The pilots I’ve written about so far are ones that I was analyzing in hindsight, having seen nearly all subsequent episodes. You find more meaning in things when you already know where they’re headed. So I decided to watch and write about a pilot for a show I had never seen. I picked Alias, because it was listed by TV Guide in 2008 as one of the best pilots of the past 10 years.
We open with Jennifer Garner being tortured and sporting reddish-orange hair reminiscent of The Fifth Element. Seconds later, we find her in a contrastingly normal environment, a college classroom—a flashback? As she is leaving class with her boyfriend, there is brief mention of her part-time job at a bank, before the boyfriend surprises her with a sappy marriage proposal.
Somewhat predictably, it turns out the “bank” is a front for an international spy operation, an elite branch of the CIA. Garner’s character, Sydney, leads a double life. She’s a newly engaged grad student and a hardass spy. We get that she’s super smart, she’s tough, she looks hot in formal wear. At home, under cover of the sound of the shower, she comes clean—no pun intended—to her fiancé. Which is bad. Really bad. Which lends a problem to the whole premise: if she’s so smart, why did she break this “unbreakable” rule by revealing her true occupation?
The fiancé is killed, Sydney doesn’t want to go back to work, work isn’t down with extended grief leave. As it turns out, she’s not really working for who she thinks she’s been working for. Oh, and her father is involved. We keep getting flashes to these torture scenes, which include Garner getting a tooth mercilessly yanked out.
When Sydney finally dyes her hair red, we get the connection between past and present. (I love how women’s hair color/length is used as a marker of time. This has been used in Veronica Mars, How I Met Your Mother, Defying Gravity, and outstandingly in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where Kate Winslet’s hair is practically a character itself.)
So the viewer is caught up to the present, Garner kicks some ass, flies home, dyes her hair back, and goes to work for the CIA—the real CIA—reporting to them on the company she was originally told was the CIA. So now we have a show about a double agent, hardened by the loss of love.
I must say I’m glad this show didn’t go with the overused premise of Hero Hiding True Identity from Loved Ones (Chuck, Smallville, the short-lived Bionic Woman). Although I’m sure that issue will come up. But overall the pilot was a real downer. There was one light moment with the proposal and a weak attempt at humor with Sydney’s best friend saying something like, “You won’t believe the day I’ve had.” But unless you’re really into spy shows (or Jennifer Garner), I’m not sure what about this pilot is so exciting. Maybe I just answered my own question.