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The Work of Director Spike Jonze

The Work of Director Spike Jonze demystifies him. He's not a freak or a mad genius. —Marty Mapes (DVD review...)

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Alias: The Complete First Season is a modern-day spy/counter-spy cliffhanger, a jaw-dropping roller coaster ride that takes television to the rarified land of James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Lara Croft. In short, Alias is a hoot.

My So-Called Life

Jennifer Garner is a mistress of disguise
Jennifer Garner is a mistress of disguise

Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner, Daredevil) is the girl next door. She’s sweet, friendly, smart, and working her way through grad school as a secret agent for SD-6, a rogue organization along the lines of the CIA. Well, actually, as a globetrotting double agent for the CIA.

In the pilot episode alone, Sydney is tortured in Taiwan (under threat of having her teeth removed, she politely asks her tormentor to remove her rear teeth first), finds her fiancé murdered after divulging her secret life to him, and, upon returning from her sinister dentist, has to face the greatest evil of all: Midterms. It’s a wonderfully dramatic and over-the-top way to start a new television series. The amazing thing is the show gets even more daring and absorbing as the first season unfolds.

Taking the material beyond simple stereotypical spy-thriller shenanigans, Alias features a cast of well-drawn characters, all of them leading lives with some degree of complexity to foil Sydney’s off-the-charts lifestyle.

Among them are Sydney’s close friends, Will Tippin (Bradley Cooper, The Street), a journalist frustrated by how abnormal his life is compared to everybody else’s, and Francie Calfo (Merrin Dungey, Ed TV), who fears her boyfriend is having an affair.

Also on board are Sydney’s CIA handler, Michael Vaughan (Michael Vartan, Never Been Kissed); Marcus Dixon (Carl Lumbly, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai), her partner at SD-6; and her SD-6 boss, Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin, L.A. Confidential). Each one offers a different relationship, whether it is a potential romance, friend, or foe.

Father Knows Best

One of the major subplots of Season 1 is Sydney’s contentious relationship with her father, Jack (Victor Garber, Legally Blonde), a man who keeps his emotional distance as they work together in the double-agent business. Sydney entered grad school to become a teacher and pick up where her mother, who died under mysterious circumstances, left off. But truth, fate, destiny and countless plot twists conspire against Sydney.

Taking Alias to an ever-higher level of ambition and quality are nifty cameo appearances by the likes of Roger Moore as an SD-6 cohort, Amy Irving as Sloane’s wife, and Quentin Tarantino as a slimy agent working for “The Man”. Also helping to set the tone is a terrific soundtrack featuring songs by today’s brightest artists, including Norah Jones, Garbage, Ryan Adams and The Cranberries.

What makes Alias: The Complete First Season work so well is that it never settles for being just another TV series. Its non-linear storytelling structure is a nice change of pace; it’s a style that allows Alias to take time to explore the different characters and their relationships without compromising its ability to deliver the goods in terms of exotic locations, sexy outfits, action, clever storylines, twists, mythologies, and gadgets.

DVD Extras

The six-disc set offers a satisfying collection of supplemental materials, most of which do a fine job of documenting the insanity that goes into the creation of a TV series.

At the top of the list are a slew of commentaries (accompanying Episodes 1, 2, 17 and 22) involving a myriad of production personnel. While they are predominately yack tracks — those involved trip over each other to make comments and poke jabs at each other — they are unusually entertaining and offer some enlightening insights into the creation of this very ambitious series.

As an example, the pilot’s commentary is a gab-fest between the series’ creator, J.J. Abrams, and Jennifer Garner. They’re like a couple of exuberant kids rambling on about the fun they’ve had at summer camp as they bounce around terms like “gazillion,” “bazillion,” “best in the world,” and “best of all times.” It’s clear they have a great rapport (they also worked together on Felicity) and they’re enjoying what they’re doing.

Another nice feature is the DVD-ROM Alias ScriptScanner, which allows viewers to watch the pilot episode alongside the original script.

The Pilot Production Diary and Inside Stunts documentaries offer worthwhile behind-the-scenes footage, including Abrams using dolls to storyboard a stunt sequence. Rounding out the package are a collection of deleted scenes and TV spots, a gag reel (crack ups and laughter, the kind of material to be watched only once), a preview of season 2, and a preview of the forthcoming video game (a shameless bit of commercial fluff).

Picture and Sound

The fact that Alias: The Complete First Season is presented in widescreen 1.78:1 (enhanced for 16x9 screens) only adds to its cinematic flair and feel. While the picture is sharp and mostly pristine, there are times of murkiness in the darker scenes, which is typical of Buena Vista’s DVDs.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound is solid and does a fine job of showcasing both the music and the drama. Also available is a Spanish language soundtrack and English captions.