Sunday, August 12, 2012

Alias - "Phase One"

Season Two, Episode 13
Original Airdate: January 26, 2003
Writer: J.J. Abrams
Director: Jack Bender
Executive Producer: J.J. Abrams, Ken Olin
Cast: Jennifer Garner, Michael Vartan, Victor Garber, Carl Lumbly

When television shows reinvent themselves, it is usually because producers or the network think that the storytelling has gone off course or stagnated…or because a popular actor is leaving his or her role. You rarely see it done on a “healthy” show. Sure, shows like “24” claim to hit the reset button every season, but then a mole always shows up in CTU and Jack ends up in handcuffs again. Off the top of my head I can think of the “Two Fathers/One Son” episodes of “The X-Files” that brought to a head six years of complex mythology, Roseanne’s family winning the lottery and the complete creative makeover of “The Practice” in its final season before it transformed into “Boston Legal.” And then there is “Phase One,” which feels for most of its running time like a series finale before upending our expectations and setting the stage for a completely revamped version of “Alias.” The show would pull a similar change-up at the end of this season and several other times during its five-season run, but “Phase One” remains the best of the bunch and one of the most engaging episodes of adventure television ever produced.

Up until this point, the series focused on secret agent Sidney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), who believed she was working for the CIA until they killed her fiancĂ©. She then realized she was working for a terrorist cell called SD-6 and became a double agent, working with the real CIA to take down SD-6 with her father Jack (Victor Garber), who was also a double agent. Also, Sidney’s mom had shown up and there was all this stuff about a dude named Rambaldi and a floating red ball filled with water and Francie (Merrin Dungey) had just opened a restaurant. Phew.

When you consider the circumstances surrounding the production of this episode, it’s a miracle it’s even comprehensible—let alone awesome. You see, “Alias” was chosen to be the show that immediately followed the Super Bowl. This was an opportunity for showrunner J.J. Abrams (who also wrote the episode) to attract a lot of new eyeballs, but getting those viewers up to speed on the complex mythology (see above) and who is who was not exactly an easy task. Instead of just making the episode a jumping-on point, which was the logical thing to do, Abrams instead decided to get viewers up to speed on the mythology…and then blow it up by the end. All in a 42 minute running time.

Shockingly, Abrams pulled it off with a lot of style and still manages to insert several beautiful character moments that had become a hallmark of the series. Turns out the guy is pretty good at this kind of thing—think of his reboot/sequel “Star Trek,” (which was co-written by “Alias” writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci), which boiled down decades of “Star Trek” mythology to its essentials while still telling a coherent, enjoyable story that could attract new viewers.

The black one.
Apparently eager to ensure male viewers would stick around, the episode opens with Sidney on a private plane strutting her stuff in black underwear…then re-strutting it in red underwear. The camera lingers on her assets in an almost exploitative manner (while AC/DC plays in the background, no less!), but Abrams and his director Jack Bender almost immediately upend this male-fantasy by having Sidney kicking the ass of the guy oogling her (“What was wrong with the black one!?” she hisses as she strangles him, before continuing, “You think it’s comfortable wearing clothes like this?”). There’s a fight scene that leaves Sidney in mortal jeopardy and then we flash back one day earlier.

The red one.
Even though series supervillain Arvin Sloan (Ron Rifkin) is mostly M.I.A. here, Abrams introduces a new, wonderful baddie named Geiger, played by Rutger Hauer, who has been inserted as acting director of Sidney’s branch of SD-6. As if having The Hitcher in the episode wasn’t enough, there’s also a cameo by The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) as a computer expert. “Alias” was a show unafraid to showcase its geek roots, and also had small roles for such greats as Quentin Tarantino and David Chronenberg.

Admittedly, the plot centers on a deus ex machina. All of the information needed to take down SD-6 just happens to be aboard the plane we see Sidney fighting in during the opening sequence. But Abrams does a fantastic job of dressing up the deus ex machina so well you barely even notice. First there is the aforementioned playing with time, then the ticking-time-bomb aspect to the information that can only be solved by Sidney admitting everything to her best friend in SD-6, Dixon (Carl Lumbly), because he has to send a confirmation code to the CIA in order for them to take down the enemy. Got all that?

The scene where Sidney tells Dixon that his entire life is a lie hits you like a punch to the gut, and rightfully so. In the pilot, we weren’t as emotionally invested in Sidney’s realization because we barely knew her as a character, but here the weight of the revelation is given time to sink in. Abrams even allows time for Dixon, convinced he may die that day, to call his wife to tell her he loves her. The emotional stakes are much higher than just Dixon’s arc, though: Jack is discovered to be a double agent, kidnapped and tortured at length by Hauer’s character to see who he is working for. There’s another beautifully written small scene where, in the midst of the torture, Jack tells Geiger that they actually had dinner together one night, and they laugh as they share memories of the moment. It’s completely throwaway but humanizes Geiger (who until this point has come off as oily as Lex Luthor) and makes us root for Jack all the more.

And then there’s the action. The episode’s centerpiece is indeed the plane sequence, and when it’s revisited halfway through, the tension escalates until Sidney is forced to blow out the side of the plane, cause it to crash and manages to jump out of it with a parachute at the last moment. The set-piece looks and feels very expensive (the CGI work is feature-worthy), and seems like a sly tip-of-the-hat to the climax of “Goldfinger.”

Oh, and Sidney also makes out with Vaughan (Michael Vartan).

Oh, and Francie is killed and replaced with an evil identical version.

That’s one hell of a lot for one episode, and most of what Abrams does is directly against everything television writers are taught. You are never supposed to change the premise of the show so much that it becomes unrecognizable. You are never supposed to get your will-they-won’t-they couple together before the series finale. And this especially should not happen only halfway through the season. But if all this is so wrong, then why does it feel so right?

“Phase One” is available on the second season DVD of “Alias” and on Youtube. Sorry, no Hulu or iTunes this time.


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  2. Sydney Bristow is a young, athletic, college graduate who was recruited her freshman year as a secret agent for SD-6, a top-secret branch of the CIA. After a few years -- after Sydney confides her lifestyle to her boyfriend, the evil head of SD-6 -- Arvin Sloan, has him killed. Sydney learns that SD-6 is part of a rogue international agency called the Alliance of 12, out to rule the world. She becomes a double agent, working with the real CIA to bring down SD-6 with the assistance of her handler, Michael Vaughn, and her estranged father Jack Bristow -- also a double agent. Along the way, Sydney fights various rival agents, rival terrorist groups, and traitors all the while keeping her cloak-and-dagger lifestyle a secret from her friends....