Buena Vista Home Video presents
Alias: The Complete Fourth Season (2005)
"Well, you kill your wife after learning she's a vicious, homicidal double agent, and see how rational you are."- Vaughn (Michael Vartan)
Stars: Jennifer Garner, Victor Garber, Ron Rifkin, Michael Vartan
Other Stars: Greg Grunberg, Kevin Weisman, Mia Maestro, Carl Lumbly, Gina Torres, Joel Grey, Sonia Braga, Isabella Rossellini, Lena Olin
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language, action violence, sexuality)
Run Time: Approx. 923 min.
Release Date: 2005-10-25
DVD ReviewAlias is only in its fifth season, but already it gives The X-Files a run for its money when it comes to complicated plots and confusing backstory.
A lot has changed in just over four years. When it all started, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) was TV's most put-upon heroine, forced to lead a triple-life. To her friends, she was a grad student working at a bank, but in reality, she was an agent for SD-6, a secret division of the C.I.A. Or so she thought—she soon learned her boss, Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), was really leading a terrorist cell. She soon joined the real C.I.A., acting as a double agent with the help of her handler and romantic interest Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan) and her father Jack (Victor Garber), an old associate of Sloane's. But forget all that, because, after a season and a half, Sydney finally defeated SD-6, and things changed. Since then, the show seems to "re-boot" itself every few months. At the end of Season Two, the plot jumped ahead two years. Then Sydney spent several months trying to figured out what had happened to her during those two years. And so on. Some plot elements have continued throughout (particularly the search for artifacts and writings of Rambaldi, a 15th-century inventor who made prophecies and crazy inventions that can serve as McGuffins for the present day adventures), but the only thing that's been constant is change.
If the constant reinvention keeps the show fresh, it also alienates some fans, who prefer a previous incarnation or cast member. I'll admit, currently Alias, created by J.J. Abrams, mastermind of Felicity and Lost, doesn't have the breathless energy or complex, go-for-broke storytelling of the first and second year (which stand up, quality-wise, to anything I've seen on Lost), which managed to combine equal parts suspense, action, angst, and character-motivated storytelling. Season Three took an unfortunate turn: It dropped some characters and added a few unsuccessful new ones, and spoiled the mix with a half-formed, confusing arc and a poorly-developed villain (the terrifying Alliance, which Sydney battled for two seasons, was replaced by an organization so vague, I can't even remember what they called themselves at the moment). There were still a few really strong episodes (the best co-starred Ricky Gervase of The Office), but the serial story that once steered the action had gone flat, and the formerly character-driven show became a muddled mess.
Which, perhaps, explains the biggest change in this, the series' fourth season. Moved to a new night, Wednesday, following the mega-hit Lost, and debuting in January for an uninturrupted run to the season finale, the show again reinvented itself in a network-mandated effort to attract new viewers. While shifting the focus for much of the season to standalone plots and shorter arcs, however, the writers were also able to find the characters again, to give them a little life outside of their missions and briefings. It still isn't the show it once was (old school Alias would never have settled for the confusing mid-season plot about Vaughn's search for his theoretically deceased father, which makes exactly zero sense, nor the constant, meaningless quests for "The Noun," i.e. The Trust, The Hand, ect.), but it's a vast improvement over Season Three, with a finale that plays like a love letter to longtime fans (the kind who actually try to make sense out of all the Rambaldi rantings and mythological mayhem, and wake up in a cold sweat from nightmares about giant, floating, red balls of death).
The set-up is certainly familiar. Sydney starts the season by quitting the C.I.A. to join A.P.O., a special black ops division run by... Arvin Sloane (I'm sure the government has their reasons for trusting a former, and possibly current, manical villain, but I can't tell you what they are). All her old friends are along for the ride—Jack, Vaughn, tech-guru Marshall (Kevin Weisman), agent Weiss (Greg Grunberg)—along with some new faces, including Sydney's long-lost half-sister Nadia (Mia Maestro), introduced at the end of last season, who just happens to be Sloane's daughter. Alias has always been best when dealing with Syd's spy family—Spy Mommy Irina Derevko (Lena Olin) drove the storylines in Season Two, and the show has never truly recovered from the actress' decision to leave after just a year—and Nadia adds an interesting new element to the mix, even if her sudden appearance (and haphazard insertion into the series' chronology) smacks of Cousin Oliver-style desperation on the part of the producers.
I'd go on about the season-long plot, but if you've read this far, you're either an Alias fan who has seen the show, or you don't want the surprises ruined. Just know that, as far as I'm concerned, it's a fairly good one, full of the twists and weirdness, not to mention the wigs and questionable accents, we've come to expect from the Adventures of the World's Most Tearful Spy, along with a great regular cast and some quirky guest stars (Joel Grey, Isabella Rossellini, Sonia Braga), and a finale that ranks with the series' best episodes.
Before we get there, though, there are some good standalones, and if you can adjust to the show minus the heavy mytharc (think of it as a glossier La Femme Nikita), there's a lot to like. In Ice, the A.P.O. team searches for a new weapon (clearly based on Ice 9 for Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle) that can freeze a man solid. In Welcome to Liberty Village, Sydney and Vaughn infiltrate terrorist training cell meant to replicate a typical suburb, and must pose as enemy agents learning to pose as everyday Americans. Alias does horror in Nocturne, in which Sydney begins to go crazy after she's infected with a mysterious drug (via a bite on the neck, no less). Season One nemesis Anna Espinoza (Gina Torres) shows up in Echoes, reviving the Rambaldi storyline, which continues in an arc involving a man impersonating Arvin Sloane (Joel Grey).
Nadia gets her own episode (The Orphan, which is mostly in Spanish with subtitles), as does the wacky Marshall (in the Kill Bill-themed Tuesday, he races to rescue Sydney, who has been buried alive). In Mirage, Jack is hallucinating, dying, and Sydney must pose as her mother and enter his dream world in order to extract a crucial bit of information that will save her father's life. (Obviously... How would you suggest getting information? See, that's why you aren't a spy.)
For two years, Alias was the best show no one was watching. Now, it's just a show. Still a fairly decent one, mind you, but like many ambitious, twisting serials (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files), it wasn't able to maintain the same level of giddy invention and sheer audacity forever. If Alias burned brighter than most, though, its decline hasn't been quite as drastic. Though the Fourth Season doesn't hold a candle to seasons one and two, it still makes for pretty good entertainment.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B
|Aspect Ratio||1.78:1 - Widescreen|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: Alias has great production values—it's basically an action movie every week—and the material shines on DVD. It's a dark series, but blacks are deep and free of heavy grain. Detail throughout is generally very strong, and the transfer is free from mastering problems like artifacting or edge enhancement. The show tends to look a little fuzzy even with my satellite hook-up, but the DVDs are nice and sharp.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: This action-oriented show benefits from a DD 5.1 mix that makes good use of all the channels. Dialogue is anchored in the center and always sounds natural, while the mains and surrounds fill out Michael Giacchino's pounding score (with plenty of LFE to boot). Surrounds typically carry some ambient noise, but really make their presence known during action sequences, when directionality is employed to good effect.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 154 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
10 Deleted Scenes
4 Feature/Episode commentaries by executive producer J.J. Abrams, producer Sarah Caplan, director Ken Olin, and actress Jennifer Garner on Authorized Personnel Only parts 1 & 2; writer/producers Jeffrey Bell, Drew Goddard, and Jeff Melvoin on Ice; writer/producers Jeff
Packaging: Book Gatefold
Discs 1 and 2 include a handful of audio commentaries. Executive producer J.J. Abrams, producer Sarah Caplan, director Ken Olin, and actress Jennifer Garner talk over Authorized Personnel Only parts 1 & 2, and though I would have liked to hear some chatter on the finale, they actually cover the entire year (with spoilers, so don't listen until you've seen them all) throughout this two-hour chat (recorded during the production of episode 22). It has a lot of information about production and the year four changes, and the group has a good time giggling and sharing in-jokes (Garner keeps going on about her "biscuit," and I'm not exactly sure what she means, but it sounds a little dirty). Garner has to leave halfway through part 2, sadly. Less enjoyable are the rather serious tracks for Ice and Nocturne, which feature writer/producers Jeffrey Bell, Drew Goddard, and Jeff Melvoin and writer/producers Jeff Pinker and Jesse Alexander and director Lawrence Trilling, respectively, but there is still some interesting production info scattered throughout.
The rest of the extras can be found on Disc 6, starting with a pair of fluffy interview pieces with Jennifer Garner (05m:45s) and Mia Maestro (03m:38s). Garner is joined by producer Ken Olin, and the two talk about spending four years-plus on the series and how much they enjoy the process. Garner also talks about directing an episode this season (Olin is an actor turned director). Maestro's comments are lighter, as she talks about how much fun she had joining the show and praises the cast and crew.
Guest Stars (11m:40s) is in a similar vein, and features brief chats with some of the big-name guests—Joel Grey, Gina Torres, Angela Basset, Sonia Braga, and one who shall remain nameless for spoiler-purposes.
Next is the requisite Alias blooper reel (11m:47s), which features a lot of goofy moments, as usual (I love watching the actors crack up while trying to deliver over-the-top technical dialogue). A collection of 10 deleted scenes (11m:15s) would be better if it were arranged by episode; as is, the footage is difficult to place in context.
Two "Anatomy of a Scene" featurettes, Train Fight (06m:41s) and Chopper Escape (04m:05s) provide a glimpse into all the special effects and post-production work that goes into some of the action sequences, while producer Jeffrey Bell's Director's Diary for episode 20 (13m:32s) follows the show from script, to location scouting, to production, to final edit.
Marshall's World (17m:38s) is an amusing behind-the-scenes tour with actor Kevin Weisman, who shows us around the sets and production offices as we follow him around for a day. Finally, Agent Weiss' Spy Camera (06m:43s) offers up a gallery of candid photographs taken by actor Greg Grunberg, who provides a bit of humorous commentary.
Anal DVD nerds, and I certainly am not referring to myself at all, might be interested to learn the packaging for Alias has changed for the fourth time in four releases, though at least this time it matches the previous season on the shelf. Instead of the individual DVD cases of the first two seasons or the individual plastic trays of Season Three, Season Four uses the same slipcover and cardboard case design as Lost and Desperate Housewives, with two discs overlapping on each holder.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsIn its fourth year, Alias isn't quite the heart-stopper it once was, but it's still the best dang wig-happy, prophecy-fulfilling, characters-coming-back-from-the-deading, confusing-plot-twisting, romancing-spy-angsty show on television, and that's saying something. Probably.
Joel Cunningham 2005-10-28