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The trouble with MacGuffins – The dumbing down of Alias


AliasFor my fourth installment in my look at mysteries, mythologies, and story arcs in some of my favorite shows I decided to look at one show that I think really dropped the ball: Alias. I’ve discussed the problem that Twin Peaks showed when a mystery is too intriguing not to solve. I’ve talked about how a show can succeed by having a huge mystery and only addressing it occasionally, like The X-Files. Last week I talked about the one-per-season story arc that Buffy managed to do so well.

This week I want to talk about Alias. It’s a show that I loved during the first season, liked during the second season, and, well…. It only got worse from there. Where did things go wrong for me? I know the exact moment.

It was the notorious Super Bowl episode. You remember the one. ABC positioned Alias in the coveted spot after that year’s big game. It marked what amounted to a reboot of the show. SD-6 was brought down and Vaughn and Sydney made out. I can vividly remember watching the end of the episode, waiting for Sydney to wake up from a dream. It never happened, however; instead the quality of the show just dropped tremendously as it was restructured.

I think I’m getting a little ahead of myself, though. Alias was a great show, even after the Super Bowl debacle it was still a good show. It followed Sydney Bristow, kick-butt super spy. The first season of the show was truly brilliant. Sydney was working for SD-6, which she discovered to be a evil organization masquerading as the US government. She then went to work as a double agent for the actual US government in a mission to sabotage SD-6 while gathering information about it. This set up a great structure for the show. We got to see Sydney carrying out missions for SD-6 while performing counter missions for the government. It was complex and intriguing.¬†Aside from the double agent aspect of the show, Sydney was also maintaining a normal life, keeping her dangerous job from her friends.

The SD-6 “MacGuffin” was perfect. It created a countless number of interesting plotlines. It allowed Alias to be a complex, intelligent, multi-layered show. What I don’t understand is why the writers, or whoever made the decision, decided that SD-6 should be brought down a mere halfway through the second season. To me, it made no sense.

Along with bringing down SD-6 and stripping away an entire level of complexity of the show, the Super Bowl episode also marked the death of Sydney’s friend Francie. This, along with Will’s discovery that Sydney was really a spy, removed yet another layer to the show, Sydney’s “normal life.” Suddenly, the awesome, multifaceted program became a standard spy show. Certainly it was still worth watching, but it was dumbed down significantly, and for me lost nearly all its charm. The show went through several more rebirths during its run, and each one left me more and more underwhelmed. It’s as if the show got bored with itself and all of a sudden decided to drastically change course.

The other large MacGuffin in the show was Milo Rambaldi and the many artifacts that the inventor left around the world. These served as episode-to-episode plot points. Very often they were the thing that Sydney was on a mission to find, steal, or destroy. For the most part they added intrigue and a sense of wonder to the show. They added a welcome, and subtle, science fiction element to Alias. Over time, however, even Rambaldi lost his luster and by the end of the series, I just didn’t care about the end game.

If I were running the show, I would have kept SD-6 going throughout the run of the series and solved the Rambaldi mystery much earlier. Enigmatic and mysterious figures are easy to replace. All you need is a little backstory and some intrigue. Perhaps I’m underplaying it, but I feel like the entire structure of the show changed after the Super Bowl episode, and if they had wrapped up the Rambaldi mysteries, the structure could have remained the same.

Were you an Alias fan? Did you feel the same way that I did about the Super Bowl episode?

Photo Credit: Sheryl Nields/Buena Vista Home Video

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9 Responses to “The trouble with MacGuffins – The dumbing down of Alias”

July 13, 2009 at 10:35 AM

I have to disagree. I thoroughly enjoyed the Super Bowl episode.

See, I personally don’t think that what made the show so great early on was how “smart” it was. Yes, it had rather complicated setup, but shined for me was the characters themselves (Surprise, surprise), the writing in general, the intricately balanced relationships (though, admittedly, this was tied heavily to the original premise), and, frankly, the spies, explosions, and bears, oh my!

So in my eyes when the show went off the rails is when the focus on characters took a back seat to big story pieces. Alias had always done a superb job a the weekly cliffhanger, harkening back to the golden age of the pulpy serials of yesterday. I think, however, the writters became to impressed with what they did in the first two season (The S2 cliffhanger, bringing back Irina) that they tried to replicate those shocking moments and twists again and again. Rambaldi was cool in the abstract early on, but became silly when over used and over explained.

July 13, 2009 at 10:50 AM

The spy stuff was always fun and kept me watching, but it was so much better when the stakes were higher with counter missions and such. The show was totally dumbed down, and I was disappointed.

You mention the intricate relationships… didn’t they become a whole lot less intricate as the show went on? Sydney trying to maintain friendships – ended. Everyone was brought into her spy world. The compicated relationship with Dixon and Marshall (i.e. trying to be a friend and colleague to them while they unknowningly worked for an evil organization) – simplified and ruined. Sexual tension between Sydney and Vaughn? Succombed to the classic Sam and Diane problem, once they were a couple… SO BORING. SO boring in fact the writers had to conjure up the supremely annoying and useless (and universally hated? or was that just in my circle) wife character.

Yeah… I guess we disagree. ;-)

July 13, 2009 at 11:56 AM

You’re totally right in that Vaughn and Sydney is was all about the chase. I do think, though, that its a cop out, the whole Sam and Diane thing. I find it hard to believe that you can’t redefine your writing the same way you redefine a relationship. (Though, I might argue that Vaughn was fairly boring BEFORE he got together with Sydney :) )

See, I think that the story was going to get stale, specifically with Dixon. How much longer can the story of keeping the secret be interesting?

Also, I never liked Francie. I was happy in Phase One when her story changed, (though, I didn’t like Faux Francie any more).

July 13, 2009 at 12:08 PM

I wouldn’t have had a problem with individual relationships changing (i.e. killing of Francie), but Sydney never had another friend. Her whole life just became spy stuff, and I had a problem with that. Why set up such a great, complex show only to strip all the layers away?

July 13, 2009 at 2:29 PM

I actually didn’t mind taking down SD6, as they had to do it sooner or later. Likewise, with her friends finding out. However, I thought Rimbaldi took the show away from more realistic scenarios into a never ending Harry Potter Quest for the Holy Grail story. Plus, the magic of S1 was that Sid had a normal life, friends & grad school, which she balanced with the spy stuff. I felt the killing off of Francine with the evil-spy twin Francie plot was a bit too much, although they had started to write F out of the plot anyway. But, I thought Sid’s relationship with Francie, humanized Sid. Plus, Francie’s relationship with the journalist added a new layer to the latter.

Finally, getting rid of grad school on top of her friends took away the final human element outside her spy life. Then, leaping forward into the future didn’t help either. Really? An evil spy organization will hold a US spy hostage for a # of years and NOT kill them? And, the US will automatically re-use that person as a resource again? Really? I felt the first two seasons were quite fresh. But, after awhile the show became too incestuous and maudlin -

July 13, 2009 at 2:39 PM

This write-up nails it perfectly. Alias’ first season was great. The duality of being a spy versus maintaining her cover was what made the show interesting. The show essentially changed its premise with that Super Bowl show and not for the better. There was already a tremendous amount of disbelief one had to maintain but Sydney working for Sloane again? Really??

Alias was going for a “blow the hatch” moment with the destruction of SD-6 but really just managed to eradicate its potential. Sydney essentially lived out the plot to “The Hangover” in season 3. I lost interest in the first few eps of season 4 and never completely saw the whole series.

July 13, 2009 at 4:38 PM

They brought down SD-6 because they wanted to try and make it look like they weren’t just stringing as along, instead they just strung us along with the increasingly convoluted nonsense that was Rambaldi.

July 13, 2009 at 8:00 PM

I think if they waited to kill off Francie till the final season and didn’t dump Bradley Cooper too, the show would of been better off.

SD6 being taken down was such a good episode I’ll give it a pass. We still had Sloane as the big bad so not much really changed. It was when Sloane became her boss (again) was when they screwed up his storyline.

Also the 2,3,or 4 year jump (how long was it again?) would of had more consequences if she still had living friends who didn’t know she was a spy.

July 14, 2009 at 5:11 PM

The problem with Alias is that they kept trotting out the same story every week for the last 3 seasons.

1) Capture bad guy/girl
2) New mission comes where captured baddie has vital info
3) Baddie agrees to provide vital info but only if allowed to go on mission
4) During mission have firefight, handcuff baddie to flimsy object to chase additional baddies.
5) Return to find baddie has escaped and mission was all a ploy to enable said escape.

Repeat this scenario for every episode. Or you can alternate with the bring character back from the dead playbook.

Alias became bad formula that relied on everyone being stupid in order to move the “plot” forward. That was the problem.

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