TV Now and Then (Fast vs. Slow, Good vs. Bad)

Any of you remember the TV show Alias? (Man, asking this question makes me feel old.)

For those of you who might not know, Alias was a one-hour drama about a CIA double agent who struggles to maintain a normal life between secret missions halfway across the world and trying to pass her grad school exams.

In the pilot (which is, in my opinion, one of the best drama pilots ever made), Sydney Bristow discovers that the secret government branch she’s been working for is actually part of a terrorist organization — the very enemy she thought she was fighting against. Thus begins her quest for revenge, and her slow, dangerous, all-encompassing mission to take down that organization (called the Alliance).

In its first two seasons, Alias was fantastic. Action packed, surprising, emotional, exotic, grounded — it was everything a great show should be. It tackled everything with near perfection and left you gasping for air and wanting for more.

Now, even though getting rid of the Alliance was supposed to be somewhat of a never-ending battle, **SPOILER ALERT** Sydney actually succeeds in taking it down in episode 2×13. That episode itself is a great hour of storytelling, and certainly one of the show’s finest moments. The second half of Season 2 was a little uneven as the show struggled to find its footing again, but the show remained spectacular and compelling.

And then came Season 3.

Look, Alias will always be one of my favorite shows, but let’s be honest: Season 3 was a unmitigated disaster. From they way they handled the relationships, to the overall arc, to the weekly missions and Sydney’s disguises — it was mostly sloppy, soapy, and so unlike the show I’d come to love.

For a long time, I always thought the show had made the biggest mistake by getting rid of SD-6 and the Alliance mid Season 2 when they could have kept it going for much longer.

But, looking back, I realize that I’d been looking at this the wrong way.

Today, two of my favorite shows are CW’s The Vampire Diaries and Showtime’s Homeland. Both shows move at an impressive, if not downright insane, pace. A storyline that most shows would spread out over a few episodes, TVD and Homeland will tell in half an episode. They are not afraid to the break the traditional rules of TV drama storytelling and bulldoze their way through story arcs. But they do it with care and careful planning. While they burn through plot very fast, they know how to tell emotional stories and pace character development. Plot arcs pay off. Emotional arcs pay off. Questions are answered. Nothing is left to chance.

In short, shows like TVD and Homeland are entertaining, original, surprising but also grab your heart and shred it to pieces on a weekly basis (= good tv). And they make think that Alias could have been great even after getting rid of the show’s biggest source of conflict early on. The show could have kept moving and moving on and finding more interesting stories to tell. I’m not saying there wasn’t any great stuff past Season 2 because there were great moments. But the show was a shell of its former self. (To be honest, I still miss it.)

I guess the real problem with the show was that a lot of the storytelling choices the writers made altered what the show was at its core, for better and worse. Alias also had more problems related to its empty mythology — this was a Lost problem before Lost existed — but that’s a whole different discussion.

While I grew up watching shows that were more slow-paced (Roswell, Alias, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Alias, Dawson’s Creek, to name a few), I’ve only been figuring out what kind of a storyteller I want to be for the past five years. I’ve realized that I’m definitely a child of the fast is good school of thought. With genre shows, the faster the move, the deeper you can dig, and the more challenging places you can get your characters to.

Obviously, I think that only applies to genre shows — it’s fine to burn through plot when you’ve got the emotional arcs to back it up, but you can’t burn through emotional plot on shows like Parenthood or you run the risk of telling every story poorly. The OC was the finest example that “soap” dramas should take their time with characters and relationship moves. But I’m so damn happy to be around at a time when shows are willing to take so many risks and to watch those risks pay off in incredible ways. TV has never been so good (to me).

With all that said… if you haven’t seen Alias, go watch the first two seasons, and then come back to thank  me for all the goodness. No matter its failings, it will always remain one of my favorite shows.


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