Alias: Authorized Personnel Only
by Paul Ruditis
published by Simon & Schuster
304 pages, 2005
The LOST Chronicles: The Official Companion Book
by Mark Cotta Vaz
published by Hyperion
176 pages, 2005
Lost in Alias
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
In the not-too-distant past, NBC was king of prime-time. But five years ago, ABC gave one of those key evening hours to J.J. Abrams, who had been a highly-respected screenwriter. He filled his hour with Alias, one of the most exciting programs to hit the air in years. Its startling premise, a family drama set within the elegant corridors of the CIA, was inventive, rich and expertly written.
For four years, Alias has challenged the bounds of television, bringing not just winning scripts and clever direction to the medium, but a real sense of cinema. Alias packs more filmmaking into its one-hour slot than most Hollywood movies ever hope to put into twice that. And by filmmaking, I'm referring not just to the scripts and direction, but also special effects and the acting.
The leads -- Jennifer Garner, Victor Garber and Ron Rifkin -- deliver performances that are consistently riveting. The characters are written with a rare richness, but it takes real concentration to pull this off. I mean, let's face it, this stuff sometimes verges on soap, but every line and nuance is delivered with seriousness, never venturing into the kind of camp that could (and would) sink the show.
Over the years, Alias has also attracted its share of A-list guest stars, notably Lena Olin, Quentin Tarantino, Angela Bassett, Sonya Braga and Isabella Rosellini.
Alias is one of those shows that gets better and better as its inner spring winds tighter and tighter. That's saying something, because the first season was a blockbuster, filled with what would become the show's signature neck-breaking twists, double-crosses, intricately choreographed fights and Bondian gadgets. As main character Sydney Bristow learned who and what she was, so did the audience. It was great fun. A big part of what has made the show so consistently enjoyable is that Sydney's world continues to shift, forcing us all to join her on the ride, rather than just sit back and watch it unfold. The magic of Alias is that as dangerous as Sydney's world is, we want to be there with her. And we'd be quite happy if she held our hand.
Authorized Personnel Only is Alias' new behind-the-scenes exposé. It covers everything any fan would want to know: mission briefings, the stories behind SD-6, APO, the Covenant and all the Rambaldi artifacts. (Got questions? Start watching!)
Now, I didn't think J.J. Abrams could ever top Alias. But then there was Lost. If Alias can be called Brawn, then Lost is certainly Brains. But they're both brilliant TV. Like its older sibling, Lost's production values are solid. It's shot on a perfect beach on Oahu, and it's built on a framework of hidden details, ever-deepening character secrets, odd coincidences, and all the twists and turns that Abrams loves to bring to his shows &endash; and that keep us coming back week after week.
The premise here is that a jumbo jet breaks apart midair, sending the front section crashing onto the beach of an island in the Pacific. The survivors comprise a large cast, each one of whom is part stock, part shock.
There's Jack, the doctor/hero with father issues. There's Kate, the pretty girl with the violent past. There's Hurley, the fat guy who mutters "Dude" at every turn -- and who's worth $160 million. There's the father and 10-year-old son who just met. The Korean couple who speak no English -- or don't they? The model-pretty half brother and sister who might or might not have the hots for each other. The tough con man who might want to be a hero -- or just con the others at every turn. The crippled adventurer who somehow gets his legs back &endash; played by the amazing Terry O'Quinn with a strange kind of knowing insanity.
The "passenger manifest" goes on and on, and it's impressive how they all fit together, in ways that are sometimes startling.
For all its on-the-beach drama, Lost is really about what happened to these people before. Every episode is built around the strange events on the island, and every Big Moment is punctuated with telling flashbacks. Buried in them are the bits and pieces of the survivors' lives that make them who they are now, on the island. How they act, who they trust (and who they don't), what feats of heroism they step up for, all of that is made clear by what happened before they got their boarding passes.
And no, I won't spoil even one of them here. The lavishly illustrated Lost Chronicles is happy to oblige there, offering plot points, character sketches, a chapter about the making of an episode and much more.
Neophytes to either -- or both -- shows should tread carefully and think about indulging in the DVDs before letting the books spoil the fun. All four seasons of Alias are now on DVD, in multi-disc sets that boast terrific extras including deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes features and (best of all) bloopers. I can't begin to applaud the bloopers enough. Because this is a show in which the characters seldom smile, the bloopers area offer sharp contrast; they serve as a sometime shocking reminder that these people can act as well as have a friendly good time at one another's expense.
The seven-disc Lost set features the episodes, of course, plus new, unseen flashbacks; a making-of documentary about the pilot episode; audio commentaries and a detailed look at how the show came about.
Alias and Lost. They're similar in so many ways, yet entirely -- brilliantly , chillingly -- different. Put your life on hold for a while and take a deep dive into both, because if creator J.J. Abrams has anything to say about it, they're what TV's going to look, sound and feel like for a long time to come. | October 2005
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse and a contributing editor to January Magazine and Blue Coupe. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, New Jersey where he is hard at work on an exciting new chapter in his life.