Alias dons the waterskis and approaches the ramps

Oh dear – it’s as inevitable as your pets dying, even Joss Whedon and Chris Carter couldn’t work out how to avoid it.

But when you suddenly realise that TV shows that you’ve been watching and enjoying are swirling around the toilet bowl on their way down the drain, it’s still a terribly depressing moment. No matter how many times you experience it.

The Fonz – the coolest man alive, but also the original shark-jumper

Here at Botheration Towers we’re engaged in a more or less permanent project to watch on DVD those cult shows that we didn’t get to see on TV at the time, or just haven’t seen recently enough – so far we’ve knocked off the whole 12 seasons of Buffy and Angel, the glorious sole season of Firefly (several times), four seasons of The X-Files, four seasons of Hustle; and revisited two of the RTD seasons of Doctor Who and both seasons of Life on Mars. And three seasons of Alias – nearly.

* Alias spoilers apply from this point on, so don’t read any further if you wish to remain in ignorance.

This, of course, involves paying for them, whether by buying the box sets or taking out a DVD subscription. Admittedly this is a fairly negligible sum but, by the time you’ve rented as many as six discs in order to view a complete season, then you like to think there’s at least notional value for money.

So far, Alias has been a gas. Plus points include a fantastic ensemble cast including all the ‘older generation’ actors who generally make the youngsters work very hard to retain the spotlight, a nod backwards to classic caper fiction including Modesty Blaise (cue Quentin Tarantino), James Bond and even The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a writing philosophy that sees enough suspense and plot development for a whole season of many shows crammed into one episode, and the ability to combine genres in a fashion that’s practically Whedonesque.

To those people that condemn it as shallow, vapid or silly – I say, what did you expect, Dostoevsky? With this show, you have a pact with the writers, even more so than usual. You want breathless, thrilling entertainment and they provide it in spades. To switch on for Alias and then to look for exacting verisimilitude and gritty believability is only to sell yourself short. Far better to go along for the ride and scream loudly as the rollercoaster crests its high point and starts to plunge.

I have this great mental image of how the initial pitch must have gone: “Just imagine how cool it would be if there was this CIA agent, and this KGB agent, and they had this daughter who they trained to be a super-spy…” And so the resources of two of the world’s largest intelligence agencies are devoted, not to universal peace or counter-terrorism, but to resolving the Bristow family drama with all its myriad lovers and revelations and betrayals and bit-part players and sub-plots involving trivial things like the continued survival of the human race.

Things during the third season were going pretty well – the premise set up at the end of season two was compelling, and we were as keen as anyone to find out what had happened during the lost two years of Sydney’s life. It even takes some dramatic risks during the dream sequences when Sydney is trying to recover her memories of that time. But the first bum note was struck at the season mid-point, Full Disclosure, when Lauren Reed, the wife of Michael Vaughn, is revealed to be a double agent.

While her performance either side of this revelation is impeccable, the idea that the character who took part in the earlier episode Breaking Point could credibly be the same one that sees the season out is just impossible to swallow. Before-Lauren and After-Lauren are two different characters, with different motivations and can’t credibly be reconciled into the same narrative.

But that we can just about forgive. After all, there’s plenty to keep us watching, not least the new revelations in the long-running Rambaldi saga, which might be described as the show’s myth arc in the sense that X-Files viewers would understand that term.

And then we arrive at episodes 19 and 20 – Hourglass and Blood Ties. Where to start with what goes wrong? Well, first of all Arvin Sloane is executed, properly, by the government, using a lethal injection, in front of many witnesses and he is wheeled out in a body bag. This is powerful stuff – Ron Rifkin is a superbly skilful actor, especially when providing Sloane with that face that makes him look like a very wise and sad orang-utan, and this death scene is a powerful tool in his hands.

Sloane (he of The Alliance, The Covenant, The Trust) is also one of the few TV villains to truly have read the Evil Overlord’s Handbook – he rarely makes Monster of the Week-level errors of the sort exploited in every single episode of Doctor Who – which is why he has survived for three seasons so far, and the scope of his ambition is terrifying, nothing less than eternal life as we learned in an earlier episode.

But, guess what? He isn’t really dead. No, sir. Jack, playing Jesus Christ to Sloane’s Lazarus (after practising on Ricky Gervais a few episodes earlier), revives him with a tiny nod to the writers’ convention that says you have to do some groundwork before pulling a stunt like this.

As one reviewer of the season says: “I wouldn’t even count on Sydney’s dead fiancé from the pilot really being dead. If you take away the consequences of characters dying, then you may as well not kill them in the first place.” It actually makes me feel slightly ill that the last episode of this season is called Resurrection.

Next comes a moment that will truly turn Buffy fans cold: “Ohmigosh, it seems I have a long-lost sister that I never knew about before.” Been there, done that, signed the anti-Dawn online petition. No, no, no, no. This is creative bankruptcy on the part of the writers.

It is an absolute and unbreakable convention of all suspense fiction that the person whodunnit (or, in this case, is the secret key to the mystery that has been building up for three seasons) has to be on camera at least once, however briefly, in the time before they are introduced. This does not happen. Fail. And, excuse me, the Argentine secret service?

After this I feel so jaded that I can barely lift my head off the keyboard to continue. It had been clear since about four episodes into the first season that Sloane would one day shape up to claim to be Sydney’s father. It is hard to see how that threat could have been made real because the Sydney/Jack relationship is too central to the series to be undermined like this. However, to piss three season’s worth of development up the wall in half an hour of creative madness is a grave disservice to just about anything and anyone you want to name.

Even though I have long been an advocate of avoiding the temptation to pick holes in the plots of Alias because it’s usually far more satisfying to relax and go along with them, I can’t be doing with this nonsense. So, we’re kind of thinking, thanks for the ride. It’s been fantastic – but probably only goes downhill from here.

And each of the 10 or 12 DVDs that make up the remaining two series are going to have to be rented at a couple of quid a pop and that’s time and money that could profitably be spent on The X-Files (also shortly to go down the crapper, I know), The West Wing, or even Ashes to Ashes which we’re starting to get an urge to watch now the hype has died down and Matthew Graham has crawled back under his stone.

We never regretted sticking with Buffy right to the end. But that was something pretty special. Alias has been great this far, but it might just have come to the end of its run.