Underrated Series: Alias

David B Morris
17 min readMay 15, 2024

More Than A Stepping Stone for Jennifer Garner and J.J. Abrams, It Was The Kind of Show We Rarely Get, Then Or Now

In the summer of 2004 when I was in the very early stages of my career as a critic I penned an infuriated letter to the executives at ABC when I heard that Alias, then one of my favorite shows, was not going to premier that fall but be held back until the following January.

Paradoxically my letter was a missive that looks horrible in retrospect but was prophetic at the time. I expressed my fury of the executives horrible habits of deciding to put Who Wants to Be A Millionaire first for the last three years (a horrible flaw) and its decision to become the grim reaper when it came to cancelling anything that might be a promising TV series. Among the shows whose loss had cut me the deepest were Gideon’s Crossing, Sports Night and Once & Again, all series that had received multiple award nominations and wins in their runs and all of which ABC had cancelled by 2002. I told them point blank that if they thought whatever they put in Alias’ time slot of Sunday nights at 9 pm would never be capable of filling the void this series had managed to pull with its loyal fanbase for three seasons.

The latter statement, if you remember your TV history, was as ridiculous a prediction as the studio executive who turned down Gone With The Wind because ‘no one would come out to see a Civil War picture.” Indeed in September I was of the more than 25 million viewers who tuned into watch Desperate Housewives (and I stuck with it far longer than I should have) That show, along with such cultural phenomena as Lost and Grey’s Anatomy would reverse ABC’s flagging fortunes and make it the source for both critically acclaimed and popular hits on network TV until the end of the decade.

I didn’t know until years later that, in fact, the heads of ABC had lost confidence in the head of programming Lloyd Braun had lost confidence in him and before the fall season would fire him because they essentially agreed with his stewardship of the network. One of the last shows he helped design Lost was only greenlit after he had been fired, and he never got to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

In hindsight I don’t know why I was so angry: Alias’ Season 4 premiere had only been delayed and in the year’s to come I would have no problem having to wait months and even years between seasons for some of my favorite shows. Part of it may have been due to my relative youth (I was only 25 at the time) but I think much of it was due to how big a fan I was of the show at the time and how upsetting even a brief was.

Alias was one of those series that had an immense cult following at the time and was part of the zeitgeist for awhile but has never been mentioned when it comes to one of the great shows ever made. I’ll acknowledge compared to most of the TV series we were getting in the 2000s when the Golden Age was starting out, it may not be at the same level of Deadwood or The Shield or even 24 and Lost. It was never nominated for Best Drama by the Emmys (admittedly given the level of competition in that era it would have incredibly hard to break through) but it won four and received 36 nominations over five seasons. The lion’s share were technical ones but Jennifer Garner received four consecutive nominations for Best Actress in a Drama and Victor Garber received three consecutive ones for Best Supporting Actor. Neither managed a win but again, in an era where West Wing and The Sopranos were among the most dominant winners in these category and Six Feet Under was getting much of the remaining acting nominations, it’s kind of astonishing that either was able to break through at all.

Jennifer Garner after the 2002 Golden Globes.

It’s worth noting that during this period The Golden Globes was more often better at recognizing great television than the Emmys would be. In 2002, we got a very clear sense of this. Among the six nominated series for Best Drama were Alias, 24, The Sopranos, CSI, Six Feet Under and The West Wing. Kiefer Sutherland took Best Actor and Jennifer Garner took Best Actress. The major winner in the Drama category was Six Feet Under which took Best Drama and Best Supporting Actress for Rachel Griffiths. When you add the fact that Lauren Graham was nominated for Gilmore Girls, Tom Cavanaugh was nominated for Ed, neither of whom were ever nominated for anything by the Emmys, it pretty clear the Globes had a better handle on great TV that year than the Emmys did. (It would take two or three years for the Emmys to catch up with the rest of the world.)

And the series was immensely popular: that year it won the People’s Choice Award for Favorite New TV drama and was among the constant nominees for the Teen Choice Awards. Its fight scenes, hairstyling and makeup were highly celebrated at the time. And compared to other series of the era, such as its spiritual soul mate 24, it holds up much better. Yet if it is remembered today, it is either as a stepping stone for both Garner and its showrunner J.J. Abrams or an ancestor text for series like Lost. Why?

Is it because the series aired on network television rather than cable? Possibly but that didn’t stop people from calling Lost and 24 great television. Is it because the show was centered on a female lead? I can’t rule it out. I think the reasoning may be that it didn’t fit between the two worlds of episodic TV or serialized drama, what television has essentially become, but rather somewhere between the two. But if anything that’s exactly why I loved Alias. Like The X-Files Alias had an underlying mythology under it but it was sensible enough to make it front and center for the series. Indeed there were entire seasons of the show where it basically was ignored for a long period of time and I didn’t feel the show suffered for it. More importantly the mythology of the series was not something abstract the way The X-Files always seem to keep it but rather something that was critical to the lead characters and eventually came down to something far more simple that whatever the morass of alien colonization was.

In a way Alias was even more revolutionary than many of the series that were already airing on TV at the time and was more willing to take risks that network shows had before and even cable wasn’t quite doing. More importantly Abrams and his writers made it clear from the pilot to the final episode that the show was never really about a double agent who could kick ass or some nebulous sixteenth century Italian who’d seemed able to see the future — it was about the kind of relationships we building and the friendship and love we find along the way. Considering how few shows since have ever wanted to embrace the lighter part of our natures, maybe that’s the reason its never been part of the great shows.

So in this article I will do my best to explain what made Alias such a groundbreaking and revolutionary series. The series can be found streaming on Amazon and I do urge the viewer to check it out. I will speak in vague terms for much of the summary but there will be some spoilers along the way.

Alias opened in media res — with a woman wearing an orange wig that looked out of the film Run Lola Run running down an alley being chased by pursuers. This would become a foundation of Alias and something that Abrams did better than almost any other writer: he would start his stories near the end and show you how Sydney got there.

The episode begins with Sydney leaving her job at Credit Dauphine and being proposed to by her boyfriend. She has just completed her ‘internship’ and is not long out of college. Sydney is stunned, but not in a good way. That night she and her boyfriend go into the shower and she tells him that she doesn’t work for the bank but an agency called SD-6 — a secret organization that works with the CIA. Her boyfriend is appalled — and the next day he is dead.

Horrified Sydney goes to Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin) the man who recruited her out of college. He gently tells her that there were signs he was a security risk. Not long after she runs into a young man named Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan).

Vaughn tells her that SD-6 is not the CIA. In fact, it is a rogue agency that is involved in what amounts to black-ops that are bent on global destruction and working with terrorists. Vaughn recruits her to work as a double agent to help bring down SD-6. He will serve as her handler — as well as with another man who is also high up in the SD-6 hierarchy. The opening credits make it clear that this is “a man I hardly know. My father.”

Victor Garber

Victor Garber had been a character actor working mostly in Broadway with TV guest roles to this point. His most famous role to this point had been the architect on Titanic. His work on Alias would change the trajectory of his career. Ever since he appeared on Alias he has been one of the hardest working actors in TV. He was the lead on the fox series Justice and then a regular role on the underrated Eli Stone. He had a recurring role on the final season of Damages and was a regular on Lisa Kudrow’s Showtime series Web Therapy. Then he ended up getting a small role on The Flash and ended up spending the first two and a half seasons on Legends of Tomorrow as Martin Stein, half of a genuine superhero. He has worked on both the first and second books of Power and is currently the lead on Family Law.

What is striking about Garber’s work is that while he is frequently cast in the role of paternal figures on TV most of his characters are rarely paternal or even warm. This is particularly true in that of Jack Bristow. He and Sydney have been distant their whole lives and before the pilot, its been clear that Sydney has leaned more on Sloane as a father figure that her actual father. When she learns not only that her father has been working with SD-6 but will now be part of the job to bring it down, it’s the biggest shock yet. “I guess we’ll just have to learn to trust each other,” he tells her awkwardly.

The relationship between Sydney and Jack will be the heart of the show. In the first season the biggest problem is the two of them are trying to work through their baggage and it is becoming very difficult. It doesn’t help that halfway through the first season Vaughn, who has been treating Jack hostilely all this time, tells Sydney that he believes that Jack was working for the Russians and that he was responsible for killing many people — including Vaughn’s father. Sydney confronts him on this and they have a public meeting. In it Jack drops an even bigger bomb: he was suspecting of passing on information to the Russians but he wasn’t — Sydney’s mother, Laura was.

At this point Sydney actually wants to resign from the whole mess — its clear early on how big a project she’s embarked on and she doesn’t think there’s an end. It’s only when SD-6 ends up being infiltrated and held hostage by a group of terrorists (one of whom is played by Quentin Tarantino) that she and her father have to work together to ‘save SD-6’ something that galls her even more. Sydney will find out that these agents are working for someone Tarantino’s character calls ‘The Man’ and that is actually a front for Sydney’s mother, Irina Derevko.

To say that Sydney Bristow has a complicated family tree is the understatement of the year: Irina (played by Lena Olin in a role that earned her an Emmy nomination) is just the first of two Derevko sisters, each played by a brilliant actress of a certain age: Isabella Rosellini and Sonia Braga. (I will leave the roles they play in the series for you to discover because it take a lot of work.) At one point Sydney will be on a mission with Jack and Irina and find herself appalled to realized that this is the kind of family bonding experience she’s wanted her whole life.

There were many things that made Alias different from other dramas and that was that it was fun. You tuned in week-after-week to see Sydney wearing a wide variety of wigs and makeup and walking through foreign countries wearing fabulous dresses that disguised the kind of gadgets that Q wishes he could have come up with. Sydney was fluent in almost every possible language and capable of playing someone ditzy in all of them, and the moment you underestimated her she would very soundly and proficiently kick that person’s ass. It was rare to see any network show in 2001 with a female lead, much less one who week after week was rescuing people from danger and almost never needing rescuing. Sydney was a spiritual heir of Xena and Buffy Summers when it came to bad-ass behavior but she was also unquestionably an action hero without as much of the moral ambiguity that her male counterpart on network TV Jack Bauer had. (I remember TV Guide once ranked them number 3 and number 2 when it came to action heroes behind Buffy and even twenty years later there have been few substitutes for any of them.) This was the age of Difficult Men and Sydney Bristow was technically a difficult woman, but you never had any of the doubts you did about rooting for then you did Tony Soprano or Walter White.

And it made clear from the start Sydney was not a lone wolf. One of the most beloved characters in the history of television was Marshall Flinkman, played gloriously for five seasons by Kevin Weisman. Marshal was short, geeky and clearly a fanboy not only of Sydney but his own work. He was clearly a predecessor of Chloe O’Brien on 24 (Mary Lynn Raskjub character didn’t debut on the series until the third season) but whereas Chloe was socially awkward but ridiculously proficient at tech support, Marshall was in a real sense a clown. Much of the comic relief came from him introducing his inventions but you knew Sydney loved him as much as everyone else. He was also at times terrified (justifiably) of Sloane and had, like Chloe, the remarkable ability to say the wrong thing in front of the wrong people. There was never a moment you didn’t love him.

Before he was Bradley Cooper hyphenate, he was Will.

The show also leaned very heavily in the first two seasons on Sydney’s roommates and friends. The first was Will Tippin, played by a very young Bradley Cooper. Even at this age you could tell he had the capability to be a leading man and action hero in his own right. AN enterprising journalist he spent much of Season 1 tracking down a story of SD-6 — something that nearly got him killed, multiple times.

Just as important was Francie, played by Merrin Dungey. Francie was Sydney’s roommate and one of the few people who was completely unaware of the double life Sydney led. That made what happened in a very critical episode all the more devastating

After the Super Bowl in 2003, ABC aired an episode called ‘Phase One’. Sloane had disappeared and was no longer running SD-6. A man named Antony Geiger, played by Rutger Hauer had taken over and was trying to find the mole behind what was happening. Jack, already the focus, ended up in the interrogation room and Geiger planned to torture him to death.

Desperate to save her father while SD-6 was in lockdown Sydney broke her cover to her colleague Marcus Dixon (Carl Lumbly) Before he had time to reel both from the revelation Sydney told him to call in the CIA to come in and take SD-6 hostage. The head of the FBI finally agrees to the signal. Just before Jack Bristow is about to be killed, the FBI breaks the door down and starts tearing down the prisoners.

I remember being astonished by every moment of this episode and twenty plus years later, it ranks as one of the great moments in TV history. For all the changes that networks like HBO and FX were doing, most of them were in terms of violence and character death. The Wire had not yet aired its second season, so the idea of a show completely changing its format was unheard of it — and certainly in such in a dramatic way. The idea of a network TV drama doing this was absolutely unthinkable in 2003. But over the years Alias would not only do so multiple times but each time manage to stick the landing with every transition they made. (I’ll get to another of the more famous ones in a moment.) I don’t think I remember a transition this radical in a network show until the Season 3 finale of Lost. These days there are many shows that make these kinds of transitions on a yearly basis but few have a compelling aftermath (Be honest with yourselves, Westworld fans.)

The final images of the episode are among the most famous in TV history: Michael Vaughn running through the wreckage of SD-6 searching for Sydney, the two of them running to each other — and kissing for the first time. (At the time, Vartan and Garner were romantically involved so the chemistry was doubly apparent) This too was a big deal in 2003; if there was a couple with chemistry in the early part of a series you waited until the end for it to acknowledge.

Even more telling is the final shot. Francie Calfo, Sydney roommate, is lying dead with a bullet between her eyes. Standing over her is…Francie, who we will soon learn is a mole placed by Sloane.

You wouldn’t think Season 2 could top that — but the season finale ‘The Telling’ did. After a whirlwind of revelations Sydney learns that the woman she’s been sharing her apartment with is not Francie and the two of them engage in a fight. Sydney shoots the woman she thinks is her best friend twice in the chest and she goes down. Sydney passes out in exhaustion.

The fight was hard enough.

She wakes up in Tokyo and finds herself calling her old contact number. There’s a long pause. Later Vaughn shows up and there’s a shocked look on his face. After she hugs him, she sees that there’s a wedding bad on his hand. “Are you married?” she asks. “Sydney,” he tells her slowly. “You’ve been gone two years.” TV Guide named this one of the top 100 episodes in 2009 and its power never fades.

I have not even begun to hint at so many of the great performers that were part of Alias over the years. Terry O’Quinn had a recurring role for the first two seasons that was the stepping stone for him earning the role of John Locke. Gina Torres had a role as a rival assassin to Sydney who was just as bad ass as her and who every time she slipped from Sydney’s grasp would kiss the wall. Brilliant character actresses such as Melissa George and Amy Acker had one season roles that started them on a long career in television (though in Acker’s case, it was the second in the long line of waif like psychos she seems to have an uncanny gift for playing). And one of the great long running villains of all-time was Julian Sarks, played by the wondrously slimy David Anders. Bringing him in as the cat who always came back was a great move for the series because you knew we could never trust him and that someone was going to have to trust him anyway. Sark’s loyalties were always to himself first and foremost, and in a series where everything else’s loyalties were flexible, that was almost endearing.

I could also talk about the mythology of the series that was the underpinning of the series: involving a mysterious sixteenth century inventor named Milo Rimbaldi who somehow seemed not only to have seen the future but knew that Sydney was at the center of it. That part, however, I will leave for the viewer to find out and discover. It’s worth noting that, compared to so many other series where the mythology was often ridiculously convoluted, down at its core what it was all about was something remarkably simple and understandable. When the series finale aired I got why so many people had spent their lives searching for Rimbaldi artifacts.

But as much fun as it was, the reason I kept watching Alias over the year may be the reason it never gets listed as one of the greatest shows of all time. The show wasn’t about some complicated mythology or covert terrorist organizations — it was about love in all its forms. In some cases it was friendship, such as the kind that Sydney had with Dixon and Marshall all their lives. It was also about the love you have for your spouse and how it can cause you to do horrible things.

Early in the series we meet Sloane’s wife (Amy Irving) Emily. She is suffering from cancer that might very well kill her and Sloane spends much of the first season trying to protect her from the job. He leaves SD-6 to escape from her and live in peace with his wife, who he clear is devoted to. But because of a horrible twist of fate, Emily ends up dead and Sloane is broken in a way we don’t believe possible.

In the fourth season Jack, in a case of a hallucination mistakes Sydney for Laura, not Irina. In order to try and learn secrets, Sydney impersonates her mother in order to extract information from him. She expects it to be difficult but Jack actually tells her without a second thought. He is happier and freer in the past that when we’ve ever seen him in the present and it explains multitudes, not only how deeply Irina’s betrayal cut him but why he has been so distant from Sydney throughout her childhood and until the present. There’s something profoundly moving about that.

And it is the relationship between Sydney and Jack that is what makes Alias sing. Considering that the next series Abrams was connected with Lost dealt with the fact that so many of the character had issues with their parents, it may not be surprising that it’s a theme of Alias. But the former show is more optimistic that these wounds can be healed no matter how much trauma you learn over time.

Alias came to an end in the spring of 2006. Whether it was because of Jennifer Garner’s pregnancy and impending superstardom or because Abrams wanted to wrap up the series may never be known. But either the way the final season played out superbly in a way that few final seasons have since then. There is an acknowledgement of some of the larger conspiracies and some newer characters, but the themes are still the same: Sydney’s relationships with her family, saying goodbye to old friends, and putting so much of her baggage behind her. The final episode ends with the credit: “Thank you for five amazing years” and my response to J.J. was: “No, thank you.”

In an era where every single show is getting rebooted or new seasons, I find it strange that no one has yet suggested a new version of Alias. Garner has been working in TV again and no one can pretend she doesn’t look good for her age. And if you remember the series finale, you know that while a lot of doors were closed, there were still a few that were open-ended.

I’m not the kind of person to normally ask for a reboot or a continuation. Yet I don’t think I’d be alone for objecting to another season of Alias. Even in an era where there are more female led dramas and more series capable of changing the game on a seasonal basis, there are still few series that did it as well as Alias and fewer still with a heroine like Sydney Bristow. I’ve had my fill of dark and angsty dramas. I’d like one that’s just fun again.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.