Alias: season three

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“…In Which Sydney Experiences The Mother of all Hangovers.”

Where is Sydney, and what have you done with her? We might have been forgiven for uttering this cry at the end of season three, which exited not with a bang, but a whimper. “We need to talk.” That’s pretty much what Jack said to Sydney after she discovered, apparently, that her entire life had been a CIA operation. This was hardly a surprise, if you remembered Project Christmas from earlier on, Jack’s plan which tested first-graders – including his own daughter – for spyworthy attributes. The news that the show wouldn’t restart until January 2005 thus provoked little more than mild disappointment.

The deficiencies this time were particularly obvious when viewed alongside the first on DVD. The twists and turns back then were far superior; in series 3, the main ‘surprise’ was Vaughn’s wife being a Covenant agent. Again, this was no shock once we realised nothing would be allowed to get permanently in the way of the Vaughn-Sidney relationship. That this over-extended soap-opera plot thread was allowed to be the focus of the third series (along with everyone bar Sidney appearing to know where her missing two years went) is evidence of shortcomings in the writing department.

Can I also make a plea for Rambaldi to be retired honourably? He’s been rolling along for three seasons now, and any surprise value long since evaporated. We have become jaded by stories involving Rambaldi’s shopping list or whatever, which absolutely must be located by the good guys before SD-6/K Directorate/The Covenant get their hands on it. This is beginning to feel like The X Files, where Chris Carter never did provide “the truth” which was supposedly out there.

alias3Moving away from the storylines, also apparent is a big drop in the quality – and quantity – of the action. The battle between Sydney and Lauren in the final episode was a blur of two-frame shots, edited together so as to leave the viewer with little clue about what was going on. That’s not the tingle of excitement, it’s the beginning of a migraine headache. Again, one can compare and contrast the first series; it may or may not have been Jennifer Garner doing the stunts, but you could at least see them.

Okay. Let’s take our foot off the show’s throat for a minute, and talk about what it did well. The central characters remain the show’s strength, and the relegation of Will to a minor role was a definite plus – he had become an irrelevant distraction and a spare wheel. All the major players, however, showed they could still surprise us; can anyone deny a shudder when Jack Bristow gave Vaughn a set of keys, and told him where he could dispose of Lauren’s body?

If you’ve read these reviews previously, you’ll know we adore Marshall, and once again, he managed to steal just about every episode he was in. Fatherhood doesn’t seem to have changed him much; it’s just a shame we missed the past two years of his life too, which would likely have been most amusing [Marshall fans will get a kick out of the Alias video game, in which he has some classic lines.]

There were also some interesting guest stars this season, led by Isabella Rossellini as Sydney’s aunt (on her mother’s side, natch – though between that and the sudden appearance of a sister, she has an entire new family to deal with). Quentin Tarantino also came back, and another cult director appeared, in the shape of David Cronenberg, whose understated approach was a marked and refreshing contrast to QT.

The ratings for the show remained mediocre: even the finale was seen by only 7.7 million viewers, down from an average 9.7 and 8.9 through seasons one and two. A change in the way Nielsen measure ratings means it’s difficult to make comparisons, but this suggests a vague disenchantment among more fickle, casual viewers, without a huge loss of the core fanbase [and certainly, we remain some way from a Buffy-esque turn-off for the series] The ABC network also underwent a shake-up, with the president and chairman of its entertainment division departing. With them will hopefully go the cringeworthy product placement, in particular for the Ford F150. As if it weren’t bad enough to have to sit through the adverts.

Still, a fourth season has been commissioned, although as mentioned, it’s not starting until January – the fall sees Desperate Housewives instead, which isn’t the reality show it sounds like. Mind you, perhaps it would be best for the network if it were, given ABC’s dreadful track-record with drama. See the awful Karen Sisco and the entirely pointless Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital – and we loved Lars Von Trier’s original – for details. Roll on January, and let’s hope for a return to the form and content which made the first two seasons of Alias such a refreshing, energetic delight.

Star: Jennifer Garner, Victor Garber, Michael Vartan, Ron Rifkin

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