Reflections on ALIAS and FRINGE (Spoilers)
Recently, I decided to rewatch J.J. Abrams’s spy series Alias on Netflix streaming, and once I was done binge-watching that, I wanted to continue in the same vein, so I went on to binge-watch Abrams’s next series, Fringe, which he co-created with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. I thought I’d share my reactions.
Alias was kind of a mess of a series, starting out pretty strong but subjected to a lot of format changes at the behest of ABC executives, so it jumped around a lot. I rewatched out of curiosity, to refresh my memory about how the show had evolved and changed, about what had worked and what hadn’t.
The show centered on Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), a graduate student who also happened to be a globetrotting spy working for SD-6, which she believed to be a secret black-ops division of the CIA but that she discovered was actually a criminal organization run by Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin). She teamed up with real CIA agent Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan) to bring SD-6 down from the inside, discovering that her estranged father Jack (Victor Garber) was also a CIA mole within SD-6. Meanwhile, she tried to balance her spy responsibilities with her studies and social life, while keeping her secrets both from her college friends (Bradley Cooper and Merrin Dungey) and her fellow SD-6 coworkers who still thought they were working for the good guys, including her partner Dixon (a shamefully underused Carl Lumbly) and comic-relief tech guy Marshall (Kevin Weisman). It was an incredibly convoluted premise to begin with, and the spy missions often focused on Milo Rambaldi, a 15th-century Leonardo/Nostradamus mashup who made accurate prophecies and invented technologies centuries ahead of their time. Sloane was obsessed with Rambaldi artifacts, and so were most of the villains over the course of the series. It was an odd fantasy element to build the spy stories around, and I always found it rather silly. Sloane also cared for Sydney as if she were his own daughter, although this wasn’t established until midway through the first season. But it helped explain how Sydney got away with sabotaging all her SD-6 missions without being exposed as a mole, since Sloane, her worst enemy, was also her staunchest defender. Rather convenient, but it helped add to the nuances that made Sloane the most interesting character on the show.
Garner was at the center, though, and the series focused heavily on her multiple disguises and sexy role-playing in her spy work; but I never found her all that impressive as an actress, or even all that sexy (definitely quite attractive and fit, but never really intriguing me as much as her female co-stars did). In the early episodes, she was ridiculously broad and overemotional in a way that no experienced professional would ever be — so much so that they actually did an episode midway through season 1 in which Vaughn taught Syd to control her emotions to pass a lie-detector test, after which she was more believably restrained. As for the rest of the cast, the standouts were Garber and Rifkin. Jack was a cold, often ruthless character who gradually softened toward his daughter but remained a nasty piece of work otherwise, but Garber did a superb job and I admired his acting even when I grew to hate his character. And Rifkin did a great job making Sloane a complex and sympathetic villain. At the start of the second season, Lena Olin was added to the cast as Sydney’s mother, an enemy agent named Irina Derevko, and did very well as a nuanced, ambiguous character who gradually won over her daughter and ex-husband but still had her own hidden agendas.
Midway through season 2, ABC apparently ordered a retool to resolve the complex ongoing arc, and SD-6 and the criminal Alliance it worked for were brought down with implausible haste, although it was justified in that Sloane himself — who turned out to be aware that Sydney was a double agent — engineered the fall of the Alliance for his own reasons. For the rest of season 2, Sloane became a more overt villain and the stories got a little more unfocused. The episode right after the end of the SD-6 arc was particularly random, with the characters going on an out-of-the-blue mission with no explanation for why they in particular were assigned to it. I think it was a Super Bowl episode, which was why it was so standalone, but it was a weird and pointless interlude between the end of one phase of the story and the beginning of the next — although it did introduce an advanced disguise technology that would be relevant later in the series.
The next retool was at the end of season 2, where Sydney was abducted and woke up 2 years later with no memory of the intervening time. She came back to find Vaughn married to Lauren Reed (the gorgeous Melissa George, who has one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard), who naturally turned out to be evil eventually. And Sloane, in a deeply implausible plot twist, had been pardoned in exchange for his testimony and become the leader of a charity. It was unclear whether he’d really reformed or was just putting on an act. Irina was gone due to Lena Olin’s desire to spend more time with her family, so they invented a sister Katya (Isabella Rosselini) to fill in for her from time to time. The season focused on the pursuit of new villains (Lauren’s employers) for the most part, but late in the season, Sloane discovered his and Irina’s illegitimate daughter Nadia (Mia Maestro), i.e. Syd’s half-sister, whom he thought was the key to Rambaldi’s secrets, so he went bad again and abducted and used her to find the ultimate Rambaldi treasure.
The biggest, most whiplash-inducing retool came between seasons 3 and 4, though. In the season 3 finale, Lauren told Syd about a secret document revealing something that had been done to her and Nadia as children, explaining why they had both ended up becoming spies. The file was dated in the 1970s and clearly involved something unforgiveable that Jack had done at the time. And yet, when season 4 began, this was incredibly clumsily retconned to be a file stating that Jack had recently had Irina assassinated (though of course she later came back). Moreover, Sloane had apparently renounced Rambaldi for good and not only been re-pardoned, but actually put in charge of APO (Authorized Personnel Only), an SD-6 like group that actually was working for the CIA this time, and that incorporated all the major SD-6 and CIA characters in its roster. It was a really, really clumsy and implausible attempt to return the show to its roots, albeit with Nadia now a regular character.
And yet, it turned out to be my favorite season of the series. Despite the dumb setup, the writing was better (thanks largely to Drew Goddard’s addition to the staff) and the missions were a lot of fun, often with a strong Mission: Impossible vibe. The complex interplay between Syd, Nadia, and Sloane was intriguing, as Syd was torn between her love for her half-sister and her hatred and distrust for the father that Nadia loved. But it seemed that fatherhood had genuinely transformed Sloane. I liked Sloane as a repentant man trying to make amends for his past much better than I liked him as a villain.
The fifth season went through more changes, partly since network-mandated budget cuts required cast changes, but also because of Jennifer Garner’s pregnancy. Rachel Nichols, later of Continuum, was brought in as novice agent Rachel Gibson, who started out as a parallel for Syd (working for bad guys she thought were the good guys), and bore the brunt of the action during Garner’s pregnancy. Nichols was luminously beautiful and charming in the role, and I would’ve been happy to see her replace Garner completely. However, the back end of the season was delayed for months to coincide with Garner’s maternity leave, so Rachel ended up getting sidelined in the final episodes.
Also, they treated Nadia awfully, putting her in a coma for the majority of the final season and giving her story an unfortunate end. Not only that, but the season’s villains co-opted Sloane and lured him back to the dark side in exchange for the promise to cure Nadia. In the final few episodes, the writers basically discarded all of Sloane’s character-building, revealed that he’d been obsessed with Rambaldi all along, and reduced him to a cartoony big bad in the final few episodes — although Irina became an even more cartoony archvillain at the end, her whole personality tossed aside to accommodate a by-the-numbers good-vs.-evil final battle. And the series finale gave us another facepalm-inducing retcon. Late in season 4, when Sloane had confronted a villain who’d been pursuing Rambaldi technology, he asked why he’d been drawn into it and, when the man said he’d been promised eternal life, Sloane was disgusted that anyone could think Rambaldi’s endgame had been anything as jejune as immortality. And yet, in the series finale, the ultimate Rambaldi achievement that Sloane had been pursuing for most of his life was revealed to be… an immortality potion. Arrrggghhh!! The show really lost it at the end.
Overall, the main thing I enjoyed about Alias — aside from the cast members I praised above and others like Gina Torres and Amy Acker — was the music by Michael Giacchino, a big, bold adventure score that I really enjoyed, built around the kind of melodic leitmotifs that had fallen out of favor in live-action TV/film scoring before Giacchino brought them back with a vengeance. Actually the music in the first three seasons often frustrated me, because there was heavy dependence on pop songs, and all the orchestral action music was accompanied by a relentless, repetitive synth percussion beat like that used in the very mediocre title theme composed by Abrams. I often found myself wishing I could hear the orchestral score without the synth beat getting in the way. Fortunately, in the final two seasons, they finally let Giacchino drop the synth beat and just go wild with his fantastic orchestral scoring, which was heavily influenced by Mission: Impossible and foreshadowed Giacchino’s future work in the film franchise of the same name. The “APO era” featured a new recurring motif which strongly evoked Lalo Schifrin’s M:I theme and served much the same role as Schifrin’s “The Plot” motif in M:I, accompanying the scenes of the spy capers unfolding. Its apotheosis was in the opening of the 2-part series finale, where it’s gloriously developed in a cue that’s fully six and a third minutes long (7:10 if you count the prelude before the caper theme kicks in) as the APO team tracks down the leaders of the evil organization and takes photos of them. The sequence makes no damn sense from a story standpoint — how do they know where to find the leaders and photograph them if they don’t already know who they are? — but it’s a lot of fun and the music is fantastic. I wish there were a soundtrack release of it, but unfortunately the only score releases were from the first two seasons.
So all in all, Alias was a deeply inconsistent series with parts that were very entertaining and parts that were frustrating and disappointing. Jennifer Garner herself was one of its weakest links, not nearly as versatile an actress as was called for by her master-of-disguises role or the emotional roller coaster her character routinely went through. The frequent retools and absurd plot twists that justified them were hard to swallow as well. I’m glad I got to see (and hear) the good parts again, but I had to wade through a lot of bad parts.
I moved on to Fringe because I wanted something similar, but it proved a very different experience. It focused on an FBI team dedicated to investigating “fringe science” phenomena, weird sci-fi cases in an X-Files sort of vein. Australian actress Anna Torv starred as FBI Agent Olivia Dunham, with Joshua Jackson as genius con artist Peter Bishop, whom Olivia co-opted as keeper for her fringe-science consultant, his father Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), a mentally unstable genius (frankly, a mad scientist) whose past work turned out to have connections to a lot of the fringe cases, particularly the work he did with his old partner William Bell (Leonard Nimoy, in infrequent appearances) before Bell went on to found Massive Dynamic, the most advanced tech firm on the planet, run in Bell’s absence by the morally ambiguous Nina Sharp (Blair Brown). Lance Reddick struck an imposing presence as the Fringe team’s boss, Agent Phillip Broyles, and Jasika Nicole played Walter’s adorable and long-suffering assistant Astrid Farnsworth.
This is a show that also evolved and changed format a lot over its 5-year run. The first season is the least interesting and least cohesive, built around horrific weird-science crimes-of-the-week that have tenuous and unclear goals underlying them, along with the mystery behind the betrayal of Olivia’s dead boyfriend John Scott (the perennially wooden Mark Valley), whose evil in the pilot episode (including a cold-blooded murder) was sloppily and unsatisfactorily retconned to redeem him as a double agent within the villains’ organization.
By the end of season 1, the villains behind most of the weird crimes were revealed as a group believing our universe was threatened by invaders from a parallel reality, as predicted in a manifesto that Walter himself wrote, though he’d long since forgotten it. They were trying both to get the manifesto author’s attention with their public and shocking science crimes, and to “activate” certain people that Walter and Bell had experimented on as children, giving them cortexiphan, a fictional drug that awakened various mental superpowers, in an attempt to create supersoldiers to fight the coming war. In a coincidence that was never adequately explained, Olivia herself turned out to be one of Walter’s cortexiphan test subjects, something neither of them remembered when Olivia first chose to bring Walter in as a consultant. (I suppose it’s possible, though, that Olivia had some subconscious memory that drew her to Walter, and perhaps that Nina Sharp had pulled some strings to get her assigned in the first place. But the show itself never addressed the contrivance.) This put the core group of Olivia, Walter, and Peter at the heart of everything that was going on. The season finale had Bell bringing Olivia to “The Other Side” — an alternate universe where the World Trade Center’s twin towers are still standing and people travel in zeppelins, because alternate universes always need zeppelins — to explain the nature of the coming war, although she conveniently forgot what he’d told her once she returned, only gradually recovering the memories.
The transition to season 2 is actually pretty sloppy, with an apparent discontinuity in the events of Olivia’s transition between universes, and with an abortive attempt to introduce a new supporting character who’s set up in the first two episodes as a major player but then abruptly vanishes. (Also, in DVD/Netflix order, there’s a “leftover” season 1 episode, “Unearthed,” between the season 1 finale and the season 2 premiere. It doesn’t belong there, and was originally aired midway through season 2, where it was even more out of place. It’s completely standalone and can be watched just about anywhere in mid-season 1, or skipped altogether.) But the season advances the story by having the invaders from the other universe start to appear, in the form of cyborg shapeshifters, since most people can’t safely cross over. More importantly, this is the season where we learn the truth of how Walter is responsible for the whole crisis in the first place, and how, in his effort to save the life of his son, he inadvertently caused his alternate self (nicknamed “Walternate”) to lose his own Peter and caused increasing damage to the fabric of the universe on the other side. By the end of the season, we discover that Walternate and those on the other side see themselves as defending against invaders from our universe.
And it’s in the season 2 finale that the series finally starts to get awesome. Much of it is from the perspective of the alternate Fringe team, including a version of Olivia (nicknamed Fauxlivia) who’s far more upbeat and cheerful than our version, having never gone through the cortexiphan trials and other tragedies. At the very end, Fauxlivia abducts Olivia and takes her place, and the first third of season 3 is amazing as it alternates between episodes set on our side (with Fauxlivia impersonating Olivia and becoming romantically involved with Peter) and episodes set on the other side (with Walternate brainwashing Olivia to believe she is Fauxlivia, so that he can convince her to use her cortexiphan-enabled universe-crossing powers for his benefit). Anna Torv does an amazing job playing effectively four distinct personalities (the two very different Oliviae as themselves and as each other) and differentiating them marvelously. It rivals Tatiana Maslany’s astonishing work playing multiple clones on Orphan Black. Also, the alternate Fringe team is arguably even more likeable than the main team, and the worldbuilding of the other side is really creative and interesting. Even when the Oliviae switch back, we still get periodic episodes set on the other side as both sides build up toward the ultimate confrontation and our two sets of heroes try to avert the destruction of one or both universes.
Which leads to the next reinvention in season 4, where the show does much the same thing Eureka did in its fourth season, rewriting the timeline and carrying forward in a permanently altered history. But, whereas in Eureka the main regulars all retained their memories, in this case only Peter remembers the original timeline, and he isn’t even present for the first several episodes. Both universes are still in play, interacting more regularly, but both remember their history differently due to the changes, and several characters are substantially different. Eventually, due to cortexiphan weirdness, Olivia recovers her original memories, and she and Peter end up together. Unfortunately, the main villain of season 4 — actually an altered-history version of a villain killed off in season 1, since season 4 digs deep into the show’s history and makes the first couple of seasons feel more cohesive in retrospect — has a plan to destroy both universes and start over, and saving the universes requires isolating them once again, bringing the two-universes arc to a conclusion.
Which is an understandable decision, since the show was on the bubble of cancellation at this point. But FOX was no longer run by the same executives that fandom blames for cancelling Firefly, and the new executives gave the series every chance to survive and complete its run. So they let the series do an abbreviated final season which introduced a whole new twist on reality. Now, the show jumped forward in time a quarter-century, to a dystopian future in which the Observers — mysterious, detached bald guys in suits who were present as enigmatic watchers in many of the series’ events since the very beginning, and who turned out to be time-jumping scouts from the future — invaded our era in force and conquered the world. (At least one Observer, usually the main one played by Michael Cerveris, had at least a cameo appearance in every episode of the show, one of many hidden Easter eggs that the puzzle-loving Abrams put in the series.) Our main cast was conveniently in suspended animation the whole time and thus didn’t age, although Broyles and Nina were reduced to recurring roles due to the slashed budget. Still, they were able to tell an effective miniseries about the struggle against the invaders, one that again dug deep into the show’s early continuity and brought everything together so neatly that it felt like they’d planned it that way all along, even though they probably hadn’t. The season also added Georgina Haig as Olivia and Peter’s grown-up daughter, which was great casting; she was both utterly gorgeous and utterly convincing as Olivia’s daughter in appearance and performance.
All told, I found Fringe very impressive on a revisit. On the initial run, the show often felt unfocused to me; for some reason, I had a pretty poor memory for past episodes, so when a character or plot point recurred, I’d struggle to remember it. But on a binge-rewatch, I can see how it all ties together and it feels like a cohesive saga. It reinvented itself as frequently as Alias did, but in a way that felt far more organic and unified. Not to mention far bolder and more creative in the way the producers played around with the nature of the show’s reality. Not only did they jump between alternate universes and alter the timeline, but they’d do occasional episodes set in the past before jumping to the future. Not to mention the occasional episode built around Walter’s fondness for psychedelic drugs. (This includes the show’s biggest misfire, an anemic attempt at a musical episode called “Brown Betty,” but works out much better in the final season’s “Black Blotter.”) They even did a hallucinatory episode that was largely an animated cartoon — evidently to deal with Nimoy’s inability to appear in person in a William Bell-heavy episode, since only the scenes featuring Bell were animated. Unfortunately, it was rather clunky cel-shaded 3D done by Zoic Studios. Which was frustrating, since Fringe was a Warner Bros. show, and WB Television Animation is one of the best 2D animation studios around. I always wondered why they didn’t take advantage of that.
The show’s main title sequence even changed to fit the varying settings in time and space. The blue-tinged titles became red-tinged in the parallel universe and gold-tinged in the altered reality of season 4; there was an ’80s-CGI-styled title sequence for the two ’80s-flashback episodes; and the titles for the future-dystopia episodes were redesigned to suit that setting, gray and oppressive with the fringe-science topics flashed onscreen in earlier seasons (stuff like “Astral Projection” and “Clairvoyance”) replaced with words like “Due Process” and “Freedom” — conveying that those things were now seen as fringe ideas and improbable myths. It was fun to see the ways they played around with their own format, and it’s one of the things that made the show so distinctive.
The cast deserves a lot of credit. I’ve already mentioned how impressive Anna Torv was as the various incarnations of Olivia — and I haven’t even mentioned the episodes where Olivia was possessed by William Bell and Torv did a superb, often eerily perfect Leonard Nimoy impression. Jennifer Garner fell far short playing a master of disguise and impersonation, but Anna Torv was everything Garner failed to be. John Noble was amazing as Walter Bishop, a reformed mad scientist racked with guilt and self-doubt, childlike and struggling with sanity, and driven by deep devotion to his son. Those two really carried the show, since Joshua Jackson was a rather bland, monotonous performer by contrast. But it had a solid supporting cast, also including Kirk Acevedo and Seth Gabel. The music, by Giacchino and his orchestrator Chris Tilton, is subtler than Giacchino’s Alias scores, often in the sort of eerie horror/thriller vein that I’m not too fond of, but with some effective thematic work, including a leitmotif for the protagonists that uses the same chord structure as Abrams’s main title theme (which is much better than his annoying Alias theme), and a recurring Observer motif that becomes more villainous in the final season.
Watching Alias and Fringe back-to-back, I noticed that they both followed similar beats with their main characters’ romantic lives. In both series, the female lead has her pre-existing love interest die in the pilot, then works platonically with the male lead until they begin to act on their attraction toward the end of season 2. Then something happens to separate them, and when she returns, she finds that he’s been sleeping with another woman who turns out to have been working for the enemy; but they’re back together by the end of season 3. Later, the leading lady is separated from her love interest for most of a season, although Alias waits until season 5 while Fringe does it in season 4. And both couples end up becoming parents, though it unfolds quite differently in the two cases. Also, the main parental figure in Alias is the female lead’s father, but in Fringe it’s the male lead’s father, and the two couldn’t be more opposite in temperament. Although in both series, everything that happens, no matter how global or cosmic its impact, ends up revolving around the family of one of the leads. In many ways, the shows couldn’t be more different, but that’s why the recurring patterns struck me.
When I first started watching Fringe, I wondered if I could pretend that it and Alias were in the same universe — maybe all that silly Rambaldi stuff in the earlier show could be justified as a consequence of the time travels and weird science of the later show. There aren’t any real points of overlap between the two, nothing where they either reinforce or contradict each other. And for two consecutive shows from the same producers, they’re surprisingly lacking in common actors, the only one I noticed being Kevin Weisman, who appeared as an evil shapeshifter in one episode of Fringe. (No doubt largely because Alias was filmed in LA while Fringe was filmed in New York City in season 1 and Vancouver thereafter.) So I suppose one could pretend they went together if one wanted, but they don’t really feel like they go together. And I liked Fringe so much better than Alias that I ultimately didn’t want to bother. Let them stay separate.