Monday, April 23, 2018

Breaking down the pilot of ALIAS

A while back I did a series of live-tweets of pilot episodes, with the intent of breaking these pilots down and showing the elements that are present in a strong pilot. The result isn't QUITE a scene-by-scene accounting of everything in the show, but it does work as a running commentary on how shows establish themselves, their characters, their overarching plots and themes.

At the time, my intent was to repurpose those as blog posts, but it ended up being something that fell by the wayside after I did my first one, VERONICA MARS.  I've since decided to go back and archive them here, while making some edits for clarity and expounding on a few ideas where necessary.

This post focuses on the pilot of ALIAS. You can find the original tweet-thread here.

Opening: Sydney being tortured. She's got bright red dyed hair. Interrogators are... North Korean? I think? Point is: we open In Media Res with our lead in danger.

Cut: and now we're in the past. Sydney's a brunette college student being told to finish her blue book essay.

Third scene: college campus, she's with her boyfriend Danny. Vertical Horizon's on the soundtrack. It's 2001. Danny proposes to Sydney on the quad while singing Build Me Up Buttercup. It's embarrassing and adorable.

4th Scene: Intro roommate Francie as Syd shows off her ring. She hasn't told her dad, "I don't want him to ruin this." So she doesn't like Dad, and her mom's spoken of in past-tense. Danny apparently called Mr. Bristow to ask for his blessing. Flashback to Danny calling Jack Bristow. Jack is a jerk, giving a terse response that includes, "If you feel the need to ask me... I have a sense you don't know Sidney at all." Jack takes him apart rather coldly. "I will not be used as part of a charming anecdote you tell at parties." Oh, and Jack also exports airplane parts. Meant to imply it's a boring job.

Next sequence: Sydney goes to work at the bank... then enters a James Bondian secret entrance to her real job... spy headquarters. (Visual detail: she removes her engagement ring before she goes in). Next couple scenes introduce the spy regulars: Sloane - taskmaster boss, Marshall - tech guy, Dixon - Sydney's partner. We've seen this kind of Mission Briefing scene a million times. Exposition central. Marshall's goofiness and gadgets add some flair though. I'm not gonna recap all the exposition here, but suffice to say it's all crucial to the mission later.

Next scene: Sydney running with her friend Will. He's kvetching that his blind date's favorite movie of all time was PRETTY WOMAN. He asks Sydney to a movie. She tells him Danny proposed. The way she breaks the news and his reaction tell us a big thing: he's into her.

Next Sydney/Danny interaction: romantic scene has her leading him into the shower... where she tells him she's a spy. "I work for the CIA." He laughs. Realizes she's serious. We don't see more than this. We don't need to.

And now we're back to the torture scene, just to remind us there are stakes here. By the way, all that pipe laying took about 15 minutes: dual life, all the major characters, etc. This thing MOVES. And it's the end of Act One.

Now we're in flashback as Sydney tells us (and Danny) how she was recruited into a "covert branch" of the agency while still in college. It's an exposition dump, but like VERONICA MARS, it waited until the second act.

Sydney goes away on a mission with Dixon. Discuss how Sloane doesn't like she's in grad school and has an outside life. Dixon reminds Sydney that the one rule they don't break is telling people in their lives that they're spies. (This would be STAKES).

This next sequence seems to be here to give us an idea of what a "routine" mission looks like for Sydney. Guest at a formal function. Meanwhile, Danny calls Syd's answering machine and leaves a message discussing his feelings about her spy life. "People aren't spies forever." This is intercut with Sydney's mission, advancing both things at once. We also see Sloane getting a call that's informing him about Danny.

Sydney's caught on video finishing her mission. She's seen by the same men later torturing her. But we know this doesn't lead to that because of the red hair in those scenes. See how details like that keep things clean for the audience?

Sloane informs someone that "we have a breach" regarding Sydney telling Danny. He slides the folder across the table to... Sydney's father! "You know where my loyalties lie." Jack tells him, not un-sinisterly.

Sydney comes home, finds Danny murdered in his bathtub. She races to the office confronts Sloane, who is stern and unsympathetic. Some great Sloane dialogue here that I don't have time to transcribe. Sydney grabs him: "You killed the man I love." "No... you did." Sydney's given a polygraph, in a scene that informs us she's part of SD-6. It's repeated several times so we'll remember SD-6 later. There's a neat bit in here with Sydney reading Sloane's lips through the interrogation room window. Communicated just through ECUs.

Interrogation: Sydney gives some smart-ass answers. Like with Veronica, it's meant to show how unflappable and sassy she is.

Back in the past, we go to Danny's funeral. Jack watches Sydney at a distance. Syd interacts with Danny's sister.. who has bright red hair.

Nice character moment amid the plot: Sydney has to rerecord the outgoing answering machine message, replacing one of her and Danny.

Dixon comes to Sydney with a mission, one they need her for. "If they don't have confidence in someone as deep as you are.. they'll fix" it. You thought you hated YOUR job? Quitting isn't an option for her. Sydney goes into a parking garage and that's where she's attacked. Men with laser sights take shots at her. she flees, and we get a neat moment of hand-to-hand fighting when she takes out one of the guys.

And then her father pulls up: "Get in!" "Daddy!" We knew Jack was a spy... she didn't. Car chase ensues. And Jack pulls off an awesome move, spins the car 180 degrees and drives in reverse so he can shoot the car chasing them. It's BADASS, impresses even Sydney.

Jack says SD-6 will kill her. He's part of it too, undercover. He tells her SD-6 is NOT part of the CIA, "You're working for the enemy." Here's the trick of ALIAS's double agent premise, and one some audiences found confusing. Abrams has a LOT to lay out here, but it helps that it's doled out in pieces. Took 45 min to get here. Set up she's a spy, set up mission, THEN reveal "Oh by the way, they're bad guys."

Sydney goes to Will, borrows his sister's passport, dyes her hair bright red like the sister, figuring that's enough to fool airline. (This was pre-9/11. it probably would have worked.) But she's gone rogue, and basically, she's gonna do the mission Dixon came to get her for.

I don't need to go through all the steps of the spy mission, do I? Note that we KNOW she gets caught here, thanks to the hair detail.

We're back at the torture again. Sydney plays at being broken, fights back in a scene that shows her resoursefulness. Another action scene....gotta make sure the audience knows they're getting a mini-spy movie a week here. Make a long story less long, she completes mission, gets the device and delivers it to Sloane at SD-6, seemingly not even changing outfits. This is part of the buy-in. We have to believe that Sloane would trust her. We also KNOW she's gonna kill him first chance she gets.

And still more of the premise to unfurl. Sydney goes to the REAL CIA. Michael Vaughn takes her statement. She wants to be a double-agent. He mentions "another double agent in SD-6." In a subsequent scene, we see who that is: Jack. He visits her to tell her she's in.

AND now it's clear that we're seeing more than just a double-agent spy show... it's got a father/daughter relationship at its core. They've been estranged for years and now they'll have to work together to bring down this massive spy agency. THAT is a mission statement. You can't just say: "We're doing an action show." They're gonna ask, "What makes this different? Why do we care?"

And with that, we're done. (and I forgot this pilot was over an hour long! Feels almost like cheating.)

Series objectives:
- Sydney and Jack bring down SD-6
- Personal because Syd wants revenge
- Personal because father/daughter

Secret identity issues:
-her friends (barely used here) don't know about her double life.
-Rest of SD-6 cast doesn't know they're bad guys

See all the tension? See all the elements that can drive story week to week? the stuff that makes this more than James Bond with a girl?

Note that the focus is HEAVILY on Sydney. Not only is it not an ensemble but the supporting characters are what I call "placeholder parts." Most of them are fairly undeveloped. Just enough to establish that world.

Vaughn is practically an extra. He's just "CIA guy" in two scenes. We know nothing about him other than he has a girlfriend. But the CIA stuff is part of the premise, so it NEEDS to be in the pilot somehow. Same with Francie and Will. Syd needs "civilians." Secret ID tension is an ongoing element. But most her "normal" life time in the pilot is taken up by the Danny stuff. So they're cameos.

(Sidebar: I never much liked Will and Francie much. Will's just "platonic friend with a crush" in the pilot and Francie's the "annoying roommate.")

The most developed character after Sydney is her dad Jack and her evil boss Sloane: Good Dad and Bad Dad. That's the tension of the pilot and series.

Takeaway: you can't service EVERYTHING in a plot, so feature the important stuff and at least plant flags on the other key concepts.

Other pilot breakdowns:
The Office
Homicide: Life on the Street

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