Touchstone/Buena Vista .
R4 . COLOR . 905 mins .
M15+ . PAL
Sydney Bristow, expert at blending undetectably into the background. Usually.
What exactly was it about 2001, we wonder, that saw US television networks suddenly so intensely interested in high-tech espionage thriller serials? Sure, they’ve flirted with the genre before, but the two big new series’ of 2001 both claimed to be doing something new and different, to be pushing the boundaries of what was expected from free-to-air television. And, in a way, they were - 24 with its series-long real-time concept, and Alias with its heady mix of James Bond-style spy action, glamour and personal drama, a unique meeting of the sensational and the purely emotional that worked perfectly despite the odds being stacked against it. An espionage series from the creator of Felicity? It might have seemed like a ludicrous idea, but J.J. Abrams’s managed to graft action and suspense onto the basic Felicity framework and actually get away with credibility intact. In fact, it’s the extensive character background and detail throughout season 1 of Alias that sets it apart from other TV attempts at the genre - a good deal of time is spent on making the characters three-dimensional and relevant to the audience, a tactic that pays off handsomely in later episodes.
The basic idea behind Alias is straightforward enough, albeit a little high-concept; you’ll need to suspend disbelief on a regular basis during these 22 episodes! (If you haven’t yet seen any of the first season, by the way, don’t be concerned about spoilers in this review; only the basic premise behind the show from the pilot episode is outlined here, as it is at the start of every subsequent episode - though if you want to avoid that as well, skip to the next paragraph and you’ll be safe!) Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) is a diligent university student whose life seems deliciously happy. She’s good at her study, she has a demanding job at an international bank helping her pay her way through college, and has just gotten engaged to boyfriend Danny Hecht. Only one small problem: her job at Credit Dauphine is actually just a cover for what she really does for a living. Sydney is a secret agent for what she believes is a branch of the CIA. With marriage on the horizon, she decides to be honest with her fiancée and tells him what she really gets up to when she heads off to the bank. Bad move; within hours, Danny is murdered, and Sydney begins to realise that she’s not employed by the CIA at all, but instead for a covert organisation working in opposition to the American government, called SD6 and run by the slimily ruthless Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin). Disgusted with their execution of Danny, Sydney vows to bring down the entire SD6 organisation, becoming a double agent for the (real) CIA - and she’s not the only one, as she discovers soon enough. Her estranged father Jack Bristow (Victor Garber, who played Jesus in the movie Godspell 30 years ago!) is also secretly working for both agencies.
Complicating things for Sydney even further, her personal life and her secret identity often come uncomfortably close to each other. Not helping matters is the fact that her best friend Will Tippin (Bradley Cooper) is an over-enthusiastic newspaper reporter, or the reality that to maintain her cover Sydney has to constantly lie to her friends, including flatmate Francie (Merrin Dungey). There’s also the sexual tension between her and her CIA “handler” Michael Vaughn to deal with.
A rarely-scene shot from the unreleased "Where's Sydney?" book.
Spectacularly realised throughout, Alias adopts movie-scale production values (often doing so on an intensely limited budget) to great effect, and while it’s almost entirely shot in Los Angeles, there’s never any real sense of trickery as the audience visits one exotic location after another as Sydney goes about her assignments. With just the right balance of action, drama and humour and a determined effort to never slow down, the larger story arc unravels with an often thrilling intensity; surprises abound, and over the 22 first-season episodes there is quite literally never a dull moment. Garner really clicks with the role of Sydney - more and more so as the season progresses - and she’s the perfect anchor for a show that’s almost old-fashioned in terms of its idealism and politics, but decidedly modern in execution. And with all 22 episodes at your disposal in this box set - each one equipped with a bona fide cliffhanger - the “more” factor is immensely high. The undeniable highlight is the mid-season pair of episodes guest-starring none other than Quentin Tarantino. Playing out like an extended season finale, this two-part sub-story would make a cracker of a movie viewed on its own; as part of the ongoing Alias story, it’s riveting.
Those who saw this first season on Australian TV, by the way, will be pleased to learn that the pilot episode, screened in a heavily edited version here, is included in its full 63-minute form in this DVD set (in the US, it was screened without commercials).
Buena Vista’s authoring team have excelled themselves with this set, offering the entire season in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1, with 16:9 enhancement to sweeten things even more. While 24 took some time to get picture quality right in its first season, right from the pilot episode Alias looks absolutely stunning. Rich detail, perfect black levels and saturated colours abound; this show was produced in high definition, and it shows in every scene.
Video compression is extremely well handled across these DVDs, with not a problem in sight even when four episodes are crammed onto the one dual-layered disc, as is the case on most of the six discs in the set.
While audio is provided as Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, don’t expect to be hearing anything to rival the latest Hollywood blockbuster here; in common with other TV shows that have used 5.1 audio (such as 24) there’s very little in the way of aural fireworks throughout. That’s not to say that there’s any lack of quality here - quite the opposite, in fact. Clear and well defined throughout, this is extremely well mixed sound for a television drama, with plenty of sonic surprises and superb frequency response. The surround channels, though, are used only sparingly for discrete effects and more often for subtle atmospherics, while the LFE track remains virtually silent for the bulk of the series.
A small but solid package of extras is provided with this set - nothing spectacular, sure, but what’s included is sure to please fans of the show.
Audio Commentaries: Four episodes from this season score the audio commentary treatment, with different participants on each one. The results range from slow-but-interesting (J.J. Abrams and Jennifer Garner on the pilot episode) through to chaotic and amusing (the entire cast on the season finale). Those who haven’t seen the second season should be forewarned that there are some occasional major spoilers for that season to be found in these commentaries - beware!
Alias Pilot Production Diary: Not a patch on the production diary found on the Magnolia DVD, but interesting nonetheless (and perhaps a bit too short). This is a concise 19-minute look at the production of the first episode of the series, which was made some time before the rest of the season with a much more generous shooting schedule. Lots of location footage and quite a few interesting insights can be found here.
Inside Stunts: An all-too-short peek at the way the show’s many stunt sequences were put together, with a heavy emphasis on the fight choreography.
Deleted Scenes: Half a dozen deleted scenes running for a total of about ten minutes, pleasingly presented in 16:9 widescreen with very decent picture quality. Audio is mostly mono, direct from the on-set recording. Content-wise these are largely inconsequential scenes, but it’s nice to have them here regardless.
Gag Reel: We love these - just under three minutes’ worth of fluffed lines, on-set fits of giggling and other assorted pratfalls. Well worth it just to see some of the show’s more deadpan-serious characters struggling to keep a straight face long enough to get through a take.
TV Spots: A set of five US television promos for various episodes in the season.
Alias Video Game Preview: Just a gratuitous ad for the Alias video game.
Season 2 Speak Preview: Essentially a trailer for the second-season DVD set, fortunately light on the spoilers.
Booklet: A nicely-done “dossier” which acts as a kind of ready reference to the season - and, as such, it contains spoilers. We’d recommend you leave this in the box until after you’ve watched the season.
One of the most addictive and entertaining US television series’ in many years, Alias is enormous fun from start to finish. It might have been an ambitious concept to get onto TV screens, but J.J. Abrams, his crew and the actors have pulled it off wonderfully, with only a slight mid-season flat-spot giving away the fact that they were essentially making all of this up as they went along!
Buena Vista’s DVD set gets almost everything right - superb picture, great sound, perfect packaging (the six discs are neatly provided in three double Amaray cases inside a glossy cardboard box), a half-decent set of extras... and a sensible price tag. In fact, aside from one niggling complaint (namely that the viewer can’t always skip the lengthy setup clip and previous-episode synopsis at the start of each instalment) this is a textbook example of how to present a TV series as a DVD set.