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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits

24: Season Three

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

Alias: The Complete Third Season

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

24: Season Three
2003-2004 (2004) - 20th Century Fox (Fox Home Video)

Program Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/B-

Alias: The Complete Third Season
2003-2004 (2004) - ABC Television (Buena Vista)

Program Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/B-

They say that "the third time's the charm" , but in the cases of war-on-terror-done-right show 24 and spunky spy series Alias, their respective third seasons found them both stumbling after their initial successes. In the case of 24, they're about to launch their fifth season, but for Alias, the end is near for the show's conclusion has been announced, partially due to star Jennifer Garner's breeding with husband Ben Affleck and mostly due to the slow spiral the show has been in since its third lap.

From its premiere in 2001, 24 has been appointment television for me. I won't tape-delay the Jack Bauer Power Hour (as us hipsters call it) - I need to watch it live and the conclusion of each week's episode was usually followed by an immediate phone call from the girlfriend to discuss what had just transpired. After the first season, it was an open question whether the producers could repeat the feat of keeping Jack on the run for another day, but the second season more than matched up, especially with its stunning last-second twist.

Since the big fun of the show is the insanely tense plotting and surprises, I don't even want to hint at the plot - all I'll allow is that the big threat is a potential biological attack on Los Angeles. While this makes discussing the merits of the show difficult, but there are people who haven't seen the show when it aired. (Shame on them!) While it provided plenty of thrills, for most of the third season, the show seemed to wander around from one increasingly preposterous situation to another. While some bending of reality was accepted for dramatic purposes - no one goes to the bathroom and you can get across L.A. without hitting traffic - some of the situations really, really tested the faith of the loyal viewers. However, as dodgy as some of the proceedings were, the final nine hours snapped into shape as some of the finest hours of the entire series.

While he had been languishing with mostly direct-to-video movies, the Lazurus act that 24 performed on Keifer Sutherland's career is remarkable. He has always imbued Jack Bauer with an intense sense of dedication and service to country and this season adds even more baggage than he's endured in the past. The supporting cast is also uniformly solid with Dennis Haysbert as President David Palmer and Reiko Aylesworth as Michelle Dessler really standing out in an excellent crowd.

The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer does a good job of reproducing the look of the show as it originally aired in hi-def. The show's simultaneously stylized and naturalistic look comes through cleanly with good overall and shadow detail, thought there is some grittiness in darker scenes.

Audio is either English Dolby 5.1 Surround or Spanish 2.0 with subtitles in English and Spanish. The surround track is a generally front-loaded presentation with decent frequency and dynamic range. Pounding music and explosions get into the LFE channel a little and ambient environmental sounds are adequate, but none of it is anything you'll be showcasing the home theater with.

The seven discs come in usual long, unfolding Digipack style that Fox favors and I think it's long overdue to be retired. Extracting discs is an unwieldy process compared to the book-type or slim case options other shows use. There is an 8-page episode guide.

(WARNING: The following discussion of the extras will contain spoilers about events in the series. If you haven't seen the show yet, please refrain from reading until you see the next batch of yellow text.)

There are six commentary tracks scattered across this set and for the most part they're only so-so. The better ones have actor Carlos Bernard (Tony Almeda) contributing and he makes some amusing comments. There is also a means to watch deleted scenes on most episodes by manually hitting enter when prompted.

Moving to Disk Seven, the Season 4 Teaser (2:14) is extended commercial that ran on Fox and the Season 4 Promo (6:31) is a bridge between Seasons 3 and 4 and shows Jack getting the sack for what happened prior to and during the events of this season and sets up Day Four.

24: On the Loose (32:16) covers the shooting of the prison riot, Russian roulette scene and a helicopter landing on a downtown L.A. street. Adding to the tensions are director Jon Cassar's being called away on an emergency, necessitating another director to step in for a day and Cassar coming back to find the set was improperly prepared. The landing scene is also complicated by poor weather and a strict cutoff time due to FAA regulations.

Boys and Their Toys (11:27) shows how the Marine F/A-18 fighters were coordinated for the scene where the helicopter is blown up in the L.A. River basin.

Biothreat: Beyond the Series (24:34) talks about the challenge of finding and eventually creating a suitable disease for the show. With interviews with numerous medical researchers and health authorities, it's some scary stuff, especially when real epidemics like SARS which caused 8000 cases from a half-dozen contagious people are considered. (There is warning that it contains graphic images that may not be suitable for children... or squeamish adults.)

The Multi-Angle Study (6:12) is an A-B camera comparison of the hour 12 shootout showing the two dozen setups that went into the sequence. The way the handheld cameras reframe the action within the takes would do Robert Rodriguez proud.

There are a whopping 45 Deleted Scenes with optional commentaries from Jon Cassar and Howard Gordon. While each one has a brief blurb explaining what happens, there is an inexcusable lack of a Play All option, forcing manual selection of each clip. (They did the same stupid thing on the Season Four which leads me to suspect that the disc authors don't actually have to navigate their finished products.)

Running from about 30 seconds to 2-1/2 minutes, nearly all the scenes were cut for time or pacing and are more interesting to see how the producers trim all the fat off the storytelling on this show. One exception is a lengthy sequence which was dumped and rewritten changing a character from a generic thug into a lawyer (some difference!) and because they liked the actor, they kept him for the rewritten piece.

The Inside Look (1:48) is just a teaser trailer for the excellent Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

(End spoilers.)

Despite its occasionally clunky plotting, 24: Season 3 is still a better ride than many feature films, especially in its final third. If you're a Jack Bauer fanatic, it's a worthy addition to your collection but if you're wondering what the buzz around the show is about, the other seasons would be a better introduction. (Diligence requires that one start at the very beginning with Season 1.)

While the missteps of the third season were ably recovered from in its fourth go on 24, things didn't go so smoothly for the perky Sidney Bristow in the third cycle of Alias. While creator J.J. Abrams had established a habit of hitting the reset button on his creation, the third season made the greatest leap yet by having Sidney waking up in Hong Kong to find that not only can't she remember the prior two years, her lover, Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), has gotten married because he thought she was dead.

Perennial nemesis Arvin Sloan (Ron Rifkin) has appeared to turn over a new leaf and become a respected director of a humanitarian relief agency, but Sidney and her father Jack (Victor Garber) don't trust him. (And what happens in the fourth season proves them right to be suspicious.) That he would be satisfied in his lifelong quest to build the Rambaldi Device - killing countless people in the process - by having the gizmo simply say "Peace.", and reorient his life towards serving his fellow man beggars common sense.

The bulk of the conflict comes from Vaughn's new better half, Lauren Reed (Melissa George). It's bad enough that she's a saucy British dish that makes the scrawny, pink-eared Sidney look more even more mannish in comparison, but she also has a dark secret - no, she's not a man, baby - which complicates Vaughn's life and work.

What really did in this third season for me was the absence of Lena Olin as Sidney's evil mother, Irina Derevko. Olin added some wicked charm as Sid's hot spy mama, having tricked Jack into overlooking she was a Russian agent and killing Vaughn's father. Whether it was the reported contract stalemate or sheer insanity on the producers' part, her departure definitely sapped the show's strength, though they compensated somewhat in the mature Continental hotness department with the addition of Isabella Rossellini as Irina's sister Katya. A high-ranking Russian military officer herself, she's also totally badass like when she uses chopsticks to stake a guy's hands to a table.

I've watched the last two seasons in hi-def and compared to other showcases of the prettier version of television like Desperate Housewives, Alias has always looked grittier and grainier with plenty of noise in the reds and dark areas, which due to the nature of the show is a lot of the time. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is hampered by these origins as well, but doesn't have the sharpness of the broadcast versions. The scenic shots of downtown L.A. don't have the breathtaking clarity and interiors evidence filtering that fuzzes the backgrounds out even more. Shadow details tend to the murkier end of the spectrum. Audio is in English Dolby 5.1 Surround with subtitles in English. Like 24, the surround activity is adequate, but nothing to threaten the porcelain collectables with.

The six discs come in a book-style holder which slides into a clear plastic sleeve with an 8-page episode guide. (Are you reading this, Fox?)

The first auto commentary is a decidedly different affair with a pair of fans - Erin Daily, a recapper for the Television Without Pity website and Jennifer Wong, a Chicago radio contest winner - discussing the season-opening episode, The Two. While they spend a lot of time professing their love for the show, they also bring a healthy snarkiness to their comments, pointing out logical inconsistencies and complaining about Garber's beard. While having no connection to the show, it's actually more interesting than some commentary tracks I've heard from writers and directors over my DVD reviewing career and it's a damn sight better than the insipid track from Garner, George and director Ken Olin on Conscious. They burble inanely about how pretty other actresses are and generally sound like twits at a mall food court. Only Olin imitating the befuddlement of Garner's mother provides any entertainment value. The other commentaries - on Façade and Full Disclosure - with writers and producers generally provide better information, but it's too bad the trippy Conscious gets short shrift. Garner seems like a nice person, but she's not very interesting in this context.

Moving to the last disc are the features leading with The Animated Alias (7:22), a stylish cartoon that sort of looks like Aeon Flux (the toon, not the Charlize Theron flop) and tells of a mission Sidney went on during her missing two years.

Alias Up Close is a section totaling 56:04 with a half-dozen featurettes about The Guest Stars, The Assistant Directors, The Stunt Team, The Effects Team, Creating Props and Set Dressing. The first segment is disposable with the actors babbling the usual platitudes about the show and how great the experience was with a notable exception of Djimon Hounsou's chagrin about accidentally punching Rifkin in the nose on their first day of working together, including the outtake of the incident. The portion with Abrams explaining how Rossellini got on the show is particularly excruciating. The other parts are far better and more interesting as they show the army of craftsmen who toil behind the scenes.

Burbank to Barcelona (9:30) is another good piece showing how they pull off the show's globe-trotting exploits without needing to leave Southern California. The Blooper Reel (7:27) is an above-average batch of gaffes and goofs and judging from the editing and music, it was likely prepared for the wrap party. There are seven Deleted Scenes (totaling 7:17) and they're hampered from meaning much due to no clue as to what episode they were cut from - unlike 24's which have little descriptions for each. (However, there is a Play All option.)

The last section is Team Alias and it contains a pair of sports-related bits, a Monday Night Football Teaser that talks about Terrell Owens as if he's some sort of secret weapon (yeah, if shooting off your mouth is a marketable skill) and Michael & the Stanley Cup has behind-the-scenes footage of Vartan taping an ad with the Cup as well as the ad. Together they are 3:46 of you life that could be spent sleeping.

Despite the absence of Olin and some general plotting lameness, Alias: The Complete Third Season is an entertaining diversion for those seeking some kickass chick action, though newcomers to the series would do better by checking out the second season's set. The show got a bit better in its fourth season, but judging from how this season is running, it's time to wrap it up. While J.J. Abrams has been distracted by his smash hit show Lost and his directing chores of the next Mission: Impossible flick, his once-perky spy show has tailed off and no longer has the compelling attractiveness it once had.

Thus ends the tale of two shows - one at the beginning of its end and the other stumbling before regaining its footing better than ever - and of the two, 24: Season Three is the superior set, both as a show and as a DVD set.

Peter Schorn
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