Alias as Superhero Comic

No, I’m not talking about the Bendis comic, but the TV show. It’s been around for a few years, but I’m only seven episodes into Season One, renting them through Netflix. This is how all television should be watched—all it takes is a bit of patience. Ever start watching a show that has promise, only to wish you hadn’t spent all the time when it turns out to suck later on? But if you’re willing to put up with a couple seasons’ worth of lag, you can rent DVDs of the good shows at your leisure, sans commercials, sans weeks of reruns waiting for a new episode.

For those who don’t know, Alias is an espionage thriller: one part grit, three parts nifty gadgets and exotic locales. It features the now-famous Jennifer Garner as Sidney Bristow, who works (at least in the first season) for SD-6, a spy operation that tells its employees that it’s part of the CIA even though it’s not. Sidney found this out and now she’s a double agent working for the CIA, so most of her adventures include countermissions that she must carry out under the noses of her colleagues. It’s just as convoluted as it sounds, and some of her missions are even more so. It’s great fun.

It is also a spy show only on the surface. Alias is, at heart, a tale about a superhero, and even one told in a comics style despite the fact that it’s on television.

The first, most obvious, and least important piece of evidence is this: Sidney Bristow has super powers. She doesn’t fly or shoot light beams out of her fingers, but she’s fluent in at least half a dozen languages so far, she’s a martial artist and a master of all manner of spycraft, and she’s only twenty-four or twenty-five years old. As befits a superhero tale, her colleagues have similar abilities. In one episode I recently saw, Dixon, her partner at SD-6, performs surgery in order to remove a bomb from someone’s chest cavity while in the back of an ambulance careening wildly down the streets of Sao Paolo. That sort of over-the-top derring-do is routine in Alias, and it has the same rip-roaring fun of a good James Bond flick. One thing that’s clear about these spies is that beyond just being extensively well-trained, they are a People Apart.

Much more importantly, though, Sidney has a secret identity, and the show is as much about the precarious balance between her secret work and her public life as it is about her spy missions. Screen time goes not just to the climactic defusing of the bomb but also to the issue of whether Sidney’s roommate’s boyfriend is cheating on her or not. Sidney is faced with the classic dilemma of responsibility that all superheroes face: she would like nothing more than to live a normal life, but without her help the good guys won’t be able to bring SD-6 (the guys who killed her fiance—a little dash o’ the revenge motif in there for good measure) down. A big part of what makes the show great is that Sidney isn’t a stoic spy like her father—she’s emotional, deeply vulnerable, even. The danger is not that her powers will fail her but that the pressure of her dual life will overwhelm her. In sum, she fits a classic superhero archetype cut straight from the cloth of Peter Parker.

A brief sideline: it’s those personal details that also hold the keys to the show’s demise. Heck, the show may already be going downhill and I just don’t know it yet because I’m a few seasons behind. The concept is brilliant but intrinsically difficult to sustain. If it turns out that one of Sidney’s close friends has actually been a spy all along, the show will have jumped the shark. If it turns out that her mother is actually alive, the show may have jumped the shark, depending on how they handle it.

Sidney’s character isn’t the only thing that reinforces Alias as a superhero tale. Both visually and structurally, the show resembles comics. I started to lose count of how many times the camera cut into slow motion to make the viewers focus not on the continuous action but a specific image: a panel, if you will. You’ll see what I mean if you sit and watch an episode with an eye open for how many times the camera lingers on a carefully-composed tableau, whether it’s the cityscape of the latest international hotspot or the new costume that Sidney herself is sporting. Structurally, the show’s continuous (as opposed to episodic) plot and cliffhanger endings are also reminiscent of comics, though of course those techniques are by no means limited to comics.

Several times while watching, I’ve been on the verge of rolling my eyes—at some unlikely development or improbable circumstance—when I said to myself: “Remember? It’s a superhero story.” And from that perspective it all made perfect sense again. I’m not saying you have to see it through that lens to enjoy it—it’s a fine show by any measure—but I’ve found it useful. A grudging admission is in order to everyone who pestered me to watch the show back when it was first on. (Especially Jonathan.) You were right. It’s good. But I’m still glad I waited for the DVD.