Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Alias & 24

I don't watch much television any more. As a kid, I watched almost everything I could, even the awful stuff. But nowadays I find that I'll turn off the television and radio/stereo to just let things be quiet. Most programs these days are just crap. Sitcoms have exhausted the formula. Programs are all about doctors, cops, lawyers, government agents, media people, etc. Even the supposed critical raves (Sopranos, Sex in the City, etc.) are just in-your-face ugliness wrapped up in respectablility.

Among the very few shows I make the effort to watch are Alias and 24. Both are excellent for different reasons.

Alias is eye-candy and mind-candy, pure and simple. The show is in the fine tradition of programs like I Spy, Mission: Impossible and Wild, Wild West. It's the high-tension, black-is-white world of spies armed with really cool gizmoes, presented with a thoroughly modern gloss. The pacing is very high, the music throbs and every episode finds a reason to put star Jennifer Garner is some skimpy outfit.

The epitome of this was the post-Super Bowl episode which began with CIA Agent Garner in a drop-dead sexy red teddy. In short order, she garroted the man she was supposedly seducing, shot up his airplane and bailed out over Europe as the plane went down. And that was only the first five minutes!

I admit it. The show is something of a cheap thrill. But the stars -- a uniformly excellent cast down to the guest stars and minor characters -- really sell the dialogue, and the plot zips by fast enough that reason can be suspended for enjoyment's sake. The show did have an arc, but the whole thing was completely thrown out in that post-Super Bowl episode. The premise was rewritten and smoothed out. The bad guys are still there, but now the good guys aren't double agents any more, but pure good guys. It's much more black-and-white; that may be a reflection of the times, but we'll see how it plays out.

The other show I love is 24. This is one unpredictable, tense and surprising show. Very few programs would be willing to kill a sympathetic lead in the final episode. You never know what to expect in 24 and that's the show's hook.

It's done on the British model. Last season was one long story -- of "the longest day of my life" in the show's intro -- of an assassination attempt on a presidential candidate's life. Counter-Terrorism Unit agent Jack Bauer was tasked with stopping it, while worrying about his wife who got swept up as well and a wayward daughter. (That daughter is the show's only major weak link. She has the worst possible taste in men and consistently can be counted on to make the stupidest choice in any situation. It's only the casting of the lovely Elisha Cuthbert and her perky breasts and taut midriff that makes her tolerable to any degree). And like British dramas, the show season is a self-contained whole. Everything, except lead Kiefer Sutherland (in the role of a lifetime) is on the table and anything is allowed to happen.

Last season ended definitively with a tragic win for the good guys. This season picks up a year later, with a sadder, angrier Bauer dragged into a new case -- a nuclear bomb somewhere in Los Angeles. Events from last year are not forgotten or glossed over as most American programs will do, but form the basis for this season's characterisations, again on the British drama model.

It's that unpredictability that makes the show addictive. So far this season, sympathetic character actor Sara Gilbert, as a spunky first-day-on-the-job computer expert has died, four episodes in. Xander Berkely as jerk boss George Mason has been given a lethal dose of radiation and is dying by inches right before out eyes. A ditzy bride-to-be turns out to be a murderous zealot. The assumed Muslim terrorist turns out to be a sympathetic good guy who is casually, brutally offed. An innocent man is tortured to death in front of the ditz's sister. A nuclear bomb is sought, found, faked, found again. A terrorist sees his first-born son murdered by Agent Bauer (or so he thinks...). The President sees his National Security Advisor ousted only to be replaced by a traitor in league with his ex-wife; the President's ex-wife, a real Lady MacBeth, has been switching back and forth between apparent good and bad like a pinball, playing everyone around her.... Well, I could obviously go on.

Yes, the plot is pretty thick by now, almost daunting. But this is the only show I've seen that had me literally on the edge of my seat in the first fifteen minutes of the first show of this season.

One show pushes the edges of style and pacing, while keeping its telegenic star front and center, to keep you enthralled. The other uses it's "anything goes" possibilities to the max. Both use their top-notch casts to the fullest extent. And both are some of the best television viewing there is.

(Alias is on Sunday nights, on ABC, at 8PM Central. 24 is on Fox, Tuesdays at 8PM Central.)

God help me, I sound like a television critic, don't I?

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