If by now you have not heard of Alias you may be missing out on some of the best action-related eyecandy that has ever graced public access television... well, if you can appreciate that sort of thing. Going for its fourth season in January of 2005, Alias (starring award-winning actress, Jennifer Garner) is still one of the most popular TV series on America's ABC.
The show's creator, J.J. Abrams, is best known for his maudlin show about the trials and tribulations of a girl, Felicity, and now the new series, Lost. Prior to the naissance of Alias, it was noted that Abrams was frustrated with Felicity due to the confines of the premise; so during a production meeting, he said, "...if Felicity was recruited by the CIA, ...then she'd have to go and do these missions internationally, you know, kick ass, be in these incredibly high-stakes, life-and-death situations, come back. She couldn't tell Ben. She couldn't tell Noel." Luckily for him, Disney's Buena Vista accepted his self-described "ludicrous" plot (think Felicity meets La Femme Nikita) and gave him free reign to generate high volumes of character drama and killer action sequences.
Alias follows Sydney Bristow, a female spy for the CIA and double-agent for a covert branch of the agency (SD-6), as she juggles her personal life, grad. school education, and assigned missions. In earlier seasons, it was discovered that SD-6 (Section Disparu Six) is actually a part of a clandestine international terrorist network known as the Alliance of Twelve. After its global dismantlement by the CIA, another formidable terrorist network (known as The Covenant) revealed itself. With manpower and influence in every corner of the Earth, the Covenant is set on fulfilling the ominous Rambaldi prophecy—a prediction by a renaissance, Da Vinci-esque genius prophet that foretold everything for the last three seasons of the show—and all that it entails. Working alongside her previously estranged father (also a spy), she is also in love with her CIA handler, and must get to the bottom of the age old prophecy dealing with her, her formerly thought dead mother (an ex-Russian spy/free agent), and now a long-lost sister. It's certainly no Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel when it comes to profound, universal themes... but despite the cheesy elements and plot convolution, Alias has heart.
In the liner notes of the album, Abrams gushes about the great contributions of composer, Michael Giacchino; 'Every episode... ...whether writing for synthesisers and drum machines or for a full orchestra, (he) simply elevates the show." Abrams is right. Goldsmith, Morricone, Schifrin, Revell, Serra... just to name a few, there are a handful of film composers that expertly merge the medium of electronics with orchestra; and Giacchino is no exception from this list of adepts. Although renowned in the gaming world for the award-winning scores used in the Medal of Honor (MoH) series, his popularity in the film/television industry is far less apparent. For fans that idolise his riveting John Williams-esque style in MoH, Call of Duty, and Secret Weapons Over Normandy, the score for Alias may come as a huge disappointment. In the same vein, film score purists or lovers of traditional orchestra scores may be hard-pressed to admit liking most or some of the album, while anyone that is open to new things, has eclectic tastes, or even mainstream tastes will be certainly keen on the music.
John Barry is credited for bringing the spy genre to modern musical life and David Arnold is renowned for making Bond a more contemporary spy; Michael Giacchino takes the music it to a whole new level. Alias has cliff-hanging structure of the classic serials and it could be said that the show is more about image and style than dramatic substance. Consequently, there is plenty of fodder for Giacchino and the music could go in any direction: ultra solemn, light-hearted, inane, confused, or an aural mess.
In the earlier seasons, the Felicity/Nikita scene dichotomy was very salient and sometimes jarring, and most of the characters are fairly cartoon-ish in nature; nevertheless, the characters are portrayed by the actors in such a sincere way at times that you can't help but warm to them, regardless of the situations. Alias can also be compared to anime (Japanese animation) in that the melodrama and mawkish comedy are almost always inseparable, not to mention ephemeral. However, one feature that makes anime so popular is that the innate glory of action scenes is often accompanied by tremendous, badass music. Giacchino has enough ingenuity to unite the techno style with a full orchestra and intense samples in excellent taste - based on the functional title cue (composed by Abrams). The music enhances the thrill and excitement of scenes ten-fold; it runs the gamut of styles, not only because of the frequent changes in location, but due to the number of contrived encounters, honest gems that coincide with the slam-bam-thank-you moments of combat change the intensity and mood of the scene.
In 'Red Hair is Better', the music narrates a scene in the pilot when Sydney decides to go on a previously unfulfilled mission in Taipei to vindicate herself to SD-6. After her fiancé's funeral and an assassination attempt by SD-6 on her own life, Sydney discovers from her father that SD-6 is not what it seems and is told to flee. Instead of accepting such bewildering news, she pools her own resources and dons the guise of a steely, red-haired punk rocker (a hardened persona), strutting all the way to the airport for a ticket to Taiwan. This would seem almost absurd to watch without the proper music, but Giacchino's techno/rock cue brings out the necessity of such swagger while spelling out the inherent dangers of the rogue operation.
Alias may seem like a suave, high-gear spy show, but it is in fact as gritty as the violence in the beautifully shot action sequences. In so many of the carefully choreographed action scenes, people are not simply hit nor do they quickly rebound from attacks; if they are shot, stabbed, or beaten, they recoil in "realistic" pain or die onscreen. There is art in the way violence is dealt, and if there is any drama or consistency in Alias, it comes through via gratuitous, ever-present action. On the album, Giacchino's techno/orchestral works may seem jarring when interspersed with calmer cues, but in situ, the music is sassy, sexy, and matches the slick, stylish scenes as they unfold. The best example on the album would be 'Bristow and Bristow', a cue in which father and daughter work together on a mission despite being at odds with one another. While there is much restrained anger and resentment in the scene, the music vocalises the brazen devil-may-care attitude as the duo carry out the mission with routine and near-ruthless efficiency. The rhythmic pulse is almost like a callback to a primitive, atavistic state; by illustrating pure instinct, the piece serves as aural adrenaline and highlights the perils of the mission through brilliant big band orchestral stylings coupled with synthesised finesse. If the scene fails to explain the complexities of emotion, the music frequently acts as shorthand for nuances and intensity of buried feelings.
Garner's Sydney Bristow is the embodiment of sex and violence; while she accommodates the gist of the show, the only element that succeeds in unifying the Felicity moments and the violence of the action can be found in Giacchino's music. The album contains a number of brief but tender cues; I say "brief" because the preponderance of intimate, private moments are bits injected across the whole of every episode, never just relegated to bookend or climactic moments. In the track 'Home Movies', Sydney's father, Jack, watches an old interview tape of his wife - whom he had thought died in a car accident - speaking with her KGB superiors. The theme is based on 'Double Life', which characterises Sydney's complex disposition; however, in this variation, an intimate tie is established between Jack and his daughter based upon how both have experienced the traumatic pains that come with the knowledge of a "double life". Instead of a clarinet, the solo cello and a haunting vocal reprise the melody with strings and brief harp (fairly reminiscent of music by Mark Snow).
On the whole, Alias borders on cliché and relies on many repetitive elements throughout the seasons, so it is not shocking to hear the reoccurrence of a motif (maybe three) or a handful of borrowed and formulaic "mood inducers". Whenever a scenario is revisited, the audience must be able to recognise the situation even if they only joined the show minutes earlier. e.g. In tracks such as 'The Tooth Doctor', the eerie anxiety of strings from Snow's The X-Files is replicated to provoke high tension. Giacchino reverts to his Williams-esque style in 'The Prophecy', which sounds like a variation of Raiders of the Lost Ark's ominous Ark of the Covenant motif. The denouement of 'Ball-Buster' uses a variation of Horner's motif for impending danger in an orchestral climax. 'Sleeping Beauty', 'Oh My God!!!', and 'Blow'd Up' have the requisite Bond flair and are used whenever mission operatives are neck deep in chaos. There are typical segue cues, sometimes loaded with ethnic flavor or reflect the atmosphere of the location, for the start of missions, e.g. 'Tunisia', 'Wet Suits', 'On to Paris', etc. At times, the length of the track is the duration of the onscreen action, and listeners will discover that not all missions end with success. 'Badenweiler' results in a tumultuous ending when Sydney's SD-6 partner, Dixon, detonates a bomb and unwittingly kills a number of true CIA agents in a warehouse. (Without the scene to provide proper context, this track's intentional finale could be construed as bathetic or over-the-top sentimentality.) 'Spanish Heist' is a cue that most film score aficionados will clearly enjoy as the cante and sensuous guitar are merged with techno and samples for a piquant Nuevo Flamenco. Percussive drums, handclaps, and castanets heighten tension as Sydney exchanges blows with her arch nemesis, Anna Espinosa, for a Rambaldi artifact; when the guitar strumming fans out, the music is focused by the techno reps to culminate in a winning flourish by the good guys.
Again, this is not a score for collectors expecting traditionally orchestrated cues, but understanding how and why choices are made is key in appreciating music. I read in some place where a reviewer pompously proclaimed that "Giachinno could do better"... 'do better'? Alias is significantly different from the majority of the works that he has put forth for games and other media; also barring Pixar's pending The Incredibles, it is probably safe to say that not many people have seen the films he scored for - except by happenstance. When there is no real basis for comparison, baseless commentary like that frequently come from those with limited views. If you are not the type to indulge in heavily-mixed techno/orchestral pieces, then you might want to consider Alias as a companion album in the car for fast drives. However, if you understand that techno mixes add almost infinite variety to any work or if you simply like this mixed bag, you'll understand when I say that I can't wait for the album release for season two.
On Television: 5
On Album: 31/2