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Review: Alias
blaisepascal
I've watched the first 7 episodes of Alias. I believe I'm going to take it off my Netflix queue.

The basic premise of the show is that Syndey Barstow was recruited by an international intelligence/espionage organization under the pretext that they were a covert branch of the CIA called "SD-6". Before the beginning of the series, she had been working for 6 years as an operative with the cover of being an account rep for an international bank (thus explaining the frequent foreign trips, her language training, etc). Her actual missions were short-term, a la James Bond and that ilk of agent. Soon after becoming engaged, she broke cover and told her fiancé she was a spy for the CIA. When SD-6 discovered this, they killed him. In fairness to SD-6, they did tell Syndey that would happen if her involvement with SD-6 leaked. She's enraged, discovers that SD-6 isn't really part of the CIA, and goes to the CIA to become a double agent to bring down SD-6. So far, the CIA has basically told her "Keep doing ops for SD-6, let us piggy-back onto it so we know what SD-6 is learning, and feed us info on SD-6". Oh yeah, her father also works for SD-6, was the one who let her know SD-6 wasn't CIA, and is also a CIA double agent, and she doesn't like or trust her father.

I'll forgive the existence of three rival large, well-funded, private, international non-governmental spy organizations, none of which has a clear explanation as to how they were formed, are funded, etc. Shadowy organizations like this are common fodder in this genre, although usually it is established that the shadowy organization really is working for the government, even if it is uber-covert. Nikita (at least in the movie) worked for the government, as did Bourne, for instance. But the Alliance of Twelve (which SD-6 is part of), FTL, and the K Directorate have no governmental affiliation, they just are.

I'll forgive the high-action, short-term ops they send Sydney on, despite her poor disguises, sloppy spycraft, and repeated run-ins with agents from the FTL and K Directorate whom she recognizes from previous ops. I'm not sure I've seen a single op where Sydney and handlers have been able to get in and out clean without setting off alarms, fighting guards, or getting captured and having to escape. And Sydney is supposed to be one of SD-6's top operatives! But without the ops, a lot of the action on the show would be gone. So it, too, is typical of the genre.

But what I find hard to forgive is Sydney's attitude towards death. So far, in the seven episodes I've seen, she has lost her fiancé, an SD-6 agent in Morocco she's working with, 4 CIA agents, and her new SD-6 partner on an op. I do not believe we have seen her kill anyone, despite working for an organization perfectly willing to use lethal force, often having lethal force used against her, and working against rival organizations which have no qualms with killing. Each time she is faced with the death of someone around her, she freezes and is overcome with grief and anger.

She believed, for 6 years, she was a field operative for a covert black-ops section of the CIA. She believed her operations were vital for national security. She is treated as one of the top operatives for her particular branch. She is told that if she broke cover, people would die. She routinely goes on dangerous ops where people try to kill her if she is caught. In the 7 episodes I've watched, she has been captured and tortured at least twice by people who have made no bones about killing her after they've extracted what they want from her. Are we expected to accept that she is not mentally capable of killing in self-defense and breaks down during an op if friendlies are killed? Are we expected to accept that after freezing in an op when someone is killed, SD-6 would immediately send her out on other ops instead of grounding her as unreliable? Is it reasonable for a super-spy to shoot the strap of the bag containing the McGuffin rather than the enemy super-spy escaping with the bag?

For me, that stretches my suspension of disbelief too far. It's central to her motivation and character, yet it breaks genre convention without any explanation. I can accept that she's not an assassin, and isn't sent on missions where the object is to kill the target. But I can't accept that she can't deal with or in death at all.

Wikipedia's synopsis of Syndey indicate that this changes in season 2, and she becomes a more "stereotypical" spy. It also indicates that by the end of season 2 everything in the synopsis above is history and not really relevant anymore. In a way, that sounds like the writers used season 2 to "reboot" the series and ditched most of the original premise. Perhaps the "new" Alias is better, but I'm don't see a need to watch that far to find out.

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As the show goes on, it turns to weirdness more and more frequently, and goes from a straight-up spy series to mysterious conspiracies revolving the Renaissance inventor who I believe should have been mentioned at least once by now.

Recovering artifacts, inventions, or notes relating to the highly anachronistic Renaissance inventor has been a part of at least 3 of the 7 episodes I've seen.

Looking over the episode synopses it appears I missed one of the episodes on the DVDs, and should actually watch it. In that case, Rambaldi has been a plot point/McGuffin in at least 3 of the 6 episodes I've seen.

Ah. Well, he's going to be the major arc through the series, and he's not going to get any more plausible.

He was not on my list of problems with the show. SD-6 reacts appropriately to his presence -- they find it hard to believe, they don't understand it, but it's important that they get it while keeping FTL and K-Directorate away from it. If you allow for his existence, they aren't breaking narrative rules. I feel the treatment of Sydney is breaking narrative rules.

I find that in the entire show's run, I didn't care much for the first and last season. The middle seasons were more interesting. The Rambaldi arc does pop up throughout, but it fades into the background for a while. The interactions and how many masks/faces they wear and change was interesting.

And no, the plausibility was still relatively weak, but that's what the suspension of disbelief is about. Much like watching Mission: Impossible. A cool show, but how much of it could you really believe? I don't think it was ever their intention to make it as real to what spies do in our post cold-war era.

My newest shows have been Flashpoint and Lie To Me. You can do what I do and read all the episodes in advance, and then watch them afterwards to see how it plays out.

I forgot to mention that I remember something about it was originally pitched as "Consider if Felicity had a double life as a secret agent." That evolved into this Alias thing.

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