and throbbing veins: Compromised spymasters, it turns out, are really just repressed dads. As a result, the show doesn't so much veer between dramatic modes as simply try on one outfit and then drop it when something better happens along.

Consider this Felicity's fantasy life, a Day-Glo cartoon done proud, and enjoy it for what it is. In Garner, Abrams has a great resource, and he doesn't squander it. When she's not brooding, Syd is speeding down corridors in high heels and evening gown, or clacking across concrete in thigh-high boots. Her gangly run, all churning arms and mantis legs, has the ungainly efficiency of a video-game heroine. Teenage boys would pay good money to pit her against Dark Angel's Jessica Alba in a PlayStation showdown.

In fact, Alias has been touched by Dark Angel in other ways. Syd's prickly attraction to her CIA handler (Greg Grunberg) recycles the dynamic of that Fox show and La Femme Nikita, too; Syd's more-than-a-friend Will (Bradley Cooper) evokes Noel from Felicity; SD-6's nerdy techie is a younger Q from the Bond films; and the conceit of ending each episode with a cliffhanger goes all the way back to The Perils of Pauline.

What we end up with is exemplary postmodern entertainment: just your average genre-robbing, partly paranoid, half-serious neotrad quasi-feminist political thriller--and a pretty enjoyable one, too.

 
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