Sadly, Jennifer Garner gaslighting us all with her ageless visage doesn’t change the fact that Alias is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. The ABC drama, which ran from 2001 – 2006, marked one of Garner’s first starring TV roles and was a ratings success for the network in its earlier seasons.
Before J.J. Abrams was rebooting the intergalactic soap operas of not one, but two sci-fi franchises he birthed this little primetime baby – an amalgam of spy tropes and kick-ass action sequences, renessaintial prophecies, and dysfunctional family dynamics. It was the piece-de-resistance of the network’s primetime programming, nestled between Disney re-watches and police procedurals and a Skeet Ulrich show billed as a more “spiritual X-Files,” back when network TV was still the wild west and female-led action dramas few and far between.
It starred Garner as Sydney Bristow, a double agent working to take down a villainous organization known as SD-6 after the murder of her fiance. She’s joined on this mission by her father, Jack Bristow (a terrific Victor Garber) who also happens to be a government spy, and her handler/love interest Michael Vaugh (Michael Vartan).
There was a lot to love about the series. It’s reverse chronology storytelling format, which basically amounted to meeting Sydney Bristow in an impossible-to-escape predicament when the episode opened before quickly rewinding to 24 hours before said predicament to see how the hell she got there was always an intoxicating mystery told at the kind of break-neck pace that convinced the body you’ve just snorted a mountain of cocaine once the episode’s hour run was done. Its expert use of wigs — so many in fact that we wouldn’t be surprised if Catherine O’Hara watched the show for research purposes before creating her Schitt’s Creek persona(s). Its many guest stars — everyone from Ethan Hawke and Justin Theroux to Faye Dunaway and Quentin Tarantino popped up, often playing spies or spy villains thwarting Sydney’s endgame.
But a few key elements stood out, highlights that propelled this spy drama to prestige TV heights before prestige TV was really even a thing. There have been imitators and successors, many of them damn good TV shows, but even after 20 years, nothing’s ever replicated the adrenaline-pumping rush of watching Jennifer Garner cheat, fight, and wig her way out of near-death experiences on a weekly basis.
Here’s why Alias is still the best spy show on TV.
Pilots are notoriously tricky to nail down but, whatever his storytelling faults may be, kickstarting an engrossing, epic adventure is not something J.J. Abrams often struggles with. The first episode of Alias is like an Abram’s-greatest-hits catalog, an intricately detailed first chapter to Sydney Bristow’s story layered with hints of familial discord and future romantic subplots. It opens with a flame-haired Jennifer Garner getting tossed around by Taipei guards before jarringly transitioning to a college classroom. This is Sydney Bristow’s double identity. Grad student by day, CIA agent by night — depending on the time zone she’s in. And the episode fully commits to this premise, right up until her fiance is brutally murdered after she reveals the truth about her “bank job” and she discovers the people employing her are actually the bad guys. Those gasp-inducing twists are a regular theme on this show. Best get used to them now.
Jennifer Garner has the on-screen charisma of a bona fide movie star, back when those were still a thing. She’s addictively watchable in anything — hence why a certain family-oriented comedy is currently sandwiched between true crime docs and Mike Flanagan horror stories in our Netflix queue. This show was our introduction to her acting talents and it’s still the best work she’s done in her career. She’s fearless as Sydney Bristow, empathetic and engaging during the show’s many emotionally charged moments before seamlessly switching to a Terminator-style ass-kicking machine when the story necessitates. She can play a nerd, a femme fatale, a girl next door, and a rebel without a cause — and she can see-saw between all of them in the span of one episode if she must, changing personas as easily as her character changes hairstyles. Sydney Bristow is the kind of heroine you want to be best friends with, and you also want to maybe save you from a burning building, if the situation arose. She ushered in an era on TV where women could be all things — damaged and resilient, vulnerable, ambitious, stubborn, self-righteous, gutsy — and they didn’t have to possess supernatural abilities or that obligatory “chosen one” moniker to make a difference, to save the day. Sydney Bristow was once — and honestly still might be — the coolest chick on TV.
Nowadays, cliffhangers are mostly just a cheap ploy to entice audiences to stream the next episode, but during Alias’ heyday … they were still that. And something more. The show had a deft touch when it came to this specific storytelling device in later seasons — its first was admittedly littered with them — using it as a season-ending conversation starter to hold fans over until a new installment arrived or to bridge the gap between special two-hour episodes. From finding out Sydney’s love interest Michael Vaughn also had a double life to the time jump-reveal that ended the show’s second season, Alias never failed to milk every ounce of drama from its many curveballs. And even when the episode didn’t fade to black, the show infused story-changing revelations with some cliff-dangling flair. Six words: Francie. Doesn’t. Like. Coffee. Ice. Cream.
Alias was a high-octane drama filled with sci-fi-tinged subplots sure, but it was also a show filled with beautiful people which means at least a handful of them needed to be banging each other — or thinking about banging each other — at all times. The ship fans would eventually go down with was the Sydney/Vaughn pairing, and for good reason. Garner and Vartan had easy chemistry on screen which meant the spark was there from their characters’ first meeting — after Sydney turns herself into the real CIA and Vaughn becomes her new handler. But what made their bond so strong was its roots. The two started out as partners, united by their common goal of destroying SD-6 and Arvin Sloane. They became friends when Sydney’s personal life started to fly off the rails, making Vaughn her go-to confidante — and de-facto therapist on occasion. And when they finally gave in to their sexual tension, their relationship was filled with the kind of emotional roadblocks and near-death-inspired romantic monologues that fans swooned over. They weren’t the only couple to root for — we’re still mourning the loss of what could’ve been between Francie (Merrin Dungey) and Will (hello Bradley Cooper), and even though she lied, betrayed, and tried to kill him on multiple occasions, there was something undeniably sexy about the back-and-forth between Irina (Lena Olin) and Jack — but they’re why audiences stuck it out with the show in those later, wildly-uneven seasons.
A story is only as good as its villain. It’s cliched, but in the case of Alias, all too true. Whether she was battling her former boss or her believed-to-be-dead mother, Sydney Bristow never wanted for enemies. Often, the bad guys she faced were more clever and certainly more diabolical than she was, a mismatch that, while it never truly threatened her life, certainly caused us to worry for her safety almost constantly. Ron Rifkin as Arvin Sloane was the show’s overarching baddie, a man with enough fingers in too many pots for Sydney to ever really shake him down. He was complex, clearly deranged, and yet, not a complete sociopath which meant he often convinced us he had turned over a new leaf, only to renege on that promise when the mood struck. Lena Olin also gave a fantastic turn as Sydney’s treasonous mother, Irina, a double agent working for the KGB who faked her own death and spent an entire season orchestrating the downfall of the CIA from a carefully monitored prison cell. Like Sloane, her motives were impossible to pin down which made watching her manipulate from the sidelines all the more interesting. There were minor henchmen who played a part on the show as well, like the wealthy playboy-turned-cartoon-villain Sark (David Anders), Vaughn’s treacherous wife Lauren (Melissa George), and Quentin Tarantino playing the smarmiest criminal with the most obvious bad-guy name ever, McKenas Cole. They were all fun while they lasted and we never tired of watching Sydney triumph over them in the end.
Victor Garber is a national treasure and dammit if we didn’t all adopt him as our grumpy, emotionally-repressed TV dad after Alias aired. As Jack Bristow, another double-agent working to take down SD-6, he was a complicated man. Betrayed by the love of his life — who turned out to be a spy herself — he had obvious trust issues and an almost comical inability to express his feelings in earlier seasons. It was only when Sydney discovered his real allegiance and the two began working together to apprehend Sloane did their father-daughter relationship become the cornerstone of the show. Whether they were saving each other from sticky situations, turning each other into the CIA for imagined crimes, framing family members, shooting their way out of foreign prisons, or arguing on missions — they argued a lot — their relationship felt real, nuanced, and often, like the only thing worth rooting for amidst all the chaos.
Alias did not know what it had in Bradley Cooper — what it had being a future Academy Award-nominated actor and director who would one day craft a remake to a Barbara Streisand-starring musical romance and also, play Barbara Streisand’s one-time boyfriend in a Paul Thomas Anderson flick, thus cementing his status within the Streisandverse. But even if it did waste Cooper’s talents in its first few seasons, it still introduced us to the legend that would one day voice a genetically modified raccoon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and convince us quite thoroughly that he was the future Mr. Lady Gaga during the 2019 awards season circuit. Here, he played Will Tippin, a determined reporter with a soft spot for his friend Sydney Bristow. Cooper and Garner had a good rapport on-screen, and he might’ve even become a worthwhile rival in the love triangle between Vaugh, Sydney, and Will that the show was so obviously pushing. But he was nosy and out of the loop when it came to Sydney’s double-life which meant his snooping often put her in real danger so the odds were always stacked against him. Although he did pop up in later seasons when Vaughn and Syd were going through a rough patch and none of us would have objected to more of that particular romantic drama if Cooper wanted to deliver it.