Thursday, July 03, 2008

Truth Be Told: What really makes Alias great

A big THANK YOU to blogger Bonkers for Bristow who wrote this great article! Hope y'all enjoy and happy 4th of July! -SRG
We’ve spent hours discussing Alias; the outstanding writing, the award worthy acting, the intelligent story telling, the plots and the characters. While it’s true that very few TV shows have all these elements, some shows have many of them and yet, they don’t strike me to the soul like Alias does.

Why is that? I decided to really think about Alias and what really made it a great show. How about the main character? The person the show is written around? Sydney is an amazing character, with depth and emotion and internal struggle... and she can kill the bad guys with an ice bucket.

But Sydney is not the reason. The reason Alias is a great series is because of Jennifer Garner. Imagine Sydney played by Hillary Swank or Amy Adams or even Scarlet Johanson. All are good actresses, some have even won awards for their acting, but I can’t see them in the role. Jennifer is Sydney to us.

She’s a great action hero and who amongst us has not wanted to take a kick-boxing or martial arts class after a particularly great fight scene? But she’s more than a super spy. Jennifer embodies the character and feels Sydney’s emotions like her own. When she’s grieving for Danny, or telling Dixon the truth about SD-6, or even just holding Francie after learning the truth about her boyfriend, those emotions are real. We feel them with her. We have felt them before, in our own lives, so we recognize the truth in her face. Sydney becomes more than a person on TV through Jennifer, she becomes as real as the people we work with, live next to and see on the street. But more than that, Jennifer becomes a friend, a family member.

When Jennifer smiles and her dimples jump out at us, we smile too. When she’s flirting with a security guard or charming a rocket scientist we laugh with her because we feel giddy, like we’re part of the deception. And when she laughs with Will and Francie or smiles at Marshall we feel happiness bubble up in us. But when she gives those quiet, careful smiles to her father and Vaughn, we feel her uncertainty and hope and love her even more.

Jennifer is not just Sydney, though. In interviews and talk show appearances we see her as herself. She seems the type of girl I want to be friends with. She’s open and fun and quick to laugh. She’s sincere and refreshingly anti-Hollywood. She’s intelligent and caring and has the best posture I’ve ever seen. She’s the girl next door with killer shoulders. Even now with a baby in tow and softer muscles than before, she is approachable and real. I have to believe that a little bit of Sydney lives in her.

Perhaps it’s all acting and I’ve been sucked into a classic case of “confusing the character with the actress” but I truly feel that Jennifer herself is why we love Sydney and why Alias is the kind of show that inspires conversation even 2 years after going off the air.

I’m pretty sure my answer will be different than yours but that’s why we’re all still here. If we all agreed on everything, we’d run out of things to talk about. So I challenge you to really boil it down and tell us why you think Alias has struck a chord with you. Find the one thing that makes the difference for you.


Anonymous said...

As always... wonderfully written Bonkers.

Robetron said...

I'm glad you left it open to discussion, because, in the times I've seen JG in interviews, I thought she seemed flighty, and a bit too pleased with herself in that "filming is art" sort of pretended bourgeois, Hollywood flakiness. I was pleased not to see many of them so that my view of Sydney would not be tarnished by the real person.

The fact that they were, at least to me, very different people is definitely a tribute to Jen's acting ability. I would take nothing from her on that scale.

I think it was Jen's ability, along with some good writing, that made Sydney seem so real to us, especially early in the series so that we see that conflicted nature that resides in every human heart. The natural desire to have a simple happy life, complicated by her sense of duty to use those skills that make her anything but ordinary for the good of those around her.

We identify, in one respect, because we just want to have a simple, happy life with close friends and loved-ones. On the other hand we hyper-identify with her because we would all love to be extra-ordinary, be noticed by extraordinary people, and accidentally stumble into an adventurous life, developing such skills that enable us to be the protector, rather than the ones who need the protection.

That last bit was an important part of our own readiness for a hero like Sydney. 9-11-01 had just occurred a week or two before the pilot episode, and the entire country (maybe the entire continent - for Page48) had a roiling of emotions that would last for many years, perhaps still lingering. We wanted there to be a girl-next-door who was not only capable, but was taking the fight to terrorists all over the world, and with such style that we would be cheering.

It was the dynamics of good acting, good writing, and a constantly evolving set of complex relationships with all of the characters that made it realistic, allowing us to escape the unthinkable tragedy of real life into a world were people were believable people were special, and were Rambaldi's ridiculous mysteries might happen.

That's my take on it.


Page48 said...

I think one the many charms of "Alias" was the fact that the status quo was out of the question. Syd thought she was a CIA agent, but in fact she wasn't really a CIA agent...and then she really was a CIA agent. The show was all about SD6, and then, all of a sudden, it wasn't. Vaughn and Syd had to meet in secret, and then they didn't. Sloane was the boss and then he wasn't and then he was and then he wasn't. Nothing stayed the same for very long. It was like a different show each year. Throw in a healthy dose of backstabbing and double dealing, and now you're cooking with gas.

Obviously, danger is a high pressure adrenaline pump, and Sydney's whole life was dangerous. Her friends were in mortal danger, her colleagues were in danger, the world was in danger. This is the ingredient that keeps viewers from going the bathroom mid-episode. If you want to go to the bathroom during a show, watch "Desperate Housewives", not "Alias".

Certainly, Jen was perfect for the part of Syd, but who's to say that we wouldn't be saying the same about someone else, had she been chosen instead?

I mentioned a few months ago how much Hilary Swank reminded me of Syd in a jogging scene from "Million Dollar Baby". I love Hilary and I'm sure she could have been a very competent Agent Bristow. However, I would not want to make that trade today, knowing what we know about Jen's portrayal.

Like Robetron, I've not seen many JG interviews, but I also would tend to agree that the real Jen comes across as a touch flighty, certainly much more so than Syd. I didn't spot any sort of pretentiousness or ego in the handful of appearances I've seen, just the giggly sort of talk-show persona that comes out of an uber-wealthy young woman out promoting a new movie.

In her defense, I would guess that the Jen who appears on Regis or Jay Leno is also playing a role in trying to be pleasing to the host as well as her fans, not to mention putting a good spin on her latest project.

Truth be Told, we don't know her from Adam and never will, but aside from fame and wealth and abs of steel, she's probably a lot like the rest of us, with the good moments mixed up with the bad. Let's be thankful she doesn't make the kind of headlines we've grown accustomed to with other rich young celeb-chicks like Britney and Lindsay and Paris and, God forbid, Amy Winehouse.

P.S. the Net is currently bulging with stories about Jen and Ben calling it a day. Their "spokesman" calls that rubbish, but let's face it, this is Hollyweird we're talking about. Their marriage is already long in the tooth by L.A. standards. I've made up my mind, I'm gonna slap on some deodorant and head for L.A., maybe I can catch Jen on the rebound.

uncle111 said...

Very well said. I identify with it on an emotional level. And I have said here more than once that I think JG is a very under rated actress.
As far as what she is like as a person- I think from time to time, mostly after she had her baby, we saw at least something of the real JG in her laugh and occassionally in her expressions on Alias- a little bit goofy and unHollywoodish; a little unsophisticated and innocent. I picked up a little of that on the few times I saw her on talk shows. The small town girl.
The thing that has made me wonder though was a show on Biography about her and Ben. They are both portrayed as small town types, but she was said to be particulary driven and a very savy actress and business woman.
Yes, the shows debut right after 9/11 has something to do with our gravitating to Alias. The desire to get the bad guys, to be able to take care of myself is what led me in high school and college to work 5 years for a black belt, that and knowing my boyhood heroes in the spyworld of TV and movies all knew at least some martial arts.
The writing was great, the concept was great, so much of it was great. But, I don't think it would have been half the show that it was without Jennifer Garner.

I just finished S5's "There is Only One Sydney Bristow." I was hit again by a scene that made my heart sink the first time I saw it. The end of the episode Syd and Will are walking along and Syd is apologizing for all the harm that has come to him and others because of her. His words to her amounted to Will's goodbye to Syd, a tribute to her for all she had done in the series, and a goodbye on behalf of us, the audience. It was the first time within the context of the show that we were hit by the reality that they really were winding things down and it was about to end. I remember it making me feel a little sick.
Well, nothing has replaced it for me and the rest of my life goes on-just as when my dog died, then my dad died- any other loss I've experienced. Life doesn't stop for anything; it goes on and new things happen. But I still miss Alias, and I still miss Sydney Bristow, and that's because of Jennifer Garner.

uncle111 said...

Oooh. Jen on the rebound. As much as there is in that to fantasize about, I hope it's not true, for them, and their little girl. But that town chews up people's lives like a starving sadistic monster.

BristowVA said...

In my mind, no one could have played Syd as well as JG. However, what made her and the character of Syd great was not only her acting talent, but that of the cast that surrounded her. Can we picture anyone else playing Jack Bristow? How about Marshall? Ron Rifkin oozes creepiness as Sloan.
Even Michael Vartan amazes in his ability to be dorky, awestruck and downright kick-ass when he needs to be.

I am certainly not taking away from Jen but what made the show special for me was the amazing chemistry of the ensemble cast. Even the minor players were good. Remember the kinky german scientist guy (can I please have my pants?)

Page48 said...

"Alias" was the perfect storm for these actors. I'm sure it's beginning to sink in that those five incredible years were their glory days.

I think the question we're sort of dancing around here is 'would we have loved "Alias" just as much with a different cast of regulars?' I'm inclined to argue that, yes we very well might have, had we not known any better.

As brilliant as these actors are, given the right material, it's obvious that a great story and exceptional writing is every bit as important as casting. One need only try to stay awake through "Big Shots" or "Eli Stone" or "Brothers & Sisters" to appreciate the importance of the storytellers. Even our very own Jack Bristow could barely eke out 'five incredible episodes' of "Justice", let alone 5 years.

Although I'm forever in JJ's debt for his impeccable casting of Sydney, I wonder if it's only the fact that we've come to "know" JG as Sydney that makes her irreplaceable to us in that role. Let's face it, as talented as she is, Jen has had many forgettable roles, from bits in "Mr. Magoo" and "Pearl Harbor" to "Catch Me If You Can" and "Felicity".

JG can't take crap material and make it shine,any more than VG or MV can, but along with gifted writers and talented on screen help, she really did experience the perfect storm, where she elevated "Alias" and "Alias" elevated her. Whether someone else could have taken that role and owned it the way JG did, is, fortunately for us, something we can only speculate about....until the movie comes out in 2020. Then we'll get a better idea.

Robetron said...

"As brilliant as these actors are, given the right material, it's obvious that a great story and exceptional writing is every bit as important as casting.

"JG can't take crap material and make it shine,any more than VG or MV can..."

There is a lot of truth to the point you are making here, Page48. It put me in mind of a movie made recently where Morgan Freeman and John Cusak were the main stars (two A-list actors, in my opinion).

It was supposed to be some kind of action movie set in the wilderness. It was quite possibly the worst movie I have ever seen, and not because the visuals were not beautiful; they were. The writing was just plain awful, and there was nothing those two great actors could do to make it better.


Last night I wrote a lengthy explanation, saying that I may have been too harsh on JG in my earlier assessment, and I explained the few instances that gave me that opinion. When I went to post it, there was something wrong with Blogger, and the "Internet monster" ate it. (Remember him from the ABC board days?)

Anyway, I just wanted to say in addition to that, I generally do not like to see interviews of any of my favorite actors because, for me, it tends to ruin the mystique of believing in the story, and suspending the disbelief. I'm certain JG is brilliant, and her self-confidence is admirable to be able to be naturally goofy without worrying about perceptions, like most people would.

I know I never gave up on my youthful goofiness, so why should that be a fault?


P.S. Good discussion-starter, by the way.

Page48 said...

Robetron, I saw that movie, "The Contract". I'll tend to watch anything with Morgan Freeman, but I agree that TC wasn't his best.

He has a certain presence that keeps me coming back for more, though. I'm sure I'll be checking out "The Dark Knight" (I think "Batman Begins" was by far the best of the modern Batman movies)and eventually, "Wanted" (with Angelina).

I used to have a lot of difficulty with my Firefox freezing up when I was trying to post to LTA. There's nothing like losing an 18 paragraph missive that took an hour to compose.

Robetron said...

Please do not let me derail this excellent conversation by going off topic, but I have a brief question:

Did anyone else know that J.J. Abrams was a main script writer for the movie "Armageddon"? I was just watching the movie last night as a part of my Independence Day celebration (which is a also movie by the same name that will be on the schedule for tonight), and I noticed his name in the credits. I had forgotten how good the movie was, and how huge and realistic the destruction scenes were.

It's no wonder Cloverfield (despite the camera work) was so realistic. I hope the second movie takes on the grand-scheme and drops the trendy hand-held camera.(There is supposed to be a second movie, right?)

Page48 said...

I've seen "Armageddon" on the tube but wasn't aware of JJ's involvement. I'm a sucker for Bruce Willis flicks which no doubt drew me in in the first place. Now I'll have to watch again.

Of course, Will Smith is another guy whose movies I have to watch, so "Independence Day" is one I've seen several times.

"Cloverfield", for me was a write-off. As much as "Alias" is about caring about the characters, I had no interest in JJ's cast of clowns in "Cloverfield". Mercifully, it was only an hour long.

uncle111 said...

I always liked "Armageddon", so why am I surprised JJ workked on it?

srg-alias said...

I also didn't know JJ was a writer for Armageddon, which is a movie I don't own but but did like when I saw it. That along w/ Independence Day are two of my guilty-crying movies, that I feel silly for crying when I see them but they always get to me in certain scenes. Interesting to find out JJ was involved w/ Armageddon, I won't feel so guilty next time I see it and most likely shed a tear. ;-)

Back to the discussion, I agree w/ Bonkers that on some level I feel like I know JG/Syd from Alias and if she was a "normal" everyday person that I could easily be friends with her, however, I also know that I don't actually "know" her as a person from watching her on TV. I've also gotten the giggly-girl impression from her on talk shows, and like Robetron, I attribute her awesome acting abilities to how she makes the transformation into the intense ass-kicking Syd we know and love.

If I were to pick one thing other than JG/Syd that makes me return to Alias again and again, it would be the relationships and chemistry between all the characters. Watching the hostility between Syd and Jack turn into love in the first few seasons is quite powerful, for example, as is the animosity and competition between Syd and Anna. One of the plot elements I enjoyed from season 5 was seeing Syd in the roll of teacher with Rachel and giving us an insight into what made her such a great spy. There's so much that goes into making those relationships great, of course the acting and writing, but also how a scene is directed, the background music, etc. With Alias all those things came together w/ gorgeous harmony.

Page48 said...

I know this is taking a grudge to the extreme, but I recently saw "Batman Begins" again, and I just loved seeing Rutger Hauer's character crapped on at the end, losing his position with Bruce Wayne's company in a most humiliating way. Hauer, of course, being Anthony Geiger of "Phase One" fame. Take that, Geiger, if the Bristows don't getcha, Batman will.

When I see the "viral marketing" that goes on with JJ's projects these days, I can't help wonder if "Alias" was born too soon. A quick trip to Fringe TV is an eye opener. I'm a little jealous of the effort going into promoting "Fringe", i.e. comic book prequels, mysterious radio ads, internet "leaks", and Youtube channels dedicated solely to the promotion of the new show thru trailers. Not only that, but now fan blogs precede a TV series long before the show debuts. I learned about "Alias" the night it debuted, not from a radio ad whispering about Rambaldi, or from a comic book campaign, and certainly not from a highly promoted "leaked" pilot.

Times have changed, to be sure, and I wonder what a little extra pushing of "Alias" might have accomplished....maybe a 3 hour finale??