Are there any good spy shows out right now? Not spy as in the gritty realism of Homeland or the prestigious tragedy of The Americans, but straight up espionage shit: exotic locales, ridiculous disguises, diabolical villains, gunplay, dizzying hand-to-hand combat. TV seems to have left the genre behind and it’s understandable—it’s been exhausted, there’s hardly new ground left to tread there. One of the very best series to do it—and a top 10 underrated series of this century, in my opinion—is finally back on streaming.
Alias—which you can (and should) stream right now on Amazon Prime—holds a special place in my heart, but objectively, it’s among the best early-aughts television had to offer right from the pilot, an episode widely acclaimed as one of the best series debuts of all time. It's a time capsule of the days when J.J. Abrams wasn’t one of the most vilified men amongst the Comic-Con Hall H crowd, but a nascent auteur working on just his second series, a show that aimed to marry the 20-something melodrama of his inaugural hit Felicity with a high-stakes action/adventure for a hybrid unseen before-or-after. It’s Buffy meets James Bond meets National Treasure (more on that last bit later.)
The dynamic pilot is arresting from the opening shot, with a fresh-faced, Clifford-red wigged Jennifer Garner being tortured as she flashes back to the events that led her there. She plays Sydney Bristow, a grad student with a full life—fiancé, best friend, friend-zoned male best friend, dead mother, super-estranged father—but her real major is with the government, as a field operative for SD-6, a black ops branch of the CIA. Life is good. Sydney’s bridal joy quickly gives way to guilt; she can’t say yes to Danny without him knowing what he’s really getting into. While Sydney goes on a mission, the omnipresent brass at SD-6 learn that she has broken the cardinal rule: you do not talk about SD-6. Sydney returns from a successful mission to find Danny dead in his bathtub. That’s just the first 30 minutes.
Danny's death sets off a chain reaction that facilitates the mother of all reveals via Syd’s dad Jack, after he stops an attempt on her own life: SD-6 reacted to the security breach so forcefully because they aren't part of the CIA but rather one cell of an international organized crime syndicate; Sydney and her fellow junior agents are effectively working for the enemy. And her dad's been one of them this whole time (must be one big office). Instead of taking Jack’s advice to go on the run, Sydney, ever the badass, completes a one-woman mission for SD-6, proving her loyalty to the fold…then goes to the real CIA to pledge herself as a double agent, where she learns her dad has been one all this time. Again, this is all just the pilot.
Alias’ initial premise could’ve made for a heavy, turgid show: Instead what sets the series apart from other shows of its ilk and the TV of its era in general, is how it willingly embraced the fun side of the genre. Alias, with its country-hopping, insane disguises, badass action, fearless heroes, and larger-than-life villains, was cool. That last detail is one of the most important—much of spy fiction is belabored with drab terrorists of no personality; Alias has the Bond franchise’s propensity for not just crazy gadgets but a deep rogues gallery of bad guys so entertaining the show almost always hated to definitively kill them. (Everyone from prestigious actresses like Lena Olin and Isabella Rosselini to self-proclaimed fan of the series Quentin Tarantino blessed the series.) Maybe that’s because Syd’s enemies were never exactly mere terrorists—see, in addition to being cool, Alias is also weird as fuck.
Much like detractors of the Abrams-produced LOST can never say that show’s sci-fi digressions weren’t planted in the pilot, Alias showed signs of having more in mind than terrorists who just like, want to bomb America. Early on the show establishes Rambaldi, a 14th-century philosopher-prophet who has come to inspire a sort of religious zealotry (his symbol is even hidden ever so subtly in the opening credits). Most of the show’s long-term arcs involved missions to steal Rambaldi artifacts while contending with factions and figures seeking to use his prophecies for nefarious gain. And to make matters personal, and borderline absurd: Sydney herself seems to be a predestined crucial figure in his endgame.
Double agent on a globe-trotting mythic quest is a very full table; instead of buckling under that conceit, at its best Alias is a bullet train of action, mystery, suspense, family drama, and will-they-or-won’t-they intrigue. That first year is one of the greats in the TV Hall of Fame; Abrams upped the ante with an even better sophomore season, twisting the narrative into a knottier labyrinth of triple-crosses, while shrewdly doubling down on the family drama too to ground it all. During Season 2 the show scored the coveted post-Super Bowl slot, where a series stands to gain millions of new viewers and potentially leapfrog in relevance overnight—sorely needed for a show with a challenging, serialized premise (a daunting prospect in a pre-DVR era). Instead of crafting a simple episode to onboard new fans, Abrams used the opportunity to effectively detonate his show’s logline. Coming in at the halfway mark of the season, Abrams completely rewrote the show’s rules with a series of seismic plot developments and twists befitting a season finale, effectively changing the paces of serialized television forever. (Counterpoint: the episode opens with Sydney seducing a mark—Garner was always game to satirize the genre's sex appeal—nothing screams at NFL fans to stay on the channel quite like Jennifer Garner in lingerie.) The series didn’t suffer for his ambition: the back half of the season is arguably the best stretch of the series, all the way up to a finale that features some of the most dazzling hand-to-hand action choreography seen on TV to this day and one of the medium’s all-time best twist endings.
Alas, Alias isn’t perfect—at least not for its entirety. I’d submit Seasons 1 and 2 to the Library of Congress, but by Season 3 the high wire act had a few stumbles (Abrams departed for his next frontier); the series indulged Rambaldi until it became a formulaic gumbo of endless ominous names and MacGuffins. The Passenger, The Covenant, The Flood, The Horizon, etc., ask even a super-fan like me to recall what each of these things were and the narrative fruit they bore and I couldn’t score 100. Relationships between characters grew just as contrived: remembering what two characters do to each other in Season 2, the idea that they end up working alongside each other by Season 4 is absurd. (Worse: Season 4 tried to course-correct as a more straightforward spy series, the results were series high ratings, at the expense of episodes that ranged from banal to shark-jumping in an attempt to offset the Rambaldi-weirdo factor with something new. This oral history recalls a foray with vampires that I must’ve blocked out.) Still, the counter-question when a show is recommended is if it ever gets “bad” or bricks the ending. Alias merely became mid, and managed to right the ship in time for a solid final season (writing Garner’s pregnancy into the show helped restore the emotional stakes).
So yes, you absolutely should watch, and Alias’ restoration to relevance (because if a series is not streaming, did it ever exist?) couldn’t have come at a better time. Two months into quarantine, whether first-timing or rewatching, we’ve all exhausted the typical options. Time to get weird, as Alias often did while launching the careers of Garner and a blonde-tipped Bradley Cooper in the process. (As Sydney’s friend-zoned BFF and would-be intrepid reporter who can’t let Danny’s mysterious death lie, Cooper’s Will is arguably the heart of Season 1). It’s a proper introduction to the brilliance of J.J. Abrams: every trope, theme, and trick the auteur has employed elsewhere is right here. In media res openings. Badass, emotionally vulnerable heroine. That brilliantly manipulative Michael Giacchino score that he'd later perfect on LOST. Greg Grunberg.
And as for Garner, she won a Golden Globe her first year up, but she deserved so much more, then and subsequently. It’s commercials, Mom-roles, and tertiary Ben Affleck headlines for her now, but then? She was the powerhouse anchor tying this show’s genre hodgepodge together. She could believably take down a man twice her size in one scene—doing her own stunts at that—and floor you with an emotional breakdown scored to some Kate Bush in the next, sometimes forcefully promising her vengeance through the tears. Binge Alias today; the campaign for a late-career Garner revival begins tomorrow.