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Monday, April 10, 2006

The Night That Alias Reinvented Itself

Note to readers of my blog: This essay was originally published 2005, in slightly different form, in Alias Assumed: Sex, Lies, and SD-6, edited by Kevin Weisman aka Marshall Flinkman, with Glenn Yeffeth (Plano, TX; BenBella Books, 2005). I added a few new paragraphs - at the end of the essay - just before the conclusion of the series in April-May 2006. The conclusion of the series was enjoyable - but it didn't change the conclusions of this essay.

The Night That Alias Reinvented Itself
by Paul Levinson

September 30, 2002 was not that night. But it was a nice Monday night in New York City. I was walking with several colleagues to McNally Auditorium at Fordham University's Lincoln Center Campus, where we were to appear on a panel about The Sopranos that I had organized. The fourth season of the HBO series had premiered two weeks earlier, and had attracted a record-breaking audience for television: for the first time in the history of the medium, a cable TV show had scored better in the Nielsen ratings than any of its competitors on free, network TV.

The only thing bad about The Sopranos, I said to one of my colleagues -- Lance Strate, who was to present a paper on The Sopranos and the state of New Jersey (cultural as well as physical) -- was what to watch on TV on Sunday evenings when The Sopranos was not on. Lance looked at me and nodded sagely. "Watch Alias," was all he said.

I had vaguely heard of Alias then, which had just started its second season the night before. As it turned out, I didn't get to watch any of Alias until well into its third season, when my daughter (then 17) talked me into getting DVDs of the first two seasons (I'm sometimes a little slow to take a hint). Once I did, I was soon believing not only what Lance and my daughter had told me, but was coming up with reasons that Alias was in one way even better than The Sopranos, which might have made it the best show in the history of television.

Which brings me to the subject of this essay....

The Common Denominator of Network TV

The prime commandment of network television has always been: Thou shalt not offend! The networks make their money from selling air time to advertisers, who are happy to hand over big amounts of money for big numbers of viewers. The advertisers don't much care if the viewers are thrilled with the programs they are watching or merely interested -- in fact, all the advertisers care about is whether the viewer is watching their commercials, preferably with at least one eye open.

The result is that television has long appealed to the lowest common denominator of public interest: show what keeps the largest number of people interested, without turning anyone off and away. If a program keeps viewers on the coasts riveted, but sends middle-Americans running from the screen, the inexorable arithmetic of advertising works against it. Better to have a show that is at least mildly interesting to the coasts, and retains the heartland. The furor over Janet Jackson's breast on CBS during the Superbowl half-time in 2004 shows just what can happen when this principle is violated even for a split-second.

Now, a powerful corollary of thou shalt not offend on television has always been thou shalt not confuse! After all, a confused viewer can easily become an irritated viewer, a short distance from being no viewer at all. This is why daytime soap operas move at a glacially slow pace: you can miss at least a few weeks of programming, and not lose much of the story. But all television drama steers clear of sudden, disrupting turns in events and characters. Miss Ellie was deemed so important to viewers of Dallas, for example, that Donna Reed was drafted to play her after Barbara Bel Geddes was sidelined with heart problems -- even though the two looked and sounded nothing alike.

Which makes the surprise reinvention of Alias right in the middle of its second season on ABC all the more remarkable and rewarding.

The Rug That was Pulled Out from Under

The original setup of Alias, which carried it from pilot through a season and a half, was an elegant box within boxes. First, Sydney Bristow, a grad student, is working for the CIA. On this level, we in effect had a slightly older Felicity as secret agent. (J. J. Abrams conceived both Felicity and Alias. Jennifer Garner also played a friend of Felicity.) But we soon learn that Sydney only thinks she is working for the CIA. In reality, her SD-6 unit is a rogue operation, which uses the CIA as a cover. Most of SD-6, including Sydney at this point, thinks it is an entirely legal if black-ops unit, working for the good guys -- which the CIA will deny all knowledge of, and which will kill anyone who reveals anything at all about its work. By the end of the pilot, Sydney's fiance is killed by SD-6 because she tells him that she works for them. This leads to her resigning, which puts her own life in danger. The crisis is resolved when Sydney decides to stay on at SD-6 as a double CIA/SD-6 agent (that is, a good guy who works for the true CIA under cover as a bad guy who works for SD-6); this gives her the best opportunity to avenge her fiance's killers. Meanwhile, her mysterious father Jack reveals himself as also a double CIA/SD-6 agent. Sydney is not happy about any of this, but working under cover at SD-6 nonetheless affords her the best chance of bringing down this cruel organization and its allies -- in contrast to her work at SD-6 up until this point, which she thought was for the good CIA but was really for evil SD-6.

That a plot of such complexity -- look how long it just took me to summarize -- was ever established on network TV indicates how far the medium had come since Dallas. The success of HBO on cable -- which, as a premium subscription service, was free of the numbing yoke of advertising -- was at least part of the reason that ABC-TV was willing to be so daring. Indeed, Alias and The Sopranos were often in face-to-face competition at nine oclock on Sunday nights.

The two shows have little else in common. The Sopranos, unlacerated by commercial interruption, tells its story in hour-long film-like episodes; Alias decorates its commercial breaks with roller-coaster cliff-hangers. Not burdened by the FCCs childish (and unconstitutional) provisions, The Sopranos gives us realistic nudity and language; the most we get from Alias in this regard are tight outfits and a few sons-of-bitches. Although characters die with regularity on The Sopranos, the plot remains unrelentingly constant, and the persistent, singular complexity we experience is how such violent people can command something akin to admiration and even affection from us.

Although Alias had its emotional moments, especially in Sydney's relationship to her father, its supreme complexity was intellectual, and was especially so in the first season and a half. How could Sydney Bristow function as a good guy in an environment of bad guys who almost all thought they were good guys, and not give herself away to the head of SD-6, who in fact was a bad guy? She often went on missions with her partner, Dixon, an earnest good guy who did not know he was working in the service of bad guys. Sydney's job was often to confound the mission, or give the fruits of the mission to the good guys (the real CIA) right under the nose of Dixon -- who, if he had any inkling of what Sydney was doing, would have assumed that Sydney was a traitor to her country. (In fact, he eventually began to get just such an inkling.)

In the first year and a half, Sydney and her colleagues on both sides of the divide were able to walk this tightrope, in the face of ever more desperately complex situations. And then J. J. Abrams did something even more radical. He cut the tightrope. Right in the middle of the season. Right after the Superbowl on ABC in January 2003, which meant right in front of a huge audience.

He didnt stop the series. He did something far more unprecedented: he changed its very premise.

The Night of Reinvention

The Superbowl on television has long been about the closest the world regularly comes to being a global village. It vies with the Academy Awards for drawing the largest number of simultaneous viewers worldwide, and here in America, it regularly doubles the number of Academy Award viewers (Superbowl audiences are over 100 million in the U.S.; Academy Award TV audiences have been as low as 50 million). Coverage of American Presidential election returns, to give another comparison, attract well under 100 million viewers on all stations combined, and of course far less on any single broadcast or cable network. When the Superbowl is on TV, we are all seated in the same stadium, multi-millions of us, watching the exact same action on the screen. Alias could not have found a better spot and time to reinvent itself.

January 26, 2003: That was the night. The broadcast of the Superbowl on ABC-TV had drawn a record-breaking audience of 138.9 million viewers in the United States, according to National Football League statistics. More conservative Nielsen ratings estimated the audience at 88.6 million -- still a record for a Nielsen-measured audience. Alias fans have been abuzz about the new episode that will air right after the game. Victor Garber, who masterfully portrays Jack Bristow on the show, has promised that this episode will change things, and help the ratings. (Viewers have averaged about 9.3 million per show for the second season of Alias, until this night.) ABC had decided to postpone an episode guest-starring Ethan Hawke until the February sweep month, in favor of this special Alias chapter. "It was a very conscious choice on the producers' part, and I think it will help," Garber is quoted as saying by Rick Porter (on tv.zap2it.com), eleven days before the broadcast.

There are certain unwritten rules on TV -- certain specific principles in support of "thou shalt not confuse". Lead characters can be brought to the point of death as often as needed, but rarely killed (this used to be never, unless the series was ending or the actor or actress decided to leave). Institutions were even more robust and resistant to change. Southfork (the Ewing ranch on Dallas) could be set on fire, but never burned to the ground or out of existence; Ewing Oil could be sold, but sooner or later it would wind up back in J. R.'s or at least Bobby's hands. Even The Sopranos could never survive Tony's truly leaving the mob. If he did, that would mean we would be watching the series finale.

According to the Nielsens, some 17.4 million Superbowl viewers stay tuned for Alias -- twice the usual number of Alias watchers. Phase One -- the aptly numbered Episode 13 of the Second Season -- starts out conventionally, if provocatively, enough. Sydney's alias is a scantily-clad call girl on a private jetliner, tempting an ugly, powerful man in possession of some crucial data onboard the plane. Sydney bests the bad-guy, gets the data -- but then apparently gets shot. A delightful opener. But none of this has much to do with the real plot and purpose of this episode.

That pivotal story begins with the revelation that Arvin Sloan, bad-guy head of SD-6 played by Ron Rifkin, has gone missing, and has been replaced by a new eloquent monster, one Anthony Geiger, portrayed by Rutger Hauer. (One of the great strengths of Alias had always been the high octane star power attracted to the series for guest appearances. These included not only Hauer but Quentin Tarantino, Amy Irving, Lena Olin, Angela Bassett, and the aforementioned Ethan Hawke. See my comments below for more about Lena Olin's impact on the show.) Jack and Sydney have had a complicated relationship with Sloan -- everything is complicated in Alias, one of its joys -- and there is even a possibility that Sloan may know that Jack and Sydney are double agents, but for his own reasons is allowing their deception to run its course and unfold. Sydney, Jack, and viewers who have followed the series know they cannot expect such forbearance from Geiger. He presents something of a life-threatening problem.

And, in fact, Jack is soon unmasked by Geiger, who commences to torture Jack for the truth. Sydney -- who we learn has actually made good her escape from the sky (no real surprise, even Alias cannot afford to kill off its lead character) -- focuses on rescuing her father. But only the real CIA can pry him loose from Geiger. Indeed, the CIA would need to field an all-out attack on SD-6 headquarters -- but this would forever blow the CIA's game (also Jack's and Sydney's) of letting SD-6 think it was putting one over on the CIA. In other words, such an attack would blow the very premise of the series.

Well ... television series have been no strangers to episodes and plots that put central characters in dire jeopardy, and threaten to undermine the fundamental logic and set-up of the series. But prior to this episode of Alias, the TV way of handling this would be to bring the disruption this close to completion, razor thin to inflicting mortal damage on the plot, and then at the last moment ingeniously veer back and resolve the disruption to maintain the status quo. (The very way that Alias has just resolved the opening tease with Sydney.) But the problem with this approach, of course, is that the ingenious twists were always predictable since viewers knew there would be some kind of unexpected saving grace -- and therefore the twist was not unexpected at all.

Alias tried a different tack this time. The real CIA indeed attacks SD-6. A fierce fight ensues. We expect SD-6 to somehow pull its survival, and the continuance of the complex terrain of the series, out of the fire. But the blaze is too strong. Geiger and SD-6 are destroyed. Sloan, the SD-6 mastermind, does survive. And in the last scene we learn that the destruction of SD-6 was exactly as he had planned. He -- and the series -- are moving on from Phase One.

The Dividends of Mutation?

Alias gained about a million viewers for the episodes that followed "Phase One". This was a limited improvement -- Alias had reached that number (10 million viewers) at times during its first season. And in the third season, viewers often dropped below 8 million per show. It never really recovered from this fall.

Alias's daring reinvention of itself was thus less than an unmitigated boon. What went wrong?

Part of the answer had to do with specific developments in the series, especially the availability of a particular actress, which had nothing to with the reinvention on the night of the Superbowl. But part of Alias's problem after the reinvention flowed from the direction of the reinvention, or where it pointed the series. Let's look at that part first.

Unfortunately for Alias, the very purpose of its reinvention was apparently to make itself less complex, simpler, presumably easier for the common denominator of television viewers to understand. In the interview with Rick Porter mentioned above, Victor Garber gives an indication of why the show reinvented itself: "I think it's a difficult show. It's not an easy show for people to follow." The difficulty he was talking about is SD-6 -- the complexity of two good double agents, Jack and Sydney, working undercover for a bad organization pretending to be good, and consisting mostly of agents who are good who do not know they are working for someone bad. In other words, the very heart and soul and deepest intellectual jolt of the first season and a half. And the very heart and soul that "Phase One" blasted out of existence. Garber continues in his interview, "the Superbowl episode is like starting over. Its almost like a pilot episode."

Unhappily, the pilot was for a series which was less challenging and riveting of the mind.

Interestingly, all of the continuing characters, and most of their delicious conflicts and ambiguity, survived the revolution of "Phase One". But this ambiguity was personal, not structural or organizational, and therefore it was more commonplace than what had been before. Sloan, for example, not only survived but was still calling the shots. Since we already suspected prior to "Phase One" that he knew something close to the truth about Jack and Sydney's loyalties, the tantalizing question kept arising: why, then, did he allow them to continue to work for SD-6? Was Sloan perhaps in some way not just a villain, but a hero too? This ambiguity continued and was further developed and exploited after the re-invention. But without the almost insanely complex infrastructure of SD-6 to support it, Sloan became just another inscrutable, enigmatic character -- almost a dime a dozen in spy stories.

Other characters were similarly deprived of their best conflicts. Dixon, Sydney's partner, was a good man who thought he was patriotically working for the CIA in his work for SD-6. He was in fact no conscious double-agent, but a decent person unwittingly doing bad work. Sydney knew this, and had to constantly struggle with it. Dixon, for his part, started to suspect Sydney was not loyal to SD-6 (which, in Dixon's mind, meant Sydney could be a traitor to the U.S.A.), and was beginning to agonize about whether to bring this to Sloan's attention.

Indeed, this counterpoint came to the boil and played a central role in "Phase One": "You had your suspicions about me!" Sydney says to Dixon, in one of the best moments of the episode and the entire series. "You were right! I know this is insane but you have to trust me now! ... You have been working for the enemy you thought you were fighting." Thus Sydney convinced Dixon -- just barely -- to help her bring in the real CIA to bring down SD-6. But once SD-6 was gone, what was left for Dixon? In place of a good man in an almost impossible situation, he became an embittered man, who rightly felt he had been made a fool of for years. He was given other reasons in the series to loathe Sloan. But the upshot was we had a Hamlet of a character replaced by a conventional, by-the-book hater.

Marshall McLuhan not only coined the term "global village" but noted that "the medium is the message". We might say that in fiction of this sort, the complex structure of the plot is the message. When that underlying structure was removed without warning from Alias, that was the most complex -- and brilliantly satisfying -- move of all. But without that undergirding, the characters of Alias struggled to maintain their balance and even their reasons for being. With that fundamental rule of television -- you can burn Southfork, but it has to be repaired or rebuilt -- so courageously busted, the complex heroes and villains of Alias were left without a logical home.

Other Plusses and Minuses in the Aftermath

Other factors helped and hurt Alias in the aftermath of its reinvention on Superbowl 2003 night. One factor in particular both dramatically helped and hurt Alias, and in the end shows the damage that another kind of transformation can wreak on a show -- the unintentional loss of a character because the actress who plays her is no longer available.

Laura Bristow/Irina Derevko -- Sydney's mother and Jacks wife -- first appeared, in shadowy profile, at the end of the final episode of Season One. Throughout most of the first season, everyone -- including Sydney and presumably Jack-- thinks Derevko is dead. But Sydney and Jack were beginning to suspect otherwise, and at the end of the last episode of that season we meet Derevko: her people have captured Sydney, and she has shot her daughter (not fatally) in an attempt to get her to talk.

In the first episode of the second season, Derevko turns herself in to the CIA -- to be close to their planning, to be close to her daughter, who knows? Lena Olin gave an incandescent, sterling performance as Derevko in that episode, and indeed in every episode in which she appeared that season.

She is beautiful, powerful, poised. Sparks fly every time she and Victor Garber are in the same room. Scenes between her and Jennifer Garner are superb. A two-part episode -- "The Passage" -- takes the happy family on a trip to India to prevent a war between that country and Pakistan over nuclear weapons. "The Passage" is generally regarded as one of the high points of the series, and I completely agree. The acting between Olin and Garber has seldom if ever been equalled on television.

Irina Derevko easily survived "Phase One" -- she was not in that episode at all. In the stories that followed that evening of transformation, Derevko's complex character and Olin's exquisite acting buoyed the show. Viewers had every reason to expect the same for the third season, whatever the twists and turns in the new, watered-down plot.

But this was not to be. For whatever reason, Lena Olin was not willing to play Irina Derevko in the third season of Alias. At first, Jack was obliged to resort to instant messaging to keep Irina in the story. This worked best, once. Alias had few options. The Dallas solution of getting another actress to play the part had not worked well even in Dallas back in the 1980s. It would have been flatly ludicrous for Alias. A contrivance such as plastic surgery to change Irina's face would not have done it -- a significant part of Lena Olin's power and presence is her voice. Alias eventually decided to bring Irina's sister Katya into the story, played by Isabella Rossellini. She is a fine actress, with more cinematic successes to her credit than Lena Olin. But she is not as scintillating at her present age as Olin is at hers. The volatile chemistry between Olin and Garber that literally lit up the second season was missing.

The moral of this part of the story of Alias is that not all transformations are equal. The loss of an electrifying character is very difficult to sustain. Perhaps if Alias had killed Lena off in a satisfying way her absence would have been easier to take in the third season. But, even so, the shift from Irina to Katya -- from Lena to Isabella -- was a jump cut that left the viewer unsettled and dissatisfied. Her return in later seasons was not enough to reverse this.

The Perils of Reinvention

Genius is hard to maintain. Plots that flourish by reinventing themselves may be even more difficult. Live by the sword, die by the sword: once the cat of reinvention is out of the bag, viewers can come to expect it, and it can thus become boring. The weekly television series V tried a radical approach in the 1980s, after two successful mini-series which introduced the show and its characters. How about killing off a central, seemingly crucial character every few weeks? It seemed like a good idea at first. But pretty soon the series killed off not only many of its original characters, but itself.

Alias, alas, did just that. The fatigue it exhibited in its third season was due not to too many unexpected plot changes, but probably too few. Rather than building on the golden opportunity of Sydney's two-year amnesia that set the third season in motion, Alias essentially went in circles. With the exception of Sydney's sister, the third season ended up pretty much on the same terrain, with the same set of characters and conflicts, that we saw at the end of the second season.

The fourth and so far the fifth season of Alias have been pretty much the same. And now, like everyone else, I'm waiting for the finale J. J. Abrams has promised, which will start with a 2-hour special April 19, and continue in weekly installments through May. I'm betting we'll be in for at least a couple of great surprises.

But whatever happens, nothing can ever erase the magic of those first 22 plus 12 episodes, and the brazen verve, nerve, of what happened in Episode 13 of Season Two. Win, lose, or draw in the finale, that Episode 13 and everything that led up to it will remain one of the highest points of serialized fiction. It made Alias the greatest show in the history of television at that moment. Perhaps its subsequent failure was the price the series had to pay for that accomplishment.

And what will we watch now that Alias will soon no longer be with us, for good? I'm sure Lance Strate would say Lost -- as well as 24, Battlestar Galactica, and The Wire. And The Sopranos are back, too, at least for this year and next...

Helpful links:

Alias - The Complete First Season

Alias - The Complete Second Season

Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium - by Paul Levinson