I'll say one thing for Jennifer Garner. She's not faking her pregnancy as Sidney on Alias. She's the real, bulky thing. And I must say, it's heartening to see an actual pregnant woman playing a pregnant woman on TV. Sidney, in a modicum of reality, has scaled back on her knockdown drag-out activities and now wages her war against international evil mostly in front of computer monitors back at headquarters. And she has a new murky, powerful network of evil to combat -- where do these things come from? -- named "Profit 5" which is made up of twelve sources (whatever they are). Here I had been going along thinking that the dastardly Deane was a genuine commandant of evil but then last night I found out that he was little better than a lieutenant. That's just as well because he got whacked by order of his own organization who feared he might reveal -- under the influence of an insidious serum concocted by Marshall -- a secret code, or password, or formula of immense importance. And what good would it do us to have the head of the evil empire bumped off this early in the season? We also found out that the new organization is not only external to governments but inside them as well. That left me with the thought that maybe, in the season's finale, we'll discover that the whole shebang is being run by George Bush out of a back room in the White House. I'd like that.  (Posted, 11/18/05)

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Sydney and Mike are really having an awful time getting together. They they were, driving happily through beautiful California scenery, talking seriously about dumping a big wedding and running off to elope. Then Mike begins to tell Sidney a secret, including the little revelation that his name's not Mike. She just has time to look concerned, when they are smashed into by another car. And that's the end of the season of Alias (May 25, 2005). This all takes place in the last three minutes, after they have returned from saving the world in a hellish Russian city where all the inhabitants are either dead or turned into maniacal ghouls. It's okay, I guess, for a show that piles on impossibility so thick watching it is like eating maple syrup stirred into peanut butter. It's good -- for a while. But a helping of beans and potatoes wouldn't be amiss.

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As Alias careens towards the season's climax it seems come down to the tale of the three Derevko sisters -- two of them good, after a fashion, and one of them screamingly evil. The trouble is we haven't known which was which. In truth, we thought that one of them was dead, killed by her loving husband because he loved his daughter more than he loved her, the mother, and he thought that she was trying to have the daughter killed. All this is pretty mixed up. But now it's clear -- maybe -- that Irina Derevko, Sidney's mother, is not dead after all, but has been held captive and tortured horribly by by her evil sister Elena, who we had thought was the best sister of all. And now Irina is going with a CIA team to stop the blowing up of the whole world, even though, after she stops it, she'll be returned to a CIA prison and kept there for the rest of her life. All this is as of May 17th. On May 23rd, we'll see, presumably whether the world is to be saved, after all. And whether Irina will be socked away in an American dungeon and forgotten about. I'm betting that the world will keep going but Irina will, somehow, find a way to escape. She's ingenious, you know.

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Alias grows ever more fantastic, which, I suppose, is appropriate for a comic book series. Now we have an alternate Arvin Sloan, who is pretty close to the actual Arvin Sloan because he had the real guy's brain contents dumped into his own head. There have been times when I have wanted somebody else's brain stuff in my head, so I could do things like read Greek and so forth. But, as I think about it, I realize that any brain comes with a lot of detritus as well as the useful information. I don't think I want my brain gunked up that way. It already has enough gunk from my own experience. As far as we can tell, though, on Alias, the ersatz Arvin likes being Arvin more than he liked being who he was. In fact, he seems to like it more than Arvin does. Why that should be the case, it's hard to say. But, on TV, wonderful things are possible.

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The personal relations on Alias are getting so convoluted it's harder and harder to care what happens to the principal characters. Sydney, for example, has gone along for almost a year believing that her mother tried to have her killed and, as a consequence, hating her memory. But now, as of April 13th, she knows her mother didn't hire anyone to kill her. Rather, somebody else set it up to look like the mother had commissioned a hit man, which, in turn, induced Sydney's father to kill the mother -- as far as we know now -- even though he still loved her, after a fashion. This is family dysfunction with vengeance. These people are so mixed up about who they care for and who they don't, and who has gone from loyal loved-one to despicable betrayer, that they've very nearly exceeded the range of human emotional possibility. At some point in this kind of personal roller-coaster the characters have whipped through so many feelings we, the viewers, can't believe they have any feelings left. When we reach the stage of thinking we're viewing only robots fitted with hate-love buttons which can be switched instantaneously, I doubt we'll want to watch them as avidly as we did in the past.

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On Alias (March 23, 2005) we learned that somebody has developed a lazer lens that can magnify a beam ten thousand times. It would enable a person who had it to use an ordinary pointing device to shoot down airliners and smash buildings. It's hard to see how it could do that. The physics doesn't seem right, somehow. But on Aliaswe don't worry about that kind of stuff. Naturally, bad guys want to get hold of this lens and the CIA, which represents the good guys -- some of the time -- wants to keep it out of their hands. The notion of a device that will place virtually unlimited power in private hands continues to be one of humanity's most avid fantasies. I've been trying to think, if I had the lens, what I would do with it. So far, I haven't come up with anything. I guess I could sell it to somebody and get rich. But that doesn't seem, quite, the right thing to do. I'd probably end up burying it out in my backyard and, then, try to forget about it.

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Alias is on a quest to get evermore savage. Have surveys ordered up by the producers proved the fans like it that way? I don't know, but last night (February 23, 2005) there was lots of torture and the heroes cut off a guy's finger to demonstrate to another bad guy they had killed him -- which they hadn't, so I guess you could say the finger-cutting-off was an act of kindness, sort of, although, come to think of it, the pain was probably greater for a live person than if he had been dead. This is plumbing the depths of darkness in a comic book fashion. There are those who will say it's perverse. But, then, there are others who will say it's a way to discharge perversity without hurting anybody (I presume method acting didn't take over so completely they really cut off the actor's finger). The purpose of adult comic books, whether in traditional form or on TV, remains a mystery to me. Sometimes I like them and sometimes I don't. I'm not sure why in either case.

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Watching Alias on February 9, 2005, I began to ask myself how many times the human mind can be twisted into a pathological shape before it is completely and permanently deformed. On a spy melodrama, of course, it can happen endlessly. But the danger TV writers face is using the device so frequently they began to dissolve their characters. In this episode, Sydney tried to kill both her father and her boyfriend. She did it because she was under the influence of powerful drug that induces paranoid fantasies. But, still, she did it. Was that Sydney or was that not Sydney? This series places all its characters in so many situations where they are deceived, betrayed, manipulated, and psychoticized that one begins to lose sense of who they are. Many of the hideous things done are supposedly in the interest of some good end. But when means become as bizarre as Alias portrays them we begin to doubt whether there are, actually, any steady ends. One thing the program does, at least. It makes me happy I never went into the spy business.

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Last night (January 19, 2005) Michael Vaughn almost got jabbed in the eye with a hypodemic that would have turned him into a icicle. At the last second, though, Sydney came smashing into the room, beat up the Irish terrorist who was supervising the injection and left unanswered forever whether his sister -- who was both a good girl and a bad girl -- would actually have plunged the needle into Michael's brain. In the melee, she got stuck, and after a few cryptic words, was, herself, transformed into something very much like a cylinder of glass. Alias seems to have decided to move ever farther into comic book world, with weapons and devices so fantastic they must have been dreamed up by a twelve year old boy. I'm not sure this is a good thing. The emotions of the heroes have to be linked closely enough with reality so we can care whether they live or die. But if they exist, essentially, in a cardboard world, can they avoid becoming cardboard figures themselves?

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Watching Alias last night (January 12, 2005), while Sydney Bristow zipped around the world trying to get hold of VALTA -- a device that has some sort of miraculous communication powers -- and vamping lots of guys in the process, I began to ask myself whether Jennifer Garner might become a real actress. I guess the first follow-up question would be why she would want to. She's making buckets of money as a comic-book heroine and shows no signs of slowing down. Yet, somewhere in her inner regions there might lurk a desire to portray more thought-provoking characters. And, if there is, does she have the ability to do it? I suspect she does. One might see her simply as a Julia Roberts knock-off, but I think she has enough distinctiveness to get out from under that stereotype. She possesses the ability to project vitality, and that, in an actor, isn't common. And in terms of conventional beauty, she's got all she needs -- more of it, in fact, than anybody needs. I'd like to see her take a shot at it someday.

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The two-hour premier extravaganza of Alias last night (January 5, 2005) was supposed to present us with fireworks. Instead, what it showed us was that TV can take up two hours doing what could have been done just as well in one. It was the same old Alias, not bad, but nothing to set anybody tingling. It's hard to know what to do when all the mysteries have been played out, either by being unraveled or by being presented so often that nobody cares any more. Did Sydney's mother really try to have her killed? Is the mother really dead? I don't know, but I don't think we care as much as we need to in order for the program to be scintillating. I'm not even sure whether we care if Arvin Sloane is really a bad guy posing as a good guy or the other way around. It seems like he would do the same things in either case, so what does it matter? The more I discover about intelligence agencies, either in life or in fiction, the more I come to believe they're essentially inconsequential. After they play their games the world will be as it was before, and just as ready to believe that their games are the biggest deals going.

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Virginia Heffernan, writing in the New York Times (January 5, 2005) about the upcoming season of Alias, says that comic books have now come to be taken so seriously they're sacrosanct. Criticizing them is, therefore, forbidden. Since Alias is essentially a comic strip there may be no point in attempting to assess its quality. But that doesn't stop Ms. Heffernan from doing just that and in the process she concludes that Alias is both silly and boring. Her thoughts about the series are fairly conventional and fail to drive me to comment. But, her thoughts about comic books themselves raise more interesting issues. From one point of view they are silly. They don't deal with what we like to call reality. They don't delve into genuine human emotions. In other words, they aren't Madam Bovaryor Anna Kerenina. But it's indisputable that they do excite a certain kind of imagination. So the serious question about them is whether that kind of imagination is worthwhile. Ms. Heffernan more than hints that comic-book imagination is a male thing and consequently that it's not worth very much. I'm less sure than she is that male and female imaginations are distinctly different, but she's probably right that little boys tend to get more caught up in comic-book worlds than girls do. Whether that's because of nature or social construction I have no idea. But even if comic books are gender identified, as Ms. Heffernan suggests, I don't think that's a reason to dismiss them entirely. Presumably boys need to have fun as much as girls do, and though boys' fun can have its questionable aspects, I still believe that boys who have had fun spread less misery in the world than those who haven't. So, all in all, I think comic books are okay. Not great, but okay. As for the new Alias, it's not coming on till tonight. So, I'll wait and tell you about it later.

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As Alias winds down towards the season finale it gets ever more frenetic. Sloan injects his beloved daughter with stuff that may destroy her brain. Sark and Lauren are just as bizarrely vicious as ever, and, still, for motives that are inexplicable. And now Vaughan, formerly Mr. Steady, has become so obsessed with killing his wife Lauren he can scarcely think of anything else. Meanwhile, Rambaldi, from beyond the grave, is trying to transmit to the present powers that will allow whomever receives them to play the end game. How can we watch such foolishness? The show's producers seem to have come up with a formula that I suspect will drive a good many melodramas in the years to come. If you can manage to create a sense of powerful emotion among your characters, the plot can be completely nuts and still not alienate viewers. In truth, it may be that the craziness of the plot somehow enhances the emotion. We are in for a future of entertainment when we will accept anything so long as it is stirred together with love and hate. Perhaps we'll even start to believe in it.

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The spy thriller, Alias, on ABC, continues to hold my interest, though it recycles its themes so shamelessly that everybody ought to have become bored with it long ago. What’s the reason for its appeal? Aside from the glitter of operations carried out in exotic capitals all round the world, it relies on a set of villains who are both perfectly villainous but, yet, strangely appealing. Lauren Reed and Sark, the current pair of really bad people, appear willing to do anything, but also seem to be developing a perverse loyalty toward one another which could scarely be called love, but in TV land may be something better. They speak to a desire that is growing in the world to be free of all restraints, to go after what you want no matter what it takes, and, then, to have a sizzling relationship right in the middle of all your devilry. Whether this is an advance of freedom, or an advance of evil, or both, I don’t know. But those are the questions that keep bringing us back to the show.

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