Greatest TV Pilots: Alias’ “Truth Be Told” is a masterclass in pacing, suspense, and emotion

Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow in "Truth Be Told", the pilot for Alias

Cast photo, season 1 of Alias

Alias, “Truth Be Told”
Written and Directed by J. J. Abrams
Aired September 30th, 2001 on ABC

J.J. Abrams has become a household name, particularly in the nerd sphere, but when Alias premiered in 2001, only a handful of genre fans had ever heard of him. Known primarily as the co-creator of the WB college drama Felicity, Abrams hadn’t had an opportunity to stretch his sci-fi muscles. This changed when, prompted by his pondering, “What if Felicity became a spy for the CIA?”, Abrams developed, pitched, and sold Alias.

This pilot has a lot of work to do. Alias centers on Sydney Bristow, a part-time grad student, part-time superspy who discovers after the death of her fiancé that rather than the CIA, she’s been working for enemies of the US government and that her father, with whom she’s had a strained relationship for years, not only is a spy, but is one of the founding members of this anti-US group. When Sydney decides to go to the actual CIA and work as a mole to bring this organization down, she learns that rather than her enemy, her father, who is in reality a double agent, will be her main ally. Got all that?

What makes “Truth Be Told” so remarkable is its effortlessness. Abrams knows he has a ridiculously convoluted premise to establish, but he focuses in immediately on character, trusting his lead, Jennifer Garner, to shine and draw in the viewers and by prioritizing in this way, he makes an incredibly tricky balancing act look easy. The pilot opens with one of television’s most successful examples of in media res storytelling. A heartbeat, and then a girl with bright red hair being held under water. When she’s let up, she’s in a strange room, being thrown around and pelted with questions in unsubtitled Chinese. The audience has no clue what’s going on, but that image, of Garner’s face as she looks in utter fear at the opening door at the end of the room, is visually striking and incredibly powerful, burning itself into our memories as we cut back to the same girl, now with brown hair, relaxed and finishing up a college essay.

Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow in "Truth Be Told", the pilot for Alias

Abrams takes his time letting us get to know Sydney the student and his comfort with this setting, after his years on Felicity, is obvious. We may be intrigued by the opening, but we’re quickly drawn in to the smaller scale drama of Sydney, her boyfriend Danny’s proposal, her best friends, and her strained relationship with her father. Only after we have a strong sense of this aspect to Sydney’s life are we introduced to her work and the set of people inhabiting that world. Abrams slowly layers the complexities of Sydney and her life- first we have Sydney the student, then the girlfriend/fiancée, then the best friend, then the daughter, then the employee. Once we feel we have a clear picture, he starts adding complications, with Will’s unrequited feelings for Sydney and Danny’s reaction to finding out about her real job. It is only after 15 minutes or so that we return to the opening action, with the SDAP (Sadistic Dentist of the Asian Persuasion, as he was known to fans for years) making his dramatic entrance.

There are many strengths to this pilot, perhaps the most important being Jennifer Garner’s fantastically confident and heartbreaking performance, but the one more writers and directors would benefit from studying is Abrams’ pacing. At each turn, he gives viewers just enough time to digest the latest morsel of plot or character development. While Danny is leaving Sydney his fateful message, we see Sydney in action, getting a sense of just how good she is. We meet the SDAP, far more genial at this point, putting the beginning scenes in a bit more context, and if we weren’t sure about Danny earlier, by the end of his message, we’re hoping these crazy kids will work it out. Much of Sydney’s journey through the pilot, let alone the first season, doesn’t work if we don’t feel her utter agony over Danny’s death and though we’ve only just met any of these characters, because Abrams has devoted so much time to this relationship, and handles the reveal so deliberately, we’re gutted right along with Sydney.

Screenshot from "Truth Be Told", the pilot to Alias

The rest of the pilot proceeds almost straightforwardly, catching up to the opening sequence and continuing from there, saving the last twist for the very end. Abrams keeps us in Sydney’s headspace with his pacing, languishing with her after Danny’s death, speeding up as we get further from it, and kicking into high gear with the two main action beats, the parking garage and Taipei sequences. They’re exciting, satisfying, even funny, and feel very based in character. By the time we get to the final scene, we know Sydney inside and out. We know each of her main relationships, we know how she talks, how she thinks, and how she fights, and we can’t wait to see what will come next. This is incredibly confident work from Abrams, who had only directed two episodes of Felicity prior, and with slight tweaking and a little more story, “Truth Be Told” would translate easily to the big screen. It’s one of the best action pilots ever made and it introduced the world to Jennifer Garner and J.J. Abrams, director in grand style.

Particular mention should be made of the running time- rather than the standard 42 minutes, this pilot runs for 63, and ABC deserves credit for airing it as event television, in one uninterrupted, commercial-free slot, with only ads from sponsor Nokia airing before and after the pilot. Eventually, the series would come off the rails, with increasingly preposterous plot machinations required to keep the gang together, but for its entire first two seasons, and stretches of its later three, Alias delivers on the promise of its exciting, compelling, emotional, and truly great pilot.

Kate Kulzick


This article is part of our month long theme dedicated to the greatest TV pilots.

 

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