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Good Night, Sweet Syd

You've got to really think back to recall it, but once upon a time, Alias was the most preposterously thrilling show on television. Sprinting onto screens in the soul-rattling aftermath of the September 11 attacks, J.J. Abrams' superspy adventure -- pitch-style premise: Felicity in the CIA -- yanked viewers headfirst into a thrilling world of chases, fights, doublecrosses, and narrow escapes. It was desperately needed escapism, and by God, it worked.

Alias was young, it was hungry, and it had something to prove. As apple-cheeked badass Sydney Bristow, Jennifer Garner did many of her own stunts, and the sheer energy, sincerity, and hustle she brought to the role shone through onscreen. Abrams, then best-known for a cult-hit melodrama nearly derailed by one disastrous haircut, staged inventive action sequences that wrung every last dime from the show's budget, and somehow never let the show collapse under the weight of its increasingly improbable premise. Best of all, nearly every episode ended with a breathtaking cliffhanger, doled out with a regularity and a malicious glee that even Joss Whedon would envy.

The Alias that lurched a close last Monday was scarcely recognizable from its initial self. The cliffhangers and action scenes were mostly gone, trimmed away along with a hefty chunk of the show's budget in a previous cancellation-averting compromise. The scenes of Sydney's ordinary life with her ordinary friends, so essential to the show's original premise (without them, Felicity in the CIA just becomes, um, The CIA) had dried up and blown away years before. (At least when they left, they took away the Felicity-style sappy Lilith Fair soundtrack with them.) Garner, post-baby, -Elektra, and -Affleck, looked visibly bored and tired, while a long-gone Abrams had already begun and abandoned another series for the cold embrace of Hollywood. Alias had shifted from a show where things happened to a series in which people stood in various small rooms and talked to one another.

So it's impressive that the show seemed to regain at least a flicker of its former glory in its final two hours. It didn't get everything right, but at this point even doing things half-right was the equivalent of giving the show a good Viking funeral.

As Agent Tom Grace, Balthazar Getty -- hey, Bathazar, when is "Feast" coming out? -- has been a cypher all season long, a mumbly pseudo-Vaughn sustained largely by sporadic flashes of charisma and whatever clever lines the writers deigned to toss him. Yet I got seriously choked up by his final quiet moments, talking to Sydney-in-training Rachel (a rapidly improving Rachel Nichols) while waiting out the timer on a bomb he could neither defuse nor escape. The sweetly relieved smile on Tom's face when he heard Rachel say she would have gone out with him did more to develop his character than the entire preceding season had.

Rachel herself didn't fare too badly -- bonus points for a truly excellent use of an underwire -- though I wish she'd had more of a showdown with her deliciously nasty rival, Kelly Peyton (the wondrous Amy Acker). After a season full of superlative villainy, it was a bit anticlimactic to see Acker reduced to a whimpering coward by a single serpent. At least they both came out better than poor Carl Lumbly as Dixon. He was, well, there, as he'd been since the writers completely stopped trying to find anything to do with him. Except this time, he was there in dreadlocks, which was a bad idea for all concerned.

Ubergeek Marshall Flinkman (Kevin Weisman), one of only two characters on the show who never jumped the shark, got some of his best moments in the entire series. TeeVee readers may already know that I love me some Flinkman, but he never seemed braver, more mature, or less twitchy than he did in his final staredown with the evil Arvin Sloane.

And then, of course, there was Jack Bristow. The One True Jack. The Jack Before Whom All Others Must Bow. Victor Garber never stopped being a consummate badass from the moment the series began, and one of the only bright spots in Alias' later seasons was Garber and the writers' increasing willingness to have fun with Jack's gift for flinty, humorless mayhem. Though I initially rooted for Jack to come out of the episode alive -- the man is simply too mean to die -- the fantastic, entirely-in-character end he met was too good not to cheer for. Oh, sure, 24's Jack Bauer is a handy man with a set of alligator clips and a car battery, but would he take three shots to the chest, haul himself upright, secure a bandolier of high explosives, give an offer of guaranteed life everlasting the finger, and blow himself right the hell up just to screw over the man who done his little girl wrong? I think not. Jack Bristow, rest in peace. You've got a posse.

Even Ron Rifkin's Arvin Sloane, who'd been a curiously sympathetic and shaded villain since the series began, met what I considered a fitting end. I've seen other fans complain about Sloane's seemingly inconsistent characterization as he yo-yo'd from bad to good and back again, but I somehow bought the gray areas Rifkin operated in. Bringing back his freshly killed daughter Nadia (perpetually hot Mia Maestro) as the ghostly representative of his conscience could have been cheesy, but I liked it nonetheless.

And hey, as a cherry on top, they brought back slippery, sleepy-eyed Sark (David Anders). Sark is always, always awesome. Sark has been awesome since his very first scene in season one. Sark needs his own spinoff series.

So what did Alias' finale get wrong? Well, it would have been nice for Garner to at least try to come back to life onscreen, or demonstrate any kind of chemistry with Michael Vartan as the back-from-the-dead Michael Vaughn. The former offscreen couple still seemed to have some kind of spark in this season's first episode, and again when Vartan resurfaced in a clever midseason episode, but that rapport seemed well and truly snuffed by the time Vartan returned a few episodes back.

And most egregiously, the Alias finale did Spy Mommy a serious disservice. In the second season, Lena Olin's Irina Derevko was a sinuous marvel, never entirely good or evil, but always clearly devoted to her daughter. The series' dismal third season might have fared better if Olin hadn't pitched a salary hissyfit and refused to come back. (Yeah, "Hollywood Homicide" was a really smart career alternative, wasn't it?) Her return at the end of the fourth season helped greatly improve that entire year, and it seemed like she was firmly encamped on the side of the angels. But... uh... no. The writers, desperately casting about for a series-capping archvillain, seized on Irina, shearing off all of the character's delightful ambiguity in the process. Goodbye, established character development! Hello, unsatisfying end cribbed directly from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade!"

TV won't be quite the same without Alias. I'll miss the thrills, the wigs, the head-kicks, and the persistent, effervescent sense of fun. Then again, I've been missing them for years, and the series has soldiered on nonetheless. It's a mercy that Alias is dead, really -- especially since it went out on a relatively high note. The miracle's not that it stayed alive as long as it did after losing its spark, but that it stayed as good as it was for as long as it did.

Sayonara, Sydney. Kick a few heads for me on your way out.


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