Spoiler free section begins here.
Alias is one the most unbelievable, unrealistic, outlandish shows on television. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, it's also one of the most exciting and definitely the most fun. And if the thrill-a-minute ride of season one wasn't enough, season two really takes it up a notch.
Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) is back as the double agent who works for the CIA and the evil organization known as SD-6. Sloane (Ron Rifkin) is the leader of SD-6, and Agent Vaughn (Michael Vartan) is Sydney's handler. He's also her would-be lover. Add to the mix another double agent who happens to be Sydney's father (Victor Garber), and you have a show that seems like it would be too weird to work. But it does.
What surprises me most about this series is the fact that the action, and the reason for the action, is often the least important aspect of any particular episode. Sure, it gets all the glory, but the whole idea of chasing Rambaldi artifacts is nothing more than Hitchcock's McGuffin. These chases are a means to get the characters in motion, but in the end they mean little (if you doubt this, look at how quickly and easily every "important" event is brushed under the rug before the next episode). What matters, however, is how the characters react and grow.
For example, season two continues the trend of letting the secondary characters in on the big picture. They're not around just to give Sydney someone to talk with when she's not at work. Instead, they have a life of their own; a life that is vitally important to the show, with intrigues that really drive the show's emotion. In season two, Will (Bradley Cooper) gets a bigger roll, and it's plausible and exciting. Francie (Merrin Dungey) even gets in on the act. These "smaller characters," and many others, are used and developed throughout the show, an idea that other television shows can learn from.
Season two also features more humor, and this can only mean one thing. Yep, more Marshall. Lots more. This character, played perfectly by Kevin Weisman, adds the much-needed comic relief to the show, and at times, he's outright hilarious. Add some subtle humor provided by Will, Vaughn, Weiss (Greg Grunberg), and even Jack, and you have some great stuff.
But that doesn't mean this season turns its back on the bread and butter of the series. If anything, the action and excitement have multiplied. Sydney goes on 33 missions (yes, I counted), many with counter-missions for the CIA. That's an awful lot of action and suspense for 22 one-hour episodes. Of course, for all those fan boys out there, this equates to 19 wigs (I counted) and even more sexy, revealing outfits, another of the series' best traits.
Yet all these missions does have a downside. In order to get in and out of so many missions, the audience is required to suspend their disbelief through some really hard-to-swallow moments. These become readily apparent when watching too many episodes in a row, which is now easy to do with the DVD set. What's worse, much of the tension surrounding the cliffhangers is lessened when the outcome is so easily viewed. The show is written and directed with an idea that each episode will be viewed seven days after the previous one. Season two may stand up to quick viewing better than the first, but it should still be enjoyed slowly.
The show glosses over some realism to get to the heart of matters, but it's for the best. Instead, the series focuses on the action and great subplots for both the main characters and the secondary ones. Sure, I recommend taking it slowly to get the full effect of the tension, but there's little question about how much enjoyment is packed into these six discs.
End of spoiler free section.
WARNING: The following episode-by-episode section includes lots of spoilers. Read at your own risk.
Episode One: The Enemy Walks In
This is the perfect way to start the season. Structured in the classical Alias flashback style, the episode recaps what took place during the season finale, ties up most of the loose ends, manages to create a plethora of new subplots, and still has time to send Sydney on two action-packed missions. The only problems with this episode is the ease with which Jack is able to avert Sloane's suspicions and the fact that Sydney shows no ill effects from being shot in the shoulder, not even a scar.
Episode Two: Trust Me
Although this episode includes plenty of outrageous situations for Sydney, it's still a set-up piece for the season's subplots. This is great because it adds some depth to the supporting characters and still manages to keep that thrill-a-minute aspect we've all come to love about the series. The best subplot involves Will, who is found guilty of drug addiction. The writers really know how to make Will's life hell, don't they?
Episode Three: Cipher
Aside from the action created when Sydney foils Sark's plans not once but twice, the core of this episode occurs when Will and Vaughn meet for the first time. The scene is great and speaks volumes for these characters. The big bonus is that the episode features the best cliffhanger yet.
Episode Four: Dead Drop
This one's loaded with interesting developments and the tension is really beginning to mount. Sydney's mother, Irina Derevko (Lena Olin) is now consistently supplying the CIA with crucial intelligence that helps their missions. But Jack doesn't like that idea, so he apparently sabotages one of them. Meanwhile, Sark propositions Sydney to come work for him, an idea that plays out later in the season.
Episode Five: The Indicator
Just when Irina was beginning to seem like nothing more than a writer's gimmick to make the missions easier, she's taken out of the picture and assigned the death penalty for her actions. Although there are some great developments in this one, easily the best is the growing plot concerning Sloane's "dead" wife. Is she calling from the grave? Is someone trying to make Arvin go insane? This is the surprise plot of the season so far, and it really adds life to a fairly underdeveloped character.
Episode Six: Salvation
Nothing in this episode is unexpected, but everything still manages to be suspenseful, especially the final moments when Vaughn notices his fingers are hemorrhaging, a sign he has the virus. The sure sign that the writers haven't lost their sense of humor comes when Will asks Vaughn for a job. Vaughn's response? The CIA can't hire anyone with a criminal record. If you don't get the joke, you haven't been paying attention.
Episode Seven: The Counteragent
Is it just me, or is Irina beginning to sound an awful lot like Hannibal Lecture? She's in prison dolling out advice and theories, all for interesting tidbits about her daughter's personal life. It works, but for how much longer? Something needs to happen with this character soon or she'll become a cliché. Also, while this season to date has be exemplary in developing side characters, this episode focuses a bit more on Sydney, who begins to act in ways not exactly appropriate to get her way.
Episode Eight: Passage, Part One
It's now been about two months since the events of the beginning of season two, and it seems everyone has begun to trust Sydney's mom. This is too bad because events transpire that are nothing more than ridiculous. The idea of the entire family (mom, dad, and daughter), all spies, heading to New Delhi on a secret mission, well, it's just plain silly.
Episode Nine: Passage, Part Two
Part two of the only noticeably bad plots in the entire run of Alias. Irina is simply becoming too knowledgeable. How can one woman know so much about so many things? How can everyone trust her so explicitly? And how can Jack's distrust begin to lessen? Seems a bit much. Plus, this episode marks the first that Sydney goes on no new missions and the number of consecutive shows without a sexy costume grows to three.
Episode Ten: The Abduction
Finally! Marshall gets to be a part of a mission and it's definitely a success. This episode is easily the best of not only the second season, but of the entire series to date. Marshall has the best one-liners on the show, and this episode holds no punches. I was rolling with laughter. Once the laughter subsided, I realized that this comedic show is perfectly placed so that some of the tension that has built up for so long is finally released, at least slightly, allowing viewers to relax before getting into the even more crazy situations to come.
Episode Eleven: A Higher Echelon
Marshall's story continues, but this one isn't so funny since he's being held captive. But watching as Marshall helps himself escape while never breaking to the torture, well, that's simply a wonderful sight for one of the supporting characters.
Episode Twelve: The Getaway
This episode is huge in so many ways! It's perfect. Vaughn and Sydney go out on a date. Her cover's blown. So is Jack's. And the truth about the abduction of Sloane's wife comes to light. Holy cow! There's gun fire, torture, and for those who've been disappointed at the lack of revealing costumes, there's a wonderful scene with a metal detector. Now this is Alias!
Episode Thirteen: Phase One
Okay, take everything I said about episode 12 and amplify it by 100. This episode, the one that aired right after the Super Bowl, completely changes Alias forever. The Alliance is brought down, Francie is killed by someone who looks just like her, and Vaughn and Sydney kiss. What could be better? Oh, Sydney in lingerie outfits? You got it. Holy cow indeed!
Episode Fourteen: Double Agent
After the crazy turn of events in the last episode, nothing could really compare, could it? This one's a great episode, with guest star Ethan Hawke, but too many of the previous events are never really looked at too closely (this is due to the fact this episode was supposed to air before the previous episode, but they were rearranged due to the Super Bowl). Although not the best episode, the ideas here are very important for the remainder of the season.
Episode Fifteen: A Free Agent
Two things happen in this episode that make me very happy. 1) The writers remember Sydney was going to school during season one and finally let her graduate (despite no mention of classes this season). 2) Marshall's back. But this time, he's a good guy.
Episode Sixteen: Firebomb
I didn't really like this episode that much, and I think it's mainly because this is the first episode that proved Alias is officially an ensemble series. In other words, Sydney and her exciting exploits are no longer the focal point of the series. Sure, she's the "main" character, but she no longer commands all the attention. This is fine, to a point. Plus, the subplots are no longer coming into play since all major characters are fighting for one thing: taking down Sloane.
Episode Seventeen: A Dark Turn
Although this episode (and the two preceding it) are good episodes, the show is no longer as exciting as they were in the first season or at the beginning of season two. Not only is Sydney no longer the main character, this time around, her parents are the ones going on the missions. The whole idea of her father trusting her mother enough to go on a mission with her is too far fetched to suspend my disbelief. Plus, the heart of the show, Sydney, is missing from the action. That's not a good thing.
Episode Eighteen: Truth Takes Time
Finally, Sloane and his cohorts are caught. Oh wait, no they're not. Which is absolutely ridiculous. There were so many CIA agents surrounding that house, how could they escape? At this point, the series is beginning to feel like the stories are being drawn out so it can last the full 22 episodes. Not to sound like a broken record, but the lack of good, solid subplots to drive and develop the secondary characters is beginning to ruin this show.
Episode Nineteen: Endgame
This is as close to a standalone episode as Alias will ever see, and it is much needed. It continues to develop some of the secondary characters, and it also puts Sydney back in the spotlight. This time, she's not after her mother or Sloane, but their captive. It's a minor difference, but just enough to break up the monotony of the constant hunt for the same people.
Episode Twenty: Countdown
The series is starting to get a little too close to the feeling of a soap opera as the action once again takes a back seat. On the positive side, Marshall gets a love interest.
Episode Twenty-One: Second Double
Oh yeah! The end of the season really heats up as the writers once again put Will through the ringer. This character has been through so much, but each and every turn of events is very well done. This is yet another great episode that is a perfect lead-in to the season finale.
Episode Twenty-Two: The Telling
Two words: cat fight. And of course, the great cliffhanger ending. The only slip up? Letting the audience know that Will isn't dead. Either way, however, this is the perfect way to make everyone's summer hell as they wait for season three to begin, or for those unfortunate few without access to network television, a year of hell waiting for the next boxed set.
End of spoiler section.
Buena Vista presents Alias in 1.78:1 widescreen, the show's original aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen televisions. I didn't think it possible, but this season looks even better than the last. Detail is near perfect throughout, and even looks decent into the shadows. The colors, which are plentiful in this series, really shine with this presentation. Skin tones appear natural and blacks look great.
The only thing keeping this video presentation from receiving the coveted 5-star rating in my book are those few scenes that come across with a touch of grain (usually really dark shots). Although these are rare and not particularly distracting, they are noticeable due to the high standards created with the nearly flawless presentation of every other scene.
I was expecting a little more from this season's 5.1 Dolby Digital track. The rears are still used sparingly, which is too bad since this series is ripe for some surround sound with all the excitement Sydney enjoys in her life as a double agent. The rears come into play much more during the second half of the season, but never to the point of really piquing my interest. Despite this minor grievance, the audio track is still very good. The sound effects have a slightly deeper sound this time, and the music, which is key to the tension in this series, sounds perfect. Voices are crisp and clear throughout, and the general sound is well-balanced along the front channels.
Also note that all episodes are available with Spanish subtitles and are closed captioned for the hearing impaired.
Just like the Alias season one set, the menus on these discs feature clips and photos from the various episodes with the fast-paced theme music. These menus may not be overly spectacular, but the music alone got me in the mood to watch some girl powered action.
One word of caution: The episode clips and the photos naturally feature some of the more exciting moments of the series. Although they don't give outright spoilers, more times than not they showcase a scene or a costume that ruins the surprise when that clip finally appears in an episode. You have been warned.
THE BONUS FEATURES
The bonus features on Alias season two boxed set are spread over several of the six discs, with the bulk to be found on the final DVD. Here is a brief rundown of each extra feature:
The only things you'll find on disc one are advertisements. You get two trailers (Hidalgo and Pirates of the Caribbean, both in widescreen and digital sound), a full-frame commercial for Alias season three, and a commercial for Alias: The Game (widescreen/digital). WARNING: The Alias ad found on disc one includes lots of spoilers. These trailers/ads start automatically after you insert the first DVD, so I recommend either leaving the room or pressing the menu button on your remote to skip these fowl images.
This disc contains an audio commentary over the outstanding episode, "Phase One." J.J. Abrams, Jennifer Garner, Jack Bender, Greg Grunberg, and Michael Vartan (along with Victor Garber via satellite) really get into this commentary track. They obviously have a good time, and they share some fun tidbits about the series and the shoot. At one point, there's even an alternate take of an action scene in which Garner smashes the stunt man in the head. Abrams also admits to pandering to the audience with the gratuitous shots of Garner in lingerie. This is a fun commentary.
Pop this disc into your DVDR-OM drive on your computer and have access to the Alias Scriptscanner, which allows you to view the epsiode and script side-by-side.
This time around, you get an audio commentary over the episode, "A Dark Turn." The track features director Ken Olin, John Eisendrath, Jesse Alexander, and Jeff Pinkner. This one's not as good as the other, but has its merits. I didn't like all the jokes. It's one thing to have a good time with the track, but the joking gets in the way of the good information too often.
Ah, here are all the goodies (in anamorphic widescreen except when noted). First up is the set of commentaries. The first features Ken Olin, Bradley Cooper, Carl Lumbly, and Terry O'Quinn discussing "Second Double." Although this group is very entertaining, they aren't that informative. Sure, there's some good stuff, but mostly we just get an idea of how much fun it is to film the show. The second commentary features J.J. Abrams, Merrin Dungey, Ron Rifkin, Ken Olin, and Kevin Weisman discussing "The Telling." This is the best commentary from season two, as it is the most informative and one of the more entertaining. The best parts include the discussions of how difficult it is to shoot the season finale of such an exciting series.
You also get The Making of "The Telling" (45:00), a great behind-the-scenes look at the shooting of the finale. This mini-documentary includes interviews, clips, and behind-the-scenes footage. Good stuff.
The Look of Alias (12:00) is an in-depth look at those crazy, yet totally cool, wigs used for the show. Deleted scenes are, you guessed it, deleted scenes. There are seven scenes in all with a short intro by the J. J. Abrams. The scenes are definitely better off on the cutting room floor.
Perhaps the best bonus feature is the season two blooper reel. This is over four minutes of hilarious flubs and goof ups, not that boring filler some other comedy reels are made of. KROQ's Kevin and Bean Radio Show Interviews feature discussions with J.J. Abrams, Victor Garber, Kevin Weisman, and Jennifer Garner (season one). These are audio-only.
Rounding out the special features are eight commercials better known as Alias TV spots (full frame), The Making of the Video Game, and the DVDROM accessible scriptscanner.
Oh, and one more thing. As an added bonus, this boxed set includes a $10 mail-in rebate for those out there who purchased the Alias season one set. All you need is the proof-of-purchase tab from both sets, your receipt for the season two set, and the rebate form. Ten bucks off an already worthy set? What's not to like about that?
I was hooked on Alias after watching season one, but season two is even better. And so is the new boxed set, with a slightly improved audio/video presentation, and some good extras. Considering season one owners get a $10 rebate with this set, I can't recommend it highly enough.