Not too long after creating the television series Felicity with Matt Reeves and watching it become a nationwide phenomenon that people couldn’t stop talking about, writer/producer J.J. Abrams would find himself hitting the occasional roadblock when it came to devising new and dramatic situations for Felicity and her friends at the University of New York to deal with. During one of those particular moments, J.J. couldn’t help but imagine and wonder how much more exciting and awesome it would be if Felicity wasn’t just a regular-degular-schmegular college student, but also a spy going on adventures to keep the world safe. From this 2018 Indiewire interview with Reeves:
“We were in the writer’s room, and we were trying to crack stories,” Reeves recalled. “We were following the minutiae of these characters’ lives, and we reached a place where we were going like, ‘Gosh, what should the stakes be for this next episode be?’”
Reeves said the relationship dramas had begun to feel a bit stale: “They had broken up. They’d gotten back together. They’d switched partners. We’ve had her parents had taken all of her money away, and all of these things,” he said. “There was a moment where, as writers, we were all looking at each other going, ‘What are the stakes? What’s happening, as she approaches the real world?’”
So then this came up, courtesy of Abrams: “The idea was like, what if all along she’s been a secret agent? She’s been in the CIA… We were all going, ‘Oh my God, that’s crazy. That would be amazing.’ And [Abrams] goes, ‘No, no, but I mean it for real!’ We really sat in there a moment going, ‘Oh my God, that’s a crazy idea.’”
And then enter fate: “[Abrams] goes, ‘You know what, I’m sorry, that’s my pilot.’ That’s literally the pilot that he wrote that season. That was the birth of ‘Alias,’ absolutely,” Reeves said.
With that, Alias was born, and premiered on ABC on September 30, 2001.
Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) is a grad student who has just accepted a marriage proposal from her boyfriend, Danny (Edward Atterton). When she’s not attending classes, she works as a banker for Credit Dauphine, or at least that’s what Danny, her roommate/best friend, restaurant owner Francie Calfo (Merrin Dungey), and her other best friend, investigate reporter Will Tippin (Bradley Cooper) have been led to believe. What none of them know is that Sydney is not a banker, but is actually a highly trained operative for SD-6, a black-ops division of the CIA, where she works for Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin) and works alongside other operatives like field agent Marcus Dixon (Carl Lumbly) and technological genius Marshall Flinkman (Kevin Weisman). She decides to tell Danny the truth about who she is and what she does for a living. Unfortunately for Danny, who mentions Sydney’s actual line of work while leaving a message on her answering machine*, this message is overheard by SD-6 surveillance equipment monitoring her phone, and results in Sloane having Danny killed.
*For those of you who don’t know or remember what an answering machine is, it is an actual device that is connected to people’s home phones, and will record incoming messages just like the voicemail on your cell phones. Ask your parents/grandparents/legal guardians to tell you about what it was like to record the greeting message for them, and how important it was to get it just right.
Sydney and Sloane no longer trust each other, so when Sydney refuses to report for duty and instead focuses on her studies, SD-6 agents are sent to kill her as well, but fail miserably in doing so. Coming to her rescue is the very last person she would ever expect: her estranged father, Jack Bristow (Victor Garber), who reveals that he is also with SD-6 and was never an exporter of airplane parts like she had always believed. As if that wasn’t enough of a truth bomb to be dropped in her lap, Jack tells her the truth about SD-6: They’re not a black-ops division of the CIA, and they have no affiliation whatsoever with the CIA. It is a branch of the Alliance of Twelve, an international criminal organization run by former intelligence agents which specializes in blackmail, weapons trafficking, and knowledge of government/military secrets. After completing a mission that involves the recovery of a valuable and powerful artifact, Sydney wins back Sloane’s trust to prove her loyalty to SD-6 and prevent any further attempted hits on her life. She then decides to become a double agent for the real CIA, where her handler is junior officer Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan). Her mission: to infiltrate SD-6 and burn it down to the ground by providing enough evidence to the CIA to make that a reality, all while still carrying out assignments for them, keeping them from discovering where her true loyalties lie, continue lying to her best friends about her work (despite the fact that Will soon learns about the existence of SD-6, and that they were involved in Danny’s death, which soon puts his own life in jeopardy). Jack is also revealed to be a double agent working for the CIA with the very same mission as Sydney’s, which results in the two of them attempting to repair their relationship while working with one another.
During its first two seasons, Alias, in its own unique way, was very reminiscent of Miami Vice (both the television series and the 2006 film version): it makes fighting the bad guys look stylish and awesome and cool (especially with the songs featured in each episode), but there are also numerous reminders for the characters (and the viewers at home) that the spycraft that’s happening onscreen is not carefree, mindless fun. Not for Sydney, who is carrying the grief of losing her fiancé, having to continue working with the man who had him killed, having to lie to her friends and her colleagues about who and what she really is, and constantly making sure that she isn’t killed by SD-6 or their enemies. Not for Jack, who still hasn’t fully recovered from years of being manipulated and betrayed by the woman he married. And not for Dixon, whose wife, Diane, is killed right in front of him because of an unfortunate error that he makes when in the field, and is left to raise his two children alone as a result.
(FYI: I’m fully aware that all ten of you are reading an article about a television series where CIA agents are the heroes of the story, even though Alias really doesn’t do much to make the CIA look that heroic or great. I could talk about how problematic it was for the CIA to have Jennifer Garner appear in one of their recruitment videos back in 2003, and how that was just as bad as John Krasinski singing the CIA’s praises now as part of his promo tour for Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, but this article is going to be long enough already. So I’ll just pass the mic for that over to Petr and to Kayleigh, who each had plenty to say about Krasinski and his need to do way too f-cking much.)
All that being said, if the James Bond movies (or spy-fi stories in general, minus the misogyny that is present in many of the James Bond movies, and the jingoistic, military-loving praise that is present in … well, too many action and sci-fi films) are your brand of whiskey, then Alias was the show for you. It gave viewers so many reasons to tune in every week: its detestable villains (greetings, Dr. Zhang Lee, a.k.a. “Sadistic Dentist of Asian Persuasion!” Hello to you too, McKenas Cole and your stupid f-cking box that you won’t stop talking about!), cool gadgets courtesy of Marshall, impressive disguises (including one where Sydney poses as an Italian heiress who struts with a walking stick and speaks with an accent that makes her look and sound like Lady Gaga in the trailer for House Of Gucci), poignant dramatic scenes (especially those concerning Sydney and her family), the exciting action sequences and fight choreography that will make you want to sign up for courses in Krav Maga, the edge-of-your-seat cliffhangers that made viewers go “Holy sh-t!” before immediately demanding to know what would happen next, and the ability to make you forget/ignore that this is a television show expecting you to believe that a grad-school student would ever have the time or the energy to also be a spy and go on missions that take her around the world.
As good as Season 1 of Alias was, Season 2 took the show to a whole new level and kicked it into high gear with the introduction of Sydney’s mother, KGB agent-turned-terrorist mastermind Irina Derevko (Lena Olin) and her mysterious cooperation with the CIA; Sydney and Vaughn’s growing attraction to each other; and Sloane’s villainy reaching new heights as he sought revenge on the Alliance of Twelve while attempting to gain more power through his knowledge of 15th-century inventor/philosopher Milo Rambaldi. Two episodes of the show’s second season blew the minds of Alias fans everywhere. “Phase One,” which aired right after Super Bowl 37, was an absolute game-changer. It gave us SD-6 and all of its accompanying cells being destroyed, Dixon learning the truth about SD-6 from Sydney, Will and Francie hooking up, Sydney and Vaughn finally kissing after taking down SD-6, Sloane taking down all of the SD cells as part of his master plan, Sydney in the black lingerie (accompanied by AC/DC’s “Back In Black”) immediately followed by Sydney in the red lingerie, and the biggest shocker of all: Francie being killed and replaced by a female assassin who looks exactly like her.
The Season 2 finale, “The Telling” was certainly nothing to scoff at. It had Irina telling Sydney that she is the key to fulfilling the Rambaldi prophecy right before leaping off the roof like John McClane to make her escape; Will discovering the truth about Francie and about her killer, Allison Doren, a.k.a. “Francinator,” and calling Sydney to let her know all about it right before Allison stabs him; Sydney also discovering the very same truth when listening to the voicemail from Will while sitting on the couch right next to Allison and offering her a spoonful of coffee ice cream. Which then leads to Allison confronting Sydney at gunpoint with the classic line, “I just remembered…Francie doesn’t like coffee ice cream,” and the two of them throw hands in what is known as the Best Girlfight Ever!
Followed by the ending that had Alias fans screaming at their television screens: Sydney wakes up in Hong Kong after shooting Allison, with no memory of how she got there, and is soon greeted by Vaughn, who is wearing a wedding ring, and who tells her that everyone thought she was dead because since the night that Sydney fought Allison, she was missing for two years!
And then Season 3 happened.
Lauren Reed (Melissa George), the woman who Vaughn married during Sydney’s two-year-long absence, happened. And though there were many reasons why Season 3 just didn’t work and didn’t fire on all cylinders like the previous two seasons (ABC insisting that the show move from serialized storytelling to more stand-alone episodes, J.J. stepping away from Alias so he could focus his attention on Lost, several writers and producers leaving the show), Lauren and her very existence keeping Sydney and Vaughan apart is seen by most fans as the reason why Alias wasn’t as entertaining as it used to be. (I don’t really blame Melissa George for this. She wasn’t given the best material to work with during that season, and there was no way in hell that she or her character would’ve been able to win over the Alias fanbase)
Season 4 (with Sydney, Vaughn, Dixon, Jack, and Marshall being recruited to join another black-ops division of the CIA, also led by Sloane) and Season 5 (with Sydney now pregnant and taking a younger CIA agent under her wing after she learns the truth about her employers, as Sydney once did) were attempts by the showrunners and by ABC to return Alias to its former glory, and also plant seeds for a longer shelf life with Rachel Nichols and Balthazar Getty joining the cast as Rachel Gibson and Thomas Grace, a.k.a. Sydney and Vaughn 2.0. Those attempts weren’t as successful as they had hoped, and Alias was canceled, with Season 5 being its last.
Alias may have brought the noise with its expertly choreographed action and fight scenes, but it was the outstanding work by the main cast that kept people tuning in and caring about what was happening in each episode. Kevin Weisman as Marshall, the friendly and socially awkward inventor/technological genius; Carl Lumbly as Marcus Dixon, Sydney’s partner in the field and her ride-or-die when it comes to watching her back; Ron Rifkin as Arvin Sloane, who is cruel, manipulative, and obsessed with gaining even more power through his knowledge of and access to Rambaldi and his work; Lena Olin as Irina Derevko, who is even more manipulative and ruthless when it comes to getting what she wants, even if it means having to betray and kill her husband and daughter; Victor Garber as Jack Bristow (a.k.a. “Spy Daddy,” as he was affectionately nicknamed by many Alias fans), who is uncompromising and laser-focused when it comes to his work, and regardless of how Sydney feels about him and his skills as a parent, will destroy anyone or anything that poses a threat to her (If you’re Sydney’s boyfriend and you plan to ask Jack for his blessing to propose marriage to her, don’t do it. Just don’t do it, and not just because it’s an antiquated practice that really needs to die a quick death); Michael Vartan as Michael Vaughn, who is willing to be in Sydney’s corner and fight side-by-side with her in order to take down SD-6 or any other enemy, and not just because he falls in love with her from the moment they meet.
And last but never least, Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow.
Brilliant, kind-hearted, and occasionally sarcastic (as Dr. Zhang Lee found out for himself when she was held captive and told him to spell EMETIB backwards), Sydney is one of the very best operatives that SD-6 has in their ranks. Despite being emotionally shattered after losing Danny, and discovering that her life’s work has been for the enemy instead of for her country, Sydney will fight until her very last breath to complete her mission, to protect her teammates and loved ones, and refuses to sacrifice her humanity in doing so. Yes, you may lose count of how many times you see her cry or about to cry because of the mountains of sh-t that are regularly dumped onto her plate, but that won’t stop her from wiping her tears away, taking a deep breath, and then roundhouse-kicking you in the face in order to get the job done. And she’ll do it while wearing the hell out of her many, many, many disguises.
Along with the main cast, Alias has a long list of recurring actors and guest stars bringing their skills to the table: David Anders as Julian Sark; Gina Torres as Anna Espinosa (thank you, Alias, for giving us a scene in which Anna ambushes Sydney from behind and says to her, “I was hoping you’d come.”); Mia Maestro as Nadia Santos; Greg Grunberg as Eric Weiss; Amy Acker as Kelly Peyton; Isabella Rossellini as Katya Derevko; Sônia Braga as Elena Derevko; Terry O’Quinn as Kendall, Joel Grey as Ned Bolger, a.k.a. “Arvin Clone,” “Marvin Sloane,” “The Rolling Sloanes;” Angela Bassett, Ethan Hawke, Justin Theroux, Amy Irving, Djimon Hounsou, Jonathan Banks, Peter Berg, Patricia Wettig, Ken Olin (who was also co-executive producer and directed several episodes) the late Rutger Hauer, the late Angus Scrimm, Faye Dunaway, the late Roger Moore, Sarah Shahi, Jason Segel, Ric Young, the late David Carradine, Richard Roundtree, Griffin Dunne, Ricky Gervais, Amanda Foreman, Kelly Macdonald, Christian Slater, David Cronenberg, Vivica A. Fox, Rick Yune, Raymond J. Barry, Peggy Lipton, the late, great Michael K. Williams (I really f-cking hate having to refer to him in the past tense), and Quentin Tarantino, back when he was constantly reminding people that he likes to act in films when he’s not writing and directing them.
We’re not about to forget Merrin Dungey as Francie (who was an absolute pleasure to watch, but wasn’t always given the most interesting storylines to work with, other than mostly being Sydney’s Black Best Friend) and as Allison Doren (which gave Dungey much juicier material to sink her teeth into by playing an evil assassin who throws blows with Sydney and Will); and Bradley Cooper as Will Tippin, though it wasn’t until his career and reputation was destroyed to keep him safe from SD-6 that he was finally given stuff to do that involved him with Sydney and her missions for the CIA. (More importantly, he was given a much better hairstyle than what he had in Season 1) This didn’t stop Cooper from leaving the show after Season 2 due to his decreased screentime, and moving on to bigger and better opportunities.
Alias did wonders for the careers of both Jennifer Garner and J.J. Abrams. Jennifer won a Golden Globe for her work (and even gave a shout-out to Dude, Where’s My Car? during her acceptance speech), and went on to appear in films like 13 Going On 30, Daredevil (which was the second film she worked on with future ex-husband Ben Affleck after Pearl Harbor), The Kingdom, Juno, and Love, Simon. (The less said about Peppermint, the better) J.J. went on to co-create Lost with Damon Lindelof, a show that became an even bigger phenomenon and ratings hit for ABC, before he grabbed the attention of Tom Cruise. After watching the first two seasons of Alias, Cruise liked what he saw and wanted to know if J.J. would be willing to direct Mission: Impossible 3. That mission was one that J.J. chose to accept. Especially since it finally gave him the opportunity to cast Keri Russell in an action-oriented role.
Two things: 1) I still really miss Philip Seymour Hoffman. 2) Remember the “Fetch” that was HD-DVD and how they tried really hard to make that a thing that would happen? To quote Archie and Edith Bunker: those were the daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaays!!!!! (cue studio applause)
He then went on to direct Star Trek, Super 8, Star Trek Into Darkness, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker (yes, I know how much heated discussion there is amongst Star Wars fans when it comes to The Rise Of Skywalker, and no, I don’t care). In between all of that, he produced Cloverfield (which was directed by Matt Reeves), co-created the FOX television series Fringe, and continued producing the Mission: Impossible films through his production company, Bad Robot.
Looking back on Alias and its legacy, it not only raised the bar for any and all action and spy-fi shows that followed in its wake (Dollhouse, Covert Affairs, Burn Notice, the Maggie Q version of Nikita, the short-lived Undercovers which was also produced by J.J. Abrams and blessed us with the hotness that is Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and even Kim Possible), but it also provided some much-needed representation for (mostly white) women who wanted to see themselves onscreen being brave and smart and kicking plenty of ass when necessary without needing men to come to their rescue or do all of the cool stuff. (Both Homeland and The Americans took more serious and realistic approaches in showing the effects of espionage and the War On Terror, and the latter was every bit as impressive and memorable as Alias when it comes to the disguises worn by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys)
Dana Scully, Buffy Summers, the Halliwell sisters, Lois Lane (the Teri Hatcher version), Nikita (the Peta Wilson version), and Xena laid the groundwork that made it possible for Sydney Bristow to show up and make her presence felt, and she did exactly that. Alias also touched upon how family can help you and/or hurt you in ways that nothing and no one else can, while also showing that your found family can bring you the kind of peace, support, and happiness that your biological family probably can’t and won’t. Some people may consider Alias to be Jennifer Garner’s greatest accomplishment, and it’s damn hard to disagree with that, but one other thing comes very close to holding that title. And it’s this quote from Jennifer in a 2016 Vanity Fair interview, when she discusses Ben Affleck and that very unfortunate back tattoo he decided to get:
One thing is for sure: she refuses to claim responsibility for the midlife-crisis tattoo—the rising phoenix—that takes up her estranged husband’s entire back, as seen in photographs. “You know what we would say in my hometown about that? ‘Bless his heart.’ A phoenix rising from the ashes. Am I the ashes in this scenario?” Garner says with a wink.
“I take umbrage. I refuse to be the ashes.”
Alias deserves to always be praised and remembered, but so does Jennifer Garner and her refusal to ever be the ashes.
All five seasons of Alias are now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. If, however, you’d prefer to watch all five seasons of Alias without the wack-ass elevator music that was used to replace the original song choices used in many of the episodes, you can purchase them on DVD.
And before you even ask: Yes, if you watch the pilot for Alias on Amazon Prime Video, it does still include “No Man’s Woman” by Sinéad O’Connor.
Image sources (in order of posting): Norman Jean Roy, ABC via Getty Images, Touchstone Television, Shutterstock