Melodrama gold

"Alias" exerts a gentle pressure on our emotions while indulging our thirst for thrills.

Tom Horgen

Along with “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and a few other shows, “Alias” is one of the few reasons we can still look to television for any trace of artistic merit.

The spy drama is in its third season, but you can get up to speed by catching the show’s first season on DVD, which was released in September.

The storyline for “Alias” is like the first “Mission: Impossible” on PCP. It seems convoluted at times, but it always finds a way to unravel its knotty mess.

The show follows graduate student Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), a spy who works for a terrorist network that tells its employees they’re working for the CIA. The series begins with Bristow discovering the truth and becoming a double agent for the real CIA in hopes of bringing down her former employer.

What’s strange is it’s not the lavish, widescreen action sequences or the hyper-complex plot twists that separate “Alias” from other television shows – though it handles that stuff better than any program. It’s the melodrama. And while “Alias” uses melodrama just as, say, any WB show or even “ER” does, there’s something different about it.

Yes, the show uses unnecessary, emotive music to pluck our heart strings during dramatic moments. Hell, the show even employs those pop-rock love songs – the ones the Goo Goo Dolls and Matchbox Twenty are notorious for – during slow motion, melancholy sequences.

The only difference is, “Alias” does it well.

Creator J.J. Abrams, who’s from the “Dawson’s Creek” school of prime time TV (he also created “Felicity”), has mastered the aesthetics of melodrama. Most great storytellers criticize melodrama as a lazy way of evoking emotion in the viewer. But Abrams uses the technique so well that viewers are already struck with emotion before they realize they’re sobbing to some Top 40 pretty boy crooning about lost love.

“Alias” relies an amalgam of action genres – from the Hong Kong ballistics of John Woo and Jackie Chan to the worldly flare of the best James Bond films. But at the show’s core is this strange sting of melodrama that keeps you watching. Should you be ashamed of buying into it? Probably. But at least you’re aware of it.