‘Alias’ at 20: 10 Reasons to Watch (or Rewatch) the Spy Drama
If the surname Rambaldi, the number 47, and the acronym SD-6 mean nothing to you, you have some catching up to do!
So it’s an opportune time to start the spy drama for the first time or watch the show all over again. (Its five seasons are currently streaming on Prime Video.) And if you need any convincing, might we draw your attention to…
Long before Garner’s roles in 13 Going on 30 and Juno, her high-profile romance with Ben Affleck, or her Instagram stardom, Alias made her a household name. At the time, she was an actress whose biggest credits were a recurring role on Felicity and a starring role on the little-watched teen drama Time of Your Life. But Garner’s performance as super-spy Sydney Bristow put her on the map, scored her legions of fans, and earned her Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe Award.
The suspenseful plot
Alias didn’t just make a star out of Garner, though; it also established creator J.J. Abrams as a master of suspense way before he cocreated Lost or took over the Star Trek and Star Wars film franchises.
And Abram had a killer setup for the Alias pilot, which he also directed. (Episode 1 spoilers ahead.) In the first episode, we meet Sydney Bristow, graduate student by day, spy by night. After her boyfriend proposes, Sydney is hit with a crisis of conscience and tells him the truth about her line of work: She’s a spy and not just a run-of-the-mill one but a spy for a black-ops division of the CIA called SD-6.
Her bosses get wind that Sydney confided in her future husband, so they have him killed. And that’s when Sydney realizes SD-6 is actually an adversary of the CIA. So she goes to the real CIA as a “walk-in” and becomes a double agent, only to discover her father is working both sides, too.
And that’s just the first episode! The rest of the series will keep your heart racing with shifting alliances, deadly spy games, devastating family secrets, and game-changing season finales.
The full-time cast—and the guest stars
The Season 1 cast boasted Victor Garber as “Spy Daddy” Jack Bristow; Ron Rifkin as SD-6 leader Arvin Sloane; Carl Lumbly as Sydney’s field partner, Marcus Dixon; Kevin Weisman as SD-6 tech weenie Marshall Flinkman; Merrin Dungey as Sydney’s roommate, Francie Calfo; Bradley Cooper (yes, that Bradley Cooper) as Syd’s friend Will Tippin; and Michael Vartan as her CIA handler Michael Vaughn.
As the series progressed, the series-regular cast grew to include actors like David Anders, Lena Olin, Melissa George, and Mía Maestro—some of whom played allies, some of whom played nemeses, some of whom played both.
The guest-star roster, meanwhile, included Angela Bassett, Gina Torres, Jason Segel, Justin Theroux, Vivica A. Fox, and Christian Slater. And in a nod to spy lore, James Bond actor Roger Moore popped up in one episode.
The clandestine romances
Relationship spoilers ahead! As you might expect, given Vartan’s leading-man looks and rom-com pedigree, Sydney eventually catches feelings for Vaughn, but the two have to keep their romance on the down-low to protect her double-agent status. So expect a lot of sexual tension…amid all the life-or-death tension!
The mythology—ciao, Rambaldi!
Mix Leonardo da Vinci and Nostradamus and you get Milo Rambaldi, an inventor and prophet whose work becomes an obsession for more than a few Alias characters. And wouldn’t you know it, Sydney figures into Rambaldi’s prophecy big- time.
As with other TV show mythologies, the Rambaldi plot line didn’t always stick its landing on Alias, but it certainly added Renaissance-flavored mystique to the story.
The stand-alone episodes
Alias was heavily serialized, but the writers did include the occasional closed-ended episode. “Tuesday” has the team racing against the clock to save Sydney, who’s buried alive in Cuba. The two-parter “The Box,” seen above, features Quentin Tarantino as a vengeful SD-6 alum in a Die Hard-like plot. And “Double Agent” stars Ethan Hawke as both a spy and his clone, with Sydney having to deduce which one is the good guy. The best stand-alone episode, however, has to be “Welcome to Liberty Village,” in which Sydney and Vaughn masquerade as a married couple to infiltrate a fake American suburb where Russian spies are trained.
The Super Bowl episode
A long postgame show meant that Alias’ Super Bowl XXXVII lead-out didn’t get the audience it should have, but “Phase One” still tops many fans’ lists of the series’ best episodes. Without giving anything away, the hour starts with a bang, concludes one Alias chapter, starts another, and ends with a deadly reveal.
The aliases themselves, including the costumes and wigs
The Alias hairstylists earned Emmy nominations in the Outstanding Hairstyling for a Series category for all five seasons, while the wardrobe artists earned Outstanding Costumes for a Series nominations for three. The show’s makeup staff, meanwhile, won themselves an Emmy in 2003. All of those plaudits are well-deserved: Thanks to these behind-the-scenes wizards, Sydney could go incognito in countless guises during her covert ops.
The globe-trotting action
And while we’re talking about below-the-line superstars, we have to commend the set decorators and the art directors who transformed Los Angeles-area filming locations into mission locales around the world—whether they be a government library in Moscow, an S&M dungeon in Berlin, or a hotel in Rabat.
Michael Giacchino’s music
Giacchino has scored Pixar films, including The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Up; superhero flicks, such as the newest Spider-Man movies; sci-fi epics including Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the latest Star Trek film trilogy. And yes, he has also scored spy fare, including Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III.
Before all that, though, he provided the score for Alias, composing blockbuster-worthy music that mixed electric beats with cinematic swells from the Hollywood Studio Orchestra.