DVD Review – ‘Alias Season 4’

     October 29, 2005

Posted by Frosty

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Review by Kevin Biggers

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Warning Spoilers Below

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Call Alias: Season Four the calm before the storm. Calm, though, is somewhat of a misnomer. Season four elevated the roof of J.J. Abrams’ brainchild to new heights, propelling the world-saving-episodes per season rate to be rivaled by only that of Superman, not to mention staving off cancellation at least for another season.

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Season four begins with an enthralling train sequence that aptly epitomizes the forthcoming season: after Sydney steals a devastatingly unstable isotope, our favorite agent fights her way through a slew of faceless guards only to catch the wrong kick to the face leaving her dangling from a rope hovering high above an ominous river. Her assailant steadies his hand and begins to cut but…

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72 hours earlier…

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Indeed, the dexterous hand of Abrams, never willing to forfeit the suspense so easily, forces—more appropriately—compels the audience to sit through forty minutes until they are able discover if Sydney, in what would be a historic, not to mention flummoxing television moment, drops to her certain death. While Abrams tailors the episode to intrigue the casual viewer, he knows his diehard fans need more sustenance than gunshots, martial arts and quick cuts.

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The flashback sequence begins with Sydney nearly blowing a mission, seemingly causing the death of a fellow agent. In the next shot, Sydney is throwing her proverbial badge in the face of CIA Director Hayden Chase (Angela Bassett). But have no fear. One sappy montage later, Sydney is trekking through a labyrinth of long, polished hallways and high-tech security gates only to find at the end of the maze, Chase, welcoming Sydney with open arms to a new CIA black-op unit called A.P.O. (Authorized Personnel Only). The new team is comprised of Dixon, Vaughn and her father Jack and led by no other than Arlen Sloane.

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With this refreshing and tautly composed set up, it’s hard for Abrams to fail onward—or extremely easy for Abrams to succeed. Each character has their time to shine though it’s never in question whether this is Jennifer Garner’s show or not. Garner imbues such sapid versatility and bestows such legitimate gravitas to the role of Sydney that while watching season four it’s difficult to imagine the same actress who floundered about the big screen in January’s monster flop Elektra.

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The supporting characters each could carry their own spin-off. Victor Garber inundates the role of Jack Bristow with a weighty air of mystery and significance. Garber navigates Jack through a cacophonic milieu of a season, which most notably includes the agent diverting a stream of lethal radiation from Sydney and Vaughn onto himself. With this, Jack incurs a delusional universe and unknowingly wins the ultimate affection of his emotionally distant daughter.

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Most notably, Ron Rifkin elevates the character of Arlen Sloane to breathtaking heights. Like his co-workers, the audience is innately compelled to watch this tenebrous individual as he operates on the good side. Still not all is well with Sloane. Ultimately, season four comes down to Sloane’s interpretations of Milo Rambaldi, the Abrams-imagined philosopher who embodies remarkably similar presages to that of Nostradamus. Though past the interpretations, Sloane flirts with his past obsessions of the philosopher and the power that complete comprehension and the attainment of the right materials could bring him.

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However, the presence of Nadia Santos, Sloane’s equally mysterious daughter and Sydney’s half-sister, keeps the former head of Alias’ equivalent to the evil empire at bay. Despite his apparent betrayal, one character describes Sloane as ‘shackled.’ Likely Abrams has not fully committed Sloane to evil and likely Nadia will be part of the cataclysmic struggle to bring him back. Mia Maestro, who plays Nadia, works the screen well with a refreshing seductive type of beauty that compliments Garner’s cute, girl-next-door countenance.

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The last notable of the supporting cast is Michael Vartan, who sifts more through the shadows this season. Michael Vaughn toils with secondary storylines throughout but Vartan rarely shows cracks in his performance. Still that is not the point. Vaughn is the very crux of this article for it is Vaughn, in the beginning of this season (season five), who has become the first major casualty of the show’s cast. This is why season four was the calm before the storm.

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Amidst its flirtations with low ratings and conversely its dalliances wading through the sea filled with critical panegyrics, Alias has lived a rather innocuous five-year existence. The death of Vaughn, if indeed he really is dead, marks a paradigm-shifting landmark in the series and for the first time, an uncertain future.

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Video/Audio

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The usual suspects: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, Widescreen (1.78:1, which is enhanced for 16 X 9 televisions) and Spanish subtitles. Everything looks and sounds great.

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Extras

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The DVD box is not without its rewards for Alias fanatics. The 22-episode season is accompanied by “over four hours of features.” There are two interviews, a five-minute sit-down with Jennifer Garner that is relatively innocuous, and a three-minute sort of introduction of Mia Maestro. One of the longest and most tedious parts on the extras disc is the gag reel, which runs for 11 minutes and displays the actors’ linguistic deficiencies more than anything else. There are two “Anatomy of the Scene” features, one plotting out the logistics of the aforementioned train sequence and the other of an enthralling helicopter escape. There are 10 de;le;te;d scenes to whet the pallet. The winner for the most interesting feature is the director’s diary, which basically allows the audience to assume the role of documenter as the writer and directors walk through the construction of the show. “Guest Stars of Season 4” can be explained by its moniker. It’s mildly interesting but it would have been better to have gotten input from Isabella Rossellini. The final two features on the disc, “Marshall’s World” and “Agent Weiss’ Spy Cam” (this feature particularly should be avoided for sake of preserving their energy) are more practices of tedium and will only be remotely interesting to the intense, diehard fan. Most of the purported four hour’s worth of features is taken up by four relatively insightful commentaries from the directors, writers and participants (Abrams lends his insight for the first two episodes along with Garner), though this reviewer subscribes to the predilection that commentary pervades the very subjectivity of watching a TV show or movie.

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Final Thoughts

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Alias fans must caution themselves against having a Panglossian outlook for their beloved series. Last year, Alias was an integral part of ABC’s success, the show that put ABC over the top in the network rating’s war. But now that Desperate Housewives is weathering a drought of creativity and Lost is weathering a deluge of critical apprehension, the future seems at best questionable for the series long maligned by night changes and teetering ratings—though after spending over 22 hours watching the show—without commercials—the reasoning for the ratings is obviously not at the fault of Mr. Abrams and the Alias people.

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