The pilot episode of Alias presents a styilish whirlwind of information that shoots out at the audience like a torrent of unrelenting Cool from a gilded firehose. It isn’t recognizably boring or flawed…until about 55 minutes into the episode, when Sydney Bristow races down a staircase in a public building with semi-automatic pistols blazing from her fists as she shoots the hinges off a fire door, then kicks the door down without breaking stride, while craftily and resourcefully continuing to elude her heavily-armed pursuers. Bullshit!
There are a couple of glaring flaws in the scenario I just described:
Doors leading into stairwells open into stairwells (since the Triangle Shirtwaiste Factory Fire of 1911). Kicking down a door from the stairwell side — even if the hinges were magically removed or shot away — could not permit you to pass fluidly through to the floor below. The door would have to fall into the stairwell side of the opening. (Disbelievers should consult the Uniform Building Code, or explore a stairwell door in any office building). The absurdity of Sydney’s solution to the door problem completely prevented me from wanting to give a crap about the stylishly presented whirlwind of information (largely exposition) spewing from the Alias firehose. More-or-less unfortunately, the bulk of Season 1 awaits me this Christmas holiday weekend before I can send the DVDs back to NetFlix. Alias watching is taxing. Lots of television and movies isn’t Show Business at all, it’s Tell Business.
The other flaw, apart from the door problem (that would have gummed up Sydney’s fast-paced, fluid escape from her pursuers), is that hinges on a closed firedoor don’t sit flush on the surface of the frame to be shot away (like a corral gate), they’re recessed into the reveal at the hinge-side of the frame; so a handheld disintegrator pistol from some episode of Star Trek might eliminate all three hinges swiftly, but the configuration of the frame (its stops) would still prevent the door from falling in the desired direction. I stumbled over a stupid trick that prioritized storytelling style over substance. I don’t want to look more closely for subtler cheats. Alias is slimy-slick and interesting, but taxing.
Alias, on the strength of this otherwise insignificant moment in the pilot episode, doesn’t bother to earn the respect that’s absolutely necessary for this audience-member to bother following its rapid-fire permutations of narrative. Buffy does.
Xander, in an episode I just passed through (The Wish, I think), at one point bars the entry of a mob of Xander-loving girls through the paired opening to the school library. He pushes a heavy card-catalogue-desk up against both doors. Moments later, Giles pulls open the active door from the corridor side, and enters the library. It’s a tactical error in barricade-maunfacture that Xander makes quite frequently. And it’s exactly the kind of pointless, swashbuckling actionism that underscores comedic flaws in his intermittenly-manly yet deeply heroic and intolerant character. These flaws in Xander’s self-image naturally flow into his final confrontation with Jack O’Toole near the end of The Zeppo, when Xander’s (not particularly manly) capacity for self-sacrifice undercuts the dead bully’s lust for self-preservation (ironic). Cowed, O’Toole defuses the bomb. Xander leaves the boiler room triumphant. O’Toole mutters a promise to make Xander’s life a living hell, as Oz, in the form of a werewolf, bursts into the boiler room to re-kill and devour O’Toole, which explains why Oz is “oddly full” the next day when Xander offers him snackfood. Tidy. Earned. Fascinating attention to cohesive storytelling detail.
Doors, by the way, are far more wonderfully interesting machines than you probably think they are. I’ll ramble on in this post for a while, but if the stuff I’m writing here leads you to explore any door of your choosing in minute detail (or two) I’m very happy to have been of some small service to you.
Joss sometimes speaks (in interviews and commentaries) of the inflence of True Believers on their social environments. These scraps of information serve to shed particles of light on his use of True Believers as a force for ungood in Mutant Enemy stories, but gradually hypotheses form. The Eliminati in Bad Girls are, for example, sword-wielding vampire warriors whose numbers decrease prodigiously because of their true belief in a bigbad pile of excrement who somehow inspires their unswerving alliegence, while barely lifting a finger. I wish Joss would take the time necessary to define his use of industry terms more clearly; moments, beat, moves, earn, undercut…there are lots of them that don’t necessarily yield useful information when other people use or explain them.
Seemingly-heroic acts of terrible violence are perpetrated by dedicated followers of vengeance, mock-rebellion, nonsense, the whims of unprincipled leaders…these True Believers don’t get much respect from Whedon, who has them break store windows, sacrifice civilians, kill, mame, loot and destroy…usually under the cover of darkeness, various forms of flobotnam or simply out of deranged and misguided values. These seeming-heroic acts of violence seem to fit into my view of his perspective on various forms of cowardice — unlike Angel’s surprising confession to Buffy in Amends that the demon within him is an insignificant threat to civilization compared to the weak and cowardly man he was even before the demon possessed him. Human frailty, imperfection, and deep aspects of universal human character drive these stories. Flobotnam is smoke that mirrors window-dressing. Sometimes a window is a mirror that unites the viewer (rather than separating us from) the enactment of fantasy on the other side of it; quite often, when the fantasy is produced by Mutant Enemy.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t as good as it gets. I mean, for example, that the “play-all” (episodes) option on Alias DVDs is vastly superior to the Buffy format (which requires lots of cursor movement and/or remote-control clicking and interminable waiting between episodes for the annoying bits of redundancy and loudness, to which I objected in the previous blogpost). But the good stuff (narrative content) that flows from Buffy episodes is vastly more valuable to me personally than the stuff that flows from Alias, LOST, Fringe and Heroes, because it’s about stuff that interests me in the real world. The other shows dwell on moral particulars that only exist in their own storyworlds. Buffy’s writers use the embarassingly manifold flobotinous devices (of mystical instrumentality, incantation and possession) unabashedly to tell informative tales about real people’s real problems.
Most fantastic television builds fanciful stories about apocryphal science (Fringe) or covert operations (Alias) or a bizarre array of contradictions that were never properly explored on Gilligan’s Island (LOST) about entertaining problems people don’t have — see Heroes for an endless litany of choices you’ll never have to make;
- if I slip back in time to save my mother’s life, will I step on more history-changing butterflies than if I save my girlfriend’s life? or
- is confessing my invulnerability to yet another guy who can fly an aspect of my dysfunctional and marginalized identity? or
- when does Heroes exceed the velocity of entertaining fun to become instructvely meaningful?
It never, ever will. That’s not its purpose. It’s about commerce, like other forms of utilitarian pornography that don’t bother to earn the permanent respect of any audience by teaching us anything useful.
Whedon’s fancies (in terms appropriate to David Milch) are meaningful and applicable to Murrow’s observation that television can teach. For all the Byzantine complexities of the shows I’ve mentioned, and dozens of others, the lessons are rich in information about stylish presentation, the limits of fantasy in audience-engagement, mirth, manipulation and crafty storytelling, but Buffy’s my chosen channel of engagement with entertainment. It’s less concerned with its smoke&mirrors than with helping me make sense of the real world: And yet it strives a good deal harder than most television to preserve several coherent layers of narrative consistency internally, within its constructs; so that the doors of perception swing meaningfully, as though a rare respect for the expertise of below-the-line crew (and other Ordinary Americans [like the national and global audience]) were just as important to ethical storyelling as the inevitable high-profile showrunning bullshit.
Whedon’s fanciful ideas about reality are instructive, as are those of David Milch (e.g., the functional utility of the Miranda Warning, as practiced or taught by Bill Clark).
I’ve hours of the first season of Alias to wade through before I sleep again. One of us will slay the other. I plan on playing computer solitaire while cruising through the DVDs, so I’ll probably have nothing more to say about Alias…I hope not.