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An Entry Conferring "Most Favored Televisual Entertainment" Status on the ABC Wednesday Night Lineup

Well, not quite all of it. Needless to say, given my hostility to "reality" programming, I can't get behind WifeSwap or SpouseSwitch or FamilyFlip or whatever the hell that crap is called.

But in the interest of continuing my series of Directorial Decrees, and in response to a reader request (!!), I present to you the first recipient of "Most Favored Entertainment" status, the 120 or so minutes on Wednesday night where we are treated to the work of J. J. Abrams. I'm speaking, of course, of the shows Lost and Alias, the back-to-back anchors of my weekly entertainment cycle.

I'm coming quickly to the conclusion that it's largely pointless for me to conceal my own "aging fanboy" status, so I will warn you right now that this post reflects this status without apology. Years and years of fantasy and science fiction leaves a body with particular tastes when it comes to entertainment, and I recognize that those tastes aren't universal, that not everyone will share my preferences. So this is not a post about "why Lost & Alias are great" but rather "why I like them." Caveat lector, and all that.

Damn if I'm not a dork.

So anyhow, one of the core elements that draws me to both shows is a particular style of storytelling that Abrams has been honing to good effect for the last few years, and it's a style that these shows have in common with a lot of epic book series and tv series (and if you have trouble thinking of X-Files or Star Trek as epic, well, umm, don't read further?). For ease of analog, think the original Star Wars, and how provincial and nerdy Luke Skywalker is. Or think the character of Dr. Watson, whose understanding unfolds on our behalf in Sherlock Holmes stories. A good epic series begins with characters with whom the audience can identify. But there's always a disjunct between the character's horizon and the place she or he will ultimately occupy. Luke starts out on Tatooine and ends up defeating the Empire. The process of unfolding that character's horizon until it begins to reach an epic scale is the way that epics work best for me (and for most people, I suspect). When I reviewed the movie treatment of LeGuin's Earthsea a while back, for example, one of the biggest failings of that version was that it basically ignored the unfolding that LeGuin allows for in the books themselves.

So, unfolding. In Lost, a bunch of people get on a plane and crash on an island. There's an immediate goal--how we will get home?--but Abrams's island is far more than it seems at first, which provides the outer horizon of understanding, and a goal that's becoming more and more pressing as Said gets captured by a mystery Frenchwoman (in next week's repeat), as Clare gets kidnapped, and as various suggestions of the supernatural (Walt's strangeness, Locke's miracle recovery, Jack's hallucinations) manifest. One of the ways that Abrams draws that outer horizon out, though, is by giving us flashbacks for various characters each week, helping us to identify with them as individual characters. To my mind, one of the really genius moves of Lost is this strategy for dealing with a 40+ person ensemble cast. The series starts at an intermediate point, and moves both backwards and forwards to create that inner/outer horizon dynamic.

Alias worked a little more traditionally in the sense that Sydney Bristow is our "in," as the opening sequence now goes to great length to remind us. She begins as a part-time grad student, full-time spy for a covert branch of the CIA. Except that she finds out it's not the CIA, but a terrorist organization instead, and so she goes double agent. There's way too much more to capture here, but I'll note that the first three seasons of Alias uses plot tricks galore, pushing that outer horizon outwards, just as we think we understand it all, discovering new family members, Renaissance prophecies, genetically manipulated dopplegangers, competing organizations, etc.

I think that the Abrams crew recognized a couple of dangers in the show. First, it was awfully tough, I think, for the series to attract new viewers. It's not as complex as some people make it out to be, but then, I've been watching since the get-go, and for someone hopping in during Seasons 2 or 3, it was bound to be a little difficult. And the second problem was that the show was in danger of becoming a self-parody. They'd slowly killed and doubled one of Syd's best friends, put another in witness protection, married off her love interest (in the "2 years later..." cliffhanger of Season 2). In the terms I used above, they'd slowly removed Sydney's inner horizon, the life with which the audience actually could identify, and so when Syd flirts with the idea of leaving the spy game for good, it ends up sounding disingenuous--during Season 3, it was pretty tough to imagine exactly what life she'd be leaving for.

So, Season 4. Alias has undergone something of a plot reset. Some of last season's cliffhangers are dumped, almost apologetically. Syd's recently discovered half-sister Nadia is tortured by her father (Arvin Sloane), and yet chooses to join him at the end of the 3rd season. The darkness of that choice has pretty much been abandoned in favor of a much less developed character, one that seems a little at odds with the character as it was conceived last season. They've kept the main characters together, dumped some of the marginal ones, and taken them out of the institutional context of the CIA (they're now a black ops team).

For me, the problem of the new season is that outer horizon. The only ongoing tension is the fact that Nadia remains unaware of Jack Bristow's role in the death of her (and Sydney's) mother. But "I've got a secret" is an inner horizon issue. And after 3 episodes, there's no outer horizon, no real reason for what they're doing, no ongoing villains, no context to place the characters in.

To be fair, I thought tonight's episode was the best of the new season. It felt like they finally committed to treating Vaughn as a character, and they did it in an interesting way, allowing his attempt to turn a former IRA agent turn into self-therapy. And the closing scene, where he falls asleep while Sydney tries to connect with him, led me to think that Vaughn may actually (finally!) grow into a character that's more than just "Sydney's boyfriend." That's a good thing.

And I hope that, after a few freestanders to bring in new viewers, we'll start to develop the kinds of ongoing stories that reward loyal viewing, and make a series more than an interchangeable set of shiny objects. Right now, the potential tension between Nadia and Jack just doesn't do it for me. I simply can't reconcile Nadia crying over a picture of her mother with the potentially dark, kick-ass, wild card character she was at the end of last season. It's certainly not beyond the Abrams crew to simply have her be part of the gang for a couple of months, and then turn out to be someone completely different and unpredictable later on--in fact, that'd be par for this course. But she's got to acquire some inner horizon and characterization of her own or be part of an outer horizon. The character hasn't earned a pass, as far as I'm concerned.

So, I'm guardedly optimistic about Alias. And I'm pretty high on Lost, which strikes me as a show that demonstrates Abrams's ability to learn the lessons provided by three seasons of Alias. Lost has an awful lot of polish for a new show, and it does things that no one else on the networks is even trying. For a while, I'll be watching Lost and staying tuned, but hopefully by mid-season, they'll both be can't-miss.


Yeah, I could take or leave Nadia. She's gotta be be a double agent for some rogue organization à la The Trust, The Covenant, K-Directorate (whatever happened to them?), The Alliance, etc.

You said: "There's way too much more to capture here, but I'll note that the first three seasons of Alias uses plot tricks galore, pushing that outer horizon outwards, just as we think we understand it all, discovering new family members, Renaissance prophecies, genetically manipulated dopplegangers, competing organizations, etc."

Yes, definitely the competing organizations aspect was intriguing; everyone had an endgame: Sloane, Irina, Sark, people in The Covenant and The Trust, and so on. And, it seemed for a while, Jack Bristow, who has always been one of my favorite characters. He's deliciously shady and complicated.

I, too, have watched Alias from the beginning, and it is by far my favorite on TV. So when Lost started, I was quite excited, but I never really got into it -- until now. So I am a bit behind, don't really understand, but I got the feeling that I am supposed to feel that way, so I'm going with it.

As for Alias, I was a bit perturbed by the drop all that was set up last season in the name of making Sydney hate Jack again plot twist, but according to Abrams in an interview in EW, it is a shady move that will be a more integral part later in the season. So, again, I'm going with it.

And I completely agree with Clancy -- Jack Bristow is one of the best characters on the show. He needs more storylines and face time. In fact, a nice flashback episode focused on Jack and Sloan the early years would be cool. Remember when he killed the guy from the office and then brought him back to life? That was awesome.

To rebuild Sydney's inner horizon, there are some obvious things they could do: flashbacks from her torture at the hands of the Covenant (ummm, she was tortured for months before she convinced them she was Julia Thorne. That's bound to have a psychological effect!) or simple reminiscing of her life with Francie, Will, and Danny, the guy she was going to, uh, marry!

Yeah, Jack's one of my faves too. I l-o-v-e it when he does the game theory stuff, and I really like that, even after 3+ seasons, we're never quite sure which way his moral ambiguities happen to be blowing. Maybe that's my beef with Nadia, whose ambiguities seem like they were dropped in favor of sentimentality. Having Weiss and Marshall geek-fight for her attention hasn't helped, either. I hope her character shapes up.


No one is mentioning the really obvious reason to like Alias: to see Jennifer Garner kick ass! I loved the line from the first episode: "What's your name?" "Ima." "Ima what?" "Ima gonna kick your ass!"

What I really miss from season one was the tension between Sidney being a graduate student and a spy! Like the time she had to explain why her paper was late... (And you guys wonder why I struggle so with deadlines!)

I faded out on Alias at the end of last season--what happened to Marshall's wife?

I think she's in character limbo, which, if you think about it, is better than being shot in the forehead and genetically doubled, assassinated pre-emptively, killed by your husband, or stabbed in the heart by your brother with a syringe of Ice-5. At least she's still allowed to make guest appearances...

I liked last night's episode! The suburbia-poking-fun-at was amusing. Plus, it looks like Sydney is going to experience some PTSD in the next episode (in two weeks, sigh).