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Feature: Alias

"We've Got a File on You"

Sydney Bristow

Meet Sydney Bristow, by day she’s a literature graduate student, but after hours she’s a hot sexy super spy...

The rise of Garner’s star and the critical success of Alias are inseparable. The lure of having an ass-kicking heroine at the centre of a fantastical and compulsive action series has proved an irresistible hook for many an editor. In that regard, it’s not unlike the rise to fame of Sarah Michelle Gellar via Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Both these series have thrived on their lead actor’s mixture of photogenic charms and emotional range – for while Alias is many things, it’s no more a two-dimensional knockabout than Buffy was. The 11 Primetime Emmy nominations that Alias, ahem, garnered in July 2003 after season two’s completion demonstrate this: it received the same number of nominations a year earlier, a healthy indicator of the series’ consistent quality.

With Season One of Alias emerging on DVD on both sides of the Atlantic during September, season two getting its UK terrestrial début on Five, and Season Three’s production underway, now is an ideal time to get acquainted with Sydney Bristow – surely TV’s sexiest spy right now – if you’ve not already done so. But what should you expect from the series?

How about: a high-octane mixture of exotic escapism with soul-searching dilemmas that arise much closer to home. Outlandish devices and extrovert ‘disguises’ in almost every episode. Fight scenes that are brutal yet skilfully controlled. If you’re expecting double-crosses, prepare for some triple-crossing. If you’re expecting a bumpy ride, prepare for a rollercoaster; and if you’re expecting something as compelling as Jack Bauer’s adventures in 24… well, you might be right. For both revolve around elite CIA agents based in Los Angeles, both make liberal use of cliffhangers, and in both cases the agent’s family is crucial to the evolving story.

But Alias takes a different approach to 21st-Century espionage. Not constrained by the real-time narrative of 24, it emphasizes Sydney’s real life and her struggle to keep this separate from her undercover missions – glamorous or gritty as they may be. Perhaps the altered view of world events after September 11th has drawn viewers to the fictional world of such series: Alias features intelligence networks facing threats from wealthy terrorist networks and appallingly destructive weapons, for example. But that’s probably less of a draw than the core story – of Sydney’s painful search for her own identity.

Yet Alias is no one-character show: Sydney’s family, friends and colleagues are all affected by her spy career’s elaborate subterfuges – and their deadly consequences. At a senior level, the cast is led by Broadway veterans Victor Garber (as Sydney’s father) and Ron Rifkin (as her boss): both do tremendous work shading their enigmatic, duplicitous characters. But in Sydney’s own generation, the series has tapped into charismatic young stars like Michael Vartan as her CIA handler, and Bradley Cooper as her journalist friend Will. Like Garner, the classy cast around her excels at creating vivid characters that go way beyond the series’ comic book stylings.

by Mark Wyman

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Photo © ABC Inc.
Feature © Visual Imagination 2003. Not for reproduction

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Ultimate DVD #46
September 2003
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