It is easy to forget, for all the subsequent success with the Mission Impossible, Star Trek and now Star Wars mega-franchises, that the pilot episode of ABC’s Alias remains one of the best things producing and show-running supremo J.J. Abrams has ever done. ‘Truth Be Told’ is a blistering sixty five minute opening to a rare TV show – one which comes on the face of it fully packaged, fully formed, and with a confidence and spring in its step that belies its quiet, low-fi origins. There is more to this package, and how it was created however, than meets the eye.
One aspect you notice with ‘Truth Be Told’, which steadily begins to rescind as the season progresses, is just how much of a preppy, late 1990’s overhang the whole thing has; be it in the classical American college environment Sydney studies in, to Abrams layering the soundtrack with grungy 90’s ballads, and without question the sparky, happy relationship Syd has with her fiancee Danny – his proposal is straight out of 10 Things I Hate About You.
Yet the show doesn’t feel rooted, even in the pilot, in 90’s storytelling. If it resembles anything in tone and style from that decade, it would be Buffy the Vampire Slayer; characters occasionally drop in pop-culture references, Abrams throws in one-liners, dry sarcasm, and there is even a balance between older and younger characters, not to mention characters who both exist in the real world and the world of espionage, which is equivalent to the supernatural world of monsters Buffy inhabits looking at the show in mythological terms.
‘Truth Be Told’ also has a defined sense of visual style, which comes across in how Abrams manages to design the aesthetic of the world inAlias. The core idea of SD-6, a fake American black ops agency hiding behind a corporate structure named Credit Dauphine, is presented in grungy, stripped back tones, as if the agency are inside a warehouse and could pop up out of nowhere and disappear into the background just as easily – an agency hiding in plain sight, which is appropriate given what Syd discovers about them as the story unfurls. It feels oddly post-modern, hi-tech but in a less overtly futuristic manner than intelligence agencies in cinema (such as True Lies, for example) would present a covert ops agency.
In the end, the reason ‘Truth Be Told’ works is because of character. While Abrams establishes a world with interesting production design and seeds of a mythology which will enrich the show (even if it’ll also confuse and hamper it), Alias arrives well-packaged because the characters are, already, so well-drawn. Sydney Bristow really should be more of a signature face in popular culture; an all-American action heroine, she takes a cue from legendary female spies such as The Avengers’ Emma Peel, video game stalwarts like Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, or cinematic icons like Aliens’ Ellen Ripley. She is feminine, strong, vulnerable and sympathetic all at once, not to mention capable of effortless cool, and a great deal of that is down to the immediately likeable performance of Jennifer Garner, another breakout face and name from the series.
‘Truth Be Told’ really puts Sydney through the emotional wringer; she loses the man she loves, finds out her father has been a spy all along, and discovers she has been working, as Jack puts it,“for the enemy you thought you were fighting”. In just over an hour, Sydney is well-established as a woman who makes a terrible mistake that ends up with her fiancee dead and her life changing significantly, while introducing a range of impressive supporting players in her wake. You get an instant sense of Jack, for example, in the brilliantly-written first moment when Danny asks him for Sydney’s hand in marriage. “Welcome to the family”might be the line of the episode. Victor Garber instantaneously reveals a hard-hearted man on the outside concealing a dry-witted, deeply caring man within, one who we’ll see is riven with a haunting level of tragedy the show plays out beautifully across the five years.
What Abrams does well in ‘Truth Be Told’ is establish that Alias is really about this father-daughter relationship, and how it evolves within the highly-covert world of espionage Sydney and Jack inhabit. The show will built on the ‘family’ aspect within the Alias team of characters, and it will try and convince us the series is really about the romantic entanglement between Syd and her handler we meet at the end of the pilot, Michael Vaughn, but the truth is the heart of Alias is Syd & Jack. That’s what means the most in ‘Truth Be Told’ and it’s what packs the biggest punch in series finale, ‘All the Time in the World’.“I guess we’ll just have to trust each other”, Jack’s final line, could be a thought that carries across the entire series.
Other characters, we get an impression of to be built on across the season. Marcus Dixon instantly comes across as seasoned in his role, even a bit cranky about modern technology, but he and Syd instantly have an enjoyable big brother-little sister vibe to their relationship; Marshall, as we have discussed, begins much like a post-modern trope, but plenty of engaging shades will be added to the guy beyond just comic relief in time.
Will Tippin is nicely set up as the complication in Syd’s personal life, visibly a man in love with her and struggling with the idea she may get married, but he also feels like Abrams testing the water with he being the pop-culture cipher. The writing for a nascent, pre A-list Bradley Cooper never really allows Will to go down this road, with Abrams more having Will follow an All the President’s Men journey, but it’s one of Alias’ greatest ironies that the character least well-served by the series would be played by its most successful actor in future by far.
Arvin Sloane, of course, will go on to be the show’s primary antagonist, so it’s intriguing just how low-key Ron Rifkin plays him across much of ‘Truth Be Told’. Sloane is a small, aged, almost certainly Jewish man, and on the face of it does not drip menace, indeed here Sloane feels positively corporate himself in a role which often is largely expository as the traditional boss character. He doesn’t even display the level of interest he will later show in the Rambaldi mythos, almost certainly because at this stage Abrams and his writers hadn’t quite figured out the connections between Sloane and the underpinning mythology.
There is a sense of foreboding about ‘Truth Be Told’. Abrams starting in media resand returning repeatedly to the torture we know Sydney will experience threads the piece with an ominous understanding everything in her life is going to fall apart. It’s very interesting how Syd’s choices are the reason they do, as well. Granted, had she not have been working for an evil, global crime syndicate, chances are telling Danny she was a spy wouldn’t have seen him murdered in cold blood, but she still breaks rules she knows she shouldn’t break. A lot of this comes from a place of loneliness, a place Syd will fight against across the show: “I didn’t feel like I fit in, even in college”she explains, which hints at deeper revelations about her past and her family, but speaks to her psychology.
Syd tells Danny the truth because he’s planning a future with her and she cannot bear to lie to him for the rest of it, but equally that compulsion to save lives and do the one thing she is truly good at means she can’t just quit. It’s interesting how Dixon sees it differently in relation his wife Diane, who has been in the dark for years: “I am protecting her from the truth”he rationalises it, that this is the one rule you don’t break. It’s even more powerful as a viewer when Dixon has to tell Diane in Season 2 when his own world falls apart. Syd nonetheless suffers the consequences of her risk, to try and live a life without secrets, and even Danny is fine with it: “I don’t care. The whole world’s a nightmare anyway”. Given this episode aired less than three weeks after 9/11, this reaction feels even more acute and timely, as do the big surveillance aspects involved in his murder.
We see satellites working. Phones tapped. Surveillance of the 21stcentury where privacy laws are being eroded, and 9/11 will only see a massive increase in the monitoring of American citizens in the reaction to modern terrorism. The fact Danny is killed so quickly as a result of this, especially by the sinister enemy within, the externalisation of an American fear which goes right back to the Cold War days of the 50’s and 60’s Alias stylistically is playing off, is particularly ironic.
Abrams frames this against more of those retro-trappings; juxtaposing Danny’s drunken call with a ballgown clad Syd, in full Bond mission mode, sneaking into an embassy to do her spy thing while backed by Michael Giacchino’s already impressionistic music… it’s all part of Alias’ already stylish brew. You get the same thing when Syd, under fire by SD-6 agents, calls Francie as part of tricking them.“D’you want to hear about the worst day ever?”. It’s a balance of comedy and danger that works really well.
Yet it counterpoints this with the raw pain and horror of Syd finding Danny dead (and Garner’s wonderfully naturalised reaction), or her furious stalking into Sloane’s office ready to rip him apart for an action he doesn’t even apologise for and even suggests *she* is to blame for, incredulously to her (even if, in part, he’s right). ‘Truth Be Told’ does have moments which emotionally punch you in the gut between all the pulse-pounding action and nifty spy stylistics. Thematically, it all tethers and builds well across the piece, with Abrams squeezing whatever drop of emotion out of a well constructed script in order to get Syd from a happy woman with a double life, to a tragic widow about to become a double agent. Abrams breaks her down in order to set her up with the ‘alias’ she will need to take down that enemy within.
Alias, therefore, delivers with a first episode which superbly establishes both the cast and narrative structure of a show which will, right from the off, attempt to pull a trick many other series would baulk at – long-form, serialised storytelling with regular, daring cliffhangers and a sense of momentum building to bigger personal revelations. ‘Truth Be Told’ proves J.J. Abrams has a rare gift for telling a thrilling story, with an instant sense of world-building and mythology, while rooting it inside character and emotion.
There is lots more to be explored as we head into Season 1 but, as the show makes clear, truth takes time…
Are you a fan of Alias? Let us know. This is an abridged version of a review that first aired on Cultural Conversation, which you can read here.