Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Formula

The guts. The insides. The bare bones. The heart, the core, the life force. I have been spending a considerable amount of time thinking about the raw and rare center of Alias. It seems to be a perfect marriage of drama and action, a unique combination of literary story telling and the advancement of modern technology and television. I said before, and I will say it again, JJ Abrams is a genius. But why? Why exactly are his show and movies so, so, damn good? It’s the formula.

The formula is a point, a specific idea that is driven home each and every scene, each and every episode, which makes the show familiar and understandable. For example- for has crazy and outlandish as the Rambaldi storyline is- all we really need to know is that Sydney is involved, Ramabaldi is bad, and she is going to do everything in her power to stop it. Who cares about the prophecies or the artifacts- it is really about Sydney, her reaction to Ramabaldi, her ideas about him and how that is carried throughout the show. The formula works in the same way for Sydney as a character. Three of Sydney’s main traits are her loyalty, sense of patriotic duty and her ability to still show a vulnerable and na├»ve side. Each episode drives these traits home. Perhaps not directly or as plainly, but we certainly walk away feeling as if Sydney is a good friend, someone we understand and know. That is part two of the formula- the ability to relate.

Sydney works for the CIA. She is defusing bombs and wielding weapons and kicking serious bum- and perhaps none of us can really relate to that. What we can relate to is being a working student, with roommates, a boyfriend, a father, a crazy mother, a daughter. Sydney’s “real life” struggles are familiar, identifiable. And we don’t necessarily become detached from her when she is whisked away on a mission- we live vicariously through her. That is part three. Who wouldn’t want to have the fast action life of a super spy? Who wouldn’t want to defend their country behind the scenes, stopping bad guys and saving lives?

So, we have 1. A point 2. Ability to relate and 3. Vicariousness. Next up, number four, that little marriage I spoke of before- Drama and Action, I now pronounce you husband and wife. What a successful relationship! And no one does it better than JJ Abrams. We meet Sydney with her head under water- her red wig floating, her face frantic and scared. Not five minutes later, she is standing in the lawn at UCLA, her boyfriend on his knee singing “Build Me Up Buttercup.” And it works. We believe it. Why? Because of number five- Suspension of Disbelief. I have talked about this little literary device before. It is our ability to believe that Sydney and the gang can do whatever they want, whenever they want, because in TV land, there are no boundaries. They are the CIA for gosh sake!

I bring all this up because we have been searching for a show with this same formula. We want something that has a strong point- a strong story that is hammered home each week. We want to relate and live vicariously- we want action and drama and we want to let go of all rational thought. Hence why I think Bionic Woman might be exactly what we are looking for.

Now, I have talked enough. It’s your turn! What well plays into the success of a TV program? The actors? The directors? Talk to me people.


Page48 said...

Tough assignment, GS. We all know soon enough whether we like a show or not, but breaking it down is not always easy.

I think a good show must be easy to explain to a friend who has never seen it. "Alias" is easy to explain. You have 2 teams. Team Good is Sydney and her guys, Team Bad is Sloane and his guys, everything else is the game. Who you cheer for is up to you.

If the game is one-sided, it's no fun, so both teams have to have their fair share of success so that we can enjoy cliffhangers and so that we know that missing an episode could have disastrous consequences for our heroes.

I think everyone prefers a good "team" effort on both sides, rather than a clash of individuals. Much of the fun of "Alias" is seeing Marshall, Dixon, Jack, Vaughn, and Weiss backing Sydney up. Syd's in trouble, Marshall steps up. Syd's in trouble again, Dixon to the rescue. Marshall's held captive, Sydney and Dixon volunteer for the rescue mission. Secretly, we all want to be part of that kind of tightly knit community. Sure, we all have our own beer guzzling buddies, but we ache to belong to something more than the Friday night beer and pizza club. Successful TV shows get us hooked on that feeling of belonging that we may never achieve in real life.

In order to care which team wins, we need characters that we absolutely love. That's why they gave us the caring, vulnerable, patriotic, and highly competent Sydney Bristow. You can't not love Sydney, because she's everything we wish our real friends were. The biggest reason we love the rest of the APO team (or variations of) is mainly because they would go to the wall for Sydney and we appreciate that.

I think good writers understand the kinds of things that most of us are yearning for in our real lives, the highest elevations of love, excitement, purpose, and mental stimulation. If they can give us all that and weave a great story in the process, they will keep us tuning into our favourite show year after year and blogging about it long after it's gone.

"Alias" gave us all that, but apparently it was too much for the dreaded "casual" fans to handle.

Can Bionic Woman give us a similar rush? Of course it can, but only time will tell if it will.

srg-alias said...

I remember when I went to see Mission Impossible 3. It starts off exactly like the Alias pilot; the audience is thrown into a suspenseful climax of a scene where we have no idea what the hell is going on, but it captures our attention like none other. I remember thinking to myself "classic JJ" as I was instantly intrigued and pulled into the movie's plot.

That whole strategy comes down to the director, who decides how the story is told, what order it's told in, and each carefully composed camera angle controlling what the audience does and doesn't see. My first boyfriend was a movie buff, and I'm grateful he taught me a little about direction so I can appreciate when it's well done, like by JJ and many of the other outstanding Alias directors. That's a big piece of the formula in my opinion, something not quite as obvious as brilliant actors and scriptwriting.

Girlscout said...

Totally agree SRG! I love love Ken Olin, he did some amazing directing.

Page48 said...

Great directing is a treat to watch but even a Ken Olin can't make a bad story good. "Brothers & Sisters" is Exhibit A for this argument. "Alias" director, "Alias" actors, but nowhere near the same high octane entertainment value.

I would never consider a bathroom break during a well directed episode of "Alias", but a well directed eppie of "B&S" is a bathroom break all by itself.

Employing a great director on the set of a bad show is, to borrow a phrase from Wall Street, like putting lipstick on a pig.

dlove said...


I think it starts with the writing.

I may pass on BW, I'm not too much into kid sisters/bros. Why not give her a older sister/bro or drop the relative(s) altogether?

Page48 said...

The sister is no doubt on board to provide a constant source of worry to Jaime, the way Sydney had to manage being a double agent, while trying to keep Will and Francie out of harm's way. It's just a matter of minutes before the baddies try to use her to get to Jaime. I'm thinking maybe a bomb in her head. It's just a feeling I'm getting.

Sis is also now a computer hacker, shades of Marshall Flinkman. This will make her more useful to the BW than the first sister, who was a deaf goth punk smoker with a chip on her shoulder and a penchant for early morning heavy metal.

It's interesting that they ditched Mae Whitman, who has been acting since she was 5, in favour of Lucy Hale, who has been acting since late last night. Is this a payroll issue or maybe just a cuteness upgrade?

Page48 said...

Victor Garber biding time before the debut of "Eli Stone", by guesting on the third season finale of "ReGenesis", a Canadian sci-fi show.

I have never seen an eppie of "ReGenesis", as I have an aversion to Canadian television shows. It's an issue I have with quality, something generally quite lacking in homegrown (Canadian)TV.

However, good on VG for supporting the folks back home. Hopefully he didn't play an overbearing lawyer.

lisa said...

hey guys-
totally unrelated...(sorry GS!) but has anyone ever read any of the Alias magazines? are they any good? I've seen a few on ebay and they have me curious you know....

Girlscout said...

I have purchased a few Alias magazines, just to see what they have to offer. I might be bias, but I think this website has more original information and in-depth stuff than the magazine. Some articles were poorly written and some of the ideas were based and boring. There are some good things- interviews with actors (though they were very cryptic about the show and such, not to reveal anything). They had some fan mail and stuff- but it felt more like a teeny bopper fan newsletter than a hardcore magazine about the show. but that is my opinion and as I have mentioned, that doesn't mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things- so I would definitely recommend checking out at least one issue to see what you think.

uncle111 said...

Hey Page,
Your analysis is great!

Just for fun:

Eat your heart out! Sorry for all the cutting and pasting, though.

uncle111 said...

Sorry, pasting clitch:

Sarafu said...

I dont know why I have neglected reading this blog for so Long! I forgot how much I miss ALias and how Much I Love reading your brilliant writting and how you break things down so well!
I am Super excited about BW and can only hope that I can find the same rush the hour before and hour after the show that I did with Alias. :) I miss the anticipation of the next chapter!

On a side note, The word "teeny bopper" came to mind as well when I saw the question about the ALIAS magazine. Girlscouts description was right on. Its unfortuanate though, because it would seem like something that could have been pretty great.

Page48 said... has their own take on the formula:

Step 1: Give Isaiah Washington his first post-GREY’S ANATOMY gig, ensuring maximum media coverage and interest.

Step 2: Replace the BIONIC sister with the far hotter Lucy Hale. (HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER fans may remember Hale as Robin’s sister).

Step 3: Watch as BIONIC WOMAN quickly soars to the most buzzed about show online.

And further offers up this encouragement for those of us who are hopeful:

BIONIC WOMAN comes from the brilliant minds of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA executive producer David Eick and KIDNAPPED mastermind Jason Smilovic. The preview clips shown at yesterday’s (May 14th?) UpFronts were quite frankly fantastic, and this TV Addict cannot wait to watch Michelle Ryan kick some serious bionic butt.

Let's hope this assessment is modest.

Page48 said...

uncle, you've insinuated yourself nicely into the cast, apparently without arousing suspicion. I'm guessing Dixon took the picture?

uncle111 said...

Another of your astute observations, but it was Sark who took the picture. That was before we knew who he was and what he was up to. We thought he was just a stage hand helping out.

uncle111 said...

This really almost is a mental illness, you know - a grown man pasting himself into pictures.

Girlscout said...

HAHAHA Uncle, you are too funny! That pic is hilarious. Poor Dixon, loses his wife and his job. Bummer!

Robetron said...

GS, I know I am late to this conversation, but I wanted to give you the appropriate kudo's for an excellent analysis. I think the most important part is the suspension of disbelief. That is what makes all of the rest possible. We want to believe it is all realistic. We don't want it to be exactly like real life. Dixon doesn't have to worry about paying the electric bill on time, or balancing his checkbook. Jack doesn't have to worry about getting the dishes washed or his laundry done. Syd never has to worry about how her breath smells after a mission and 18 hours burried alive. They never have the concern about not having had a shower in three days. It's all just done off camera and between scenes. It is when the writers include little tid-bits like Vaughn telling Lauren that he left a suit at the cleaners that lets us believe that these are real people, and allows us to suspend the disbelief. We see Sydney receiving the delivery of a crib and know that she never worried about being able to afford a nice one. Her emotional concerns takes us to the relateable part of the show, and seeing them satisfied by the humorous scene with her dad helping to building and not being able to get it through the door that makes it real enough to believe that a 16th Century self-proclaimed prophet/madman designed a wacky microwave pulse weapon that causes people to spontaneously burst into flame. It's all very wonderful for those of us in the real world who struggle to make time to clean the long-nelgected toilet once in a while.