Hi and welcome back to another instalment of this feature where I take a look at an episode of a show I’ve never seen before. This time it’s the 2003 episode of spy drama Alias, “Phase One”. Previous instalments: The X-Files, Seinfeld, ER, Grey’s Anatomy, Alias.
When do we start watching TV series?
An an increasingly streaming driven world, the answer is from the first episode, but that’s no fun. The magic of the television is that you can just turn it on and be thrown into the middle of any given world without a proper introduction. Every day, people start watching a series at an inopportune moment. If you’re making something to air on linear TV, it’s an occupational hazard.
The O.C. had an interesting life behind the scenes. Airing its first season in 2003, it found pretty early success before an apparent creative implosion in the second and third years took a lot of the sheen off. This felt like a well trodden path for American broadcast television in the 2000s and early 2010s, with anything from Heroes to Glee to Revenge crafting a deliciously enjoyable genre riff before finding they had little else in them except to go bigger and splashier. The O.C., as an at least somewhat self-aware take on the kind of soap operas that fetishise the very wealthy, fits right into that mould. When all you have is genre riffs, there’s only so much story to be generated, and things invariably fall apart.
The twist in the tale is that The O.C. broke the rules of many of these other shows and actually found a way to get back to something resembling a good show. Season four, the narrative widely says, is the year that actually recaptured the spirit of the first, that made the show work again. The tragedy is that this mattered not one bit and the season ended up being the show’s worst rated, with a swift cancellation to follow. Once the audience is gone, they’re gone. People just don’t come back to shows they quit.
And yet, the reality of TV is that people never stop stumbling upon shows. Season 4 of The O.C. was lower rated, but every episode, be it through first run airings or repeats, was someone’s first taste of the show. What made the post-Sopranos but pre-streaming era so interesting was that series were becoming increasingly serialised while still having to deal with this tension. The O.C. might owe more to the traditions of soap operas than HBO, but it’s still very much serialised in that sense. It’s not a show that’s necessarily designed to have people jump in, certainly not at this late a point in its run, but inevitably at least some people always will, which is exactly what interests me.
If you’re reading this thinking “God, she’s spending a lot of time talking around the episode, when is she getting to the fireworks factory?”, well, in truth it’s because I didn’t find a lot that really excited me here. Structurally, the episode is something of a high wire act, and that might be the most interesting thing about it. Many choices, from the in medias res opening to the pacing to some of the lighting, feels more reminiscent of a show in the action/spy genre than a teen soap. The show very much knows the genre tropes it’s playing with, though it felt like that was all it had up its sleeve. The big twist, if it can be called such, is that the payoff to the in medias res opening was strung out until the end of the episode, which really emphasised that all they had was a bag of tricks to distract the audience. Enough people tell me that this show is worthwhile for me to believe them, but in truth I didn’t see anything substantive in “The Earth Girls Are Easy”.
I wish I could find more of an overall point to this newsletter, but I guess that’s the reality of this feature. Sometimes the episodes hit you, and sometimes you have almost nothing to say about them. Until next time!