Sunday, October 16, 2005

Alias - 5x03 "The Shed"

Or, Long-awaited (i.e. third time around -- but this time I use science!) Alias entry on why the series is all but defunct, most of which will apply to Lost, too

Once upon a time, Alias was my favorite TV show. The look of the show was, for obvious reasons, appealing: Sydney wasn't just a hottie exerting herself physically, but she had a closetful of different get-ups that would have made Liberace envious, and in the end, she would always be in a spot of trouble that made us tune in next week where we knew she would extricate herself. This basis for the show was formulaic, true, but more importantly, it was all executed with cheeky aplomb, the undercurrent of which was a sense that the writers kept coming up with outrageous ideas -- "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if Syd was part of an elaborate prophecy that originated in the Quattrocento?" or, "It's always cool when the group is taken captive and one or two people have to sneak in to liberate everyone," or, "Brightly colored wigs are hot!" -- that gave the series a bubbling energy. Sure, they come from genre stories and pot-boilers, but the sheer exuberance and number of these ideas meant that the viewer couldn't guess what the writers would pull out of their hats next (not in "What's going to happen next to the characters" sense, but in a "What kind of a story are they going to do" sense). Ideas piled atop ideas -- that's what made Alias so exciting. Furthermore, the writing reflected the quality of the ideas. Throwaway lines that were hilarious embellished the ideas, and hey presto, TV junkies had the funnest show on the telly.

Alias, even in its Golden Era (which I'll arbitrarily define as the second half of season 1), suffered from obvious shortcomings. The characters were at best two-dimensional, the acting at times one-dimensional (this is the moment in the post where I slag on Vartan), the dramatic dialogue sometimes wanting. But in the midst of fun, it didn't matter. What we were watching was a live-action cartoon, a cartoon that had the nerve to ignore more staid conventions in an action-drama so that it could serve pure adrenal thrills. (Also, there was the appeal of its melodrama, but that was just for the girls, who don't matter in this entry.)(I'm kidding there, of course -- I'm sure that soap operatic elements in Alias also created fun, but since I'm less familiar with melodrama than with cartoons (such a boy -- I ought to grow up!), I can't talk as much about it.) So yeah: cartoon, good!

Things started crumbling almost immediately, even if the series remained entertaining in the meantime. Clearly, the breakneck pace of ideas (which are of course finite), as well as the serialized nature of the show where almost every episode engaged in the show's mythology, aged Alias faster than other similar serialized shows. Another factor that dragged Alias down was the mounting acclaim from critics, a lot of which revolved around "It's guilty fun, but it also has a hint of intelligence" formulations. Having heard and then believed in the latter part of that formulation, JJ Abrams moved the series away from its cartoonishness and "onwards" to literary respectability. Respectability in this case involved greater attention to character development and situations that reverberated on a larger scale (e.g. the end of the world) and characters who fleshed out their relationships. In short, Alias tried to get serious.

Admitted, even my so-called Golden Era had its share of the very problems that I just cited, but the difference between then and now lies with the focus of the series.
Then: FUN.
Season four, largely plagued by a lack of humor, did feature a few episodes that managed to resuscitate fun, though the most light-hearted of which -- 4x13 "Tuesday" -- was marked by a menace that went along with the humor: "Tuesday" was the episode where Marshall sporked out an eyeball. Sporks are inherently funny, no doubt -- but it's indicative of the rest of the season that it was used in such a macabre fashion.

And here comes more opinion stated as fact: Abrams is far better at genre-writing than he is at Serious Writing. The melodrama stayed but the fun left, and the melodrama was never compelling enough in the first place to be a primary focus. The melodrama, after all, consisted of endless iterations of Syd saying, "[Male character], how could you?" In other words, the characters usually occupy one of two positions with respect to Sydney (this point is something else that I've mentioned several times before, but bears repeating here). They are either on her good or bad side, and their moral complexity reflects how binaristic the bases of these characters are. Sloane is wholly motivated by his own desires, except when magnanimity overwhelms his intentions. Jack is not to be trusted, except when it turns out he has Syd's best interests in mind. Doubt almost always swings our perceptions of a character clean from one pole to another, instead of complicating the characters in shades of grey. With such simplistic foundations for the characters, it's little wonder that the attempts to make Alias more serious have failed.

And as for the actual episode -- it was perfectly decent. (And bravo/brava for getting this far in such a monstrously long post.) It still suffered from the now-typical humorlessness and the blatant yet weak character-building, but there was enough stupid action to keep it from devolving into gushy and flat relationship-fests. I actually had keen hopes for "The Shed" based on the opening teaser, with the cute terrorist doing the badass on the scientists. This scene was concerned only with looking cool, which it managed to do gloriously. Of course, the rest of the episode devolved into a puddle of implausibly stupid situations:

1. When Balthazar was chasing Rachel in the car, he yells out, "She made us!" I'd imagine so; he only peeled out while making an illegal U-turn and nearly ran head-on into a motorcyclist.
2. Rachel doesn't yell "BOMB!" and save the lives of a few Shed drones.
3. The fourth (fifth?) new iteration of SD-6, whereby JJ has all but admitted that killing the original SD-6 in the middle of season 2 might've been a bad idea.

Some good, a whole lot of bad. Which is still a lot better than the first two episodes.

Indie rating: Can - "Mary, Mary So Contrary"

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