Complex TV

p. 60-61: ALIAS

Alias opens with a scene of Sydney Bristow, with bright red hair, being beaten and tortured by Chinese soldiers as they all argue in unsubtitled Mandarin. The scene plays out for a minute, ending with her handcuffed to a chair and staring at a door, where seemingly her interrogator will arrive. We then cut to another door, where a stereotypically crusty professor enters into a wood-paneled classroom to collect exams from students, including a brown-haired, healthy Sydney Bristow. The story proceeds forward from this point without clear temporal, spatial, or character orientation to explain this transformation, allowing viewers to piece it together as the episode continues; we realize that Sydney is both an astoundingly proficient and stylish secret agent (who ends up imprisoned in Taiwan on a mission at the episode’s climax) and a down-to-earth graduate student. These opening moments teach us to expect disorientation (both temporal and linguistic), a strategy that the pilot script by J. J. Abrams makes clear is by design: the script describes the arrival of the professor with the action directions, “Is this a flashback? A flash-forward? All answers in time. But meanwhile . . .” This moment also instructs us to anticipate unexpected and unexplained juxtapositions between Sydney’s dual careers—from the start, such purposeful confusion is established as one of Alias’s intrinsic norms, as the program invites us to keep watching and to pay attention to try to sort it all out, a mode of engagement that becomes more essential as the plots twist and reverse throughout the pilot and subsequent episodes. This device of starting a pilot at a moment of climax and looping back to explain how we arrived at this point has become popular for many complex series, including Breaking Bad, Damages, Revenge, and Veronica Mars, as discussed more later.

This page has paths:

This page references: