Ten years ago American TV networks Fox and ABC found themselves with similar shows in development. Both were high-tech espionage dramas about highly skilled agents trying to prevent terrorist activities, only to be undermined at every turn by duplicitous double agents. By the time the pilots were in the can and ready for broadcast, America had become a very different place. Both shows found their debuts unceremoniously bumped by a couple of weeks, as the country attempted to come to terms with the worst atrocity ever committed on US soil.
Although there were initially some doubts as to whether audiences were ready to see counter-terrorism on their screens every week, 24 managed to not only capture, but actually define the zeitgeist of a wounded nation. Rather than the mercenary brutality of its broadcast rival, JJ Abrams’ Alias boasted a lightness of touch and a realistic sense of humour about its own far-fetched plotting. It also benefited from a more agreeable lead in Jennifer Garner. Not only did she look a lot more fetching in a tight vest than Kiefer Sutherland, she was much less likely to set about your Achilles tendon with a rusty hacksaw, just to get directions to the Post Office.
At times, Alias suffered from an overly convoluted plot – the basic scenario of the show was so complex that the ‘previously on’ recaps often seemed to take up a third of the show’s running time. By the time the second season arrived, the opening credits often wouldn’t appear until twenty minutes in.
For the uninitiated, Alias told the story of Sydney Bristow, a young banking analyst with the body of a dancer and the name of long-distance haulage driver. Except, as we found out in the pilot episode, Sidney wasn’t really a banker. She’d been recruited whilst in college to join a secret branch of the CIA, with the singular mission of bringing down SD6, a shadowy organized crime group. In the space of 45 action-packed minutes, Abrams pulls more rugs than Bruce Forsyth’s stylist, leaving us just as bewildered as our pouty heroine. Murder, conspiracies, double-crosses and triple-agents – it all makes for a pretty dense first episode. Meanwhile, over on the Sopranos, Tony eats a sandwich and breathes through his nose.
Of course, it’s all preposterous guff, but it’s delivered with such verve and creativity, you’ll forgive it a multitude of sins. At least Sydney never walked into someone’s living room and wondered whether she could garrote them with a curtain tieback. Whilst Jack Bauer reveled in his own gruff brutality, Alias tried to charm its viewers instead, with quirky characterisations and a globe-trotting agenda that would give Judith Chalmers DVT.
Not everything about the show worked. The ‘two exotic locations per episode’ mandate started to feel pretty laboured before the first season ended, partly due to the fact that there are only so many ways to transform the industrial units on the Burbank backlot. And an over-reliance on the show’s mystical mythology often blurred the lines between fiction and fantasy.
But Abrams made up for these mistakes with a genuine sense of daring when it came to plot twists. He showed his mettle mid-way through season two, when he declared that he was tired of having to recap the plot for newcomers to the show. In the space of one episode, he changed virtually every element. Plots were resolved, major characters killed and secrets revealed, and nothing was ever the same again. Shaking things up at the height of a show’s popularity usually spells disaster - industry insiders call it ‘jumping the shark’. With breathtaking audacity, Abrams dragged the shark out of the tank and fucked it. And the viewers loved it.
In contrast, 24 was content to keep playing the same trick, based on the fact that CTU clearly had the least effective recruitment screening process in living memory: “Are you secretly a murderous assassin? Sure about that? Great, you’re our new analyst. Have a seat next to Chloe, she’s the one who scowls like an menstruating Klingon.”
Ultimately, the show worked because it bothered to create characters you cared about. And it questioned the emotional toll of a spy’s work, rather than just the physical cost. If you’ve ever forced a smile through gritted teeth at an unlikeable boss, you’re sure to empathise with Sydney as she has to deal day-to-day with an employer who had her fiancé killed and yet still questions her commitment to the company. Try bringing that up in an exit interview.
Five seasons and 105 episodes. It didn’t all work, but when it did it was sublimely entertaining. If you’re wondering how to fill those 11 days at the end of April, this is one boxset you may want to give a go.
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