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HTF REVIEW: ALIAS (TV series, Season One -- HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

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#1 of 101 OFFLINE   DaViD Boulet

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Posted September 01 2003 - 01:04 PM



Posted Image

ALIAS




Studio:Touchstone Television
Year:2003
Film*Length:22 episodes (1 hour each)
Aspect*Ratio:16X9 encoded 1.78:1
Audio:5.1 DD English, 2.0 Spanish
Extras:Commentary (4 select episodes), Deleted Scenes, Stunt-action short, Gag Reel, TV Spots, DVD-ROM material.
Release*Date:Sept. 2, 2003


Story...


I haven’t had a chance to watch the entire series yet and I don’t want to tell you more than you need to know. But I don’t need to say much, this is an excellent series and one that far too few people have seen according to my informal sampling among friends and coworkers. Jennifer Garner (Daredevil) plays “Sydney Bristow” who works for the CIA. Things get complicated quickly as alliances become suspect and we’re left not always certain who’s the good guy and who’s the bad. Couple this sense of off-balance with good writing, great acting, and awesome fight sequences and you’ve got a series worth getting to know.

The particular thing that has struck me most impressive in my admittedly cursory overview (trying to get this review out at least a few minutes before it actually reaches your door!) are the action sequences and fight-scenes. In the spirit of the very best Bruce Lee Karate films, the action here is spot-on, gripping, and makes you duck for cover. And all without $$$ digital special effects. Hmmmm. Hollywood should take note… Posted Image

Jennifer Garner is one great actress and really posseses a sense of power and strength of a great marvel-comic heroine. She’s both a strong character actress who communicates feeling and with whom you empathize, and at the same time she manages to pull off fighting scenes that give you whip-lash sitting on the sofa (reminds me of Sara Connor from the Terminator flicks). Did I mention that for those of you thus-inclined, I’m certain you’ll find her rather easy on the eyes. Posted Image

Open invitation: If you’ve seen the series and care to share your perspective with the rest of us please post your thoughts to help elaborate beyond what I’ve mentioned here.

Picture...


The series looks to have been shot on film (as opposed to digital video) and varies wildly in color-pallet and style. Some scenes are dark and gritty and filled with grain and make you feel like you’re watching the Matrix. Others are brightly lit with richly saturated colors (mostly outdoor sequences) and silky-smooth. The creative team responsible for the look/feel of the image clearly are exploring a broad range of expressive styles and to good effect.

My TV has a non-defeatable digital-noise-reduction circuit that sometimes introduces artifacts into noise/grainy images that aren’t really on the disc so it’s often difficult for me to be sure what’s compression artifacting from poor compression or DNR at the studio when I’m watching challenging source material. I’ll go out on a limb and say that some of the more noisy scenes appear to have some minor artifacting in some of the more grainy scenes because I see occasional mosquito noise around some hard-edges. However, I’m prepared to discover that the grainy images look much more natural on displays superior to my own. And to be sure the more brightly-lit scenes are rendered beautifully with excellent clarity and naturalness.

No edge-enhancement or haloing/ringing anywhere that I can detect and detail and sharpness are there in full-force. All in all, from about 2-3 screen widths away from my 16x9 display, the image is extremely impressive—gritty when it wants to be and clean when it wants to be—a very well delivered DVD image and one that seems to faithfully serve the intentions by its artistic creators.

Picture Rating:

So subtracting just a notch for what looks to be some occasional compression artifacting (and if I can determine that it’s not I’ll alter my score) and given that the grain/gritty image is part of the intended look for various scenes:

Picture: 4.5 / 5
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Sound...


English is in 5.1 and is a nice mix—very clear and well defined soundstage but definitely front-heavy. Surround use is sporadic and only really appears on the scene to augment the occasional effect or ambient cue. Naturally the 5.1 mix is a reflection of the desires of those who created it, but I can’t help but feel that the overall presentation would have been better served with a little more activity and “fill” from the surrounds to help pull the front soundstage into the listener’s space. Due to the natural matrix processing inaccuracies of ProLogic, the Spanish 2.0 ProLogic encoded soundtrack actually provides a more active surround field and actually sounds on-par with the 5.1 mix in terms of overall fidelity (which surprised me).

Dialogue is clear and effects are rendered dynamically and with good fidelity. Bass extension is adequate but I expected to hear more low-frequency information that what the 5.1 has to offer. Let us know how this mix sounds on your audio system. and if your impressions are similar.

BTW, I should add that the audio mixing/sound quality seems to improve as the series evolves. Particularly starting with episode 3, you'll actually *notice* surround activity which seems to be virtually absent for the first 2 episodes. Still not quite what I would have hoped for...but at least taking advantage of them to some degree for key shots (especially when entering a new city locale you'll hear the surround of street-noise etc.).

So considering the overall good sound that (my subjective opinion) doesn’t quite make enough use of the surround field:

Sound: 4/ 5
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Extras...


I’m sure that the fans will be pleased. We get commentary for about 4 episodes (didn’t check each one…but checked at random): the first two and the last episode. For the first episode we have the director and Jennifer (lead actress) pair up and this commentary is entertaining but not exactly revelatory. Mostly the two of them talking about behind-the-scene stories they remember from filming. Fun but it won’t suffice to support an essay for your film class. The commentary for the final episode consists of virtually the entire cast all hanging out together talking at random. IMO, this commentary may be enjoyable for those curious what the actors sound like off-stage, but nary a “film-content related” tidbit to be found. Commentary is in 1.0 DD mono (center speaker only).

We get some great deleted scenes in 16x9 WS (no commentary) which fans should enjoy. I also enjoyed the “inside stunts” short (4x3) which goes into detail about how many of the action-fight scenes were shot. That Jennifer is one bitchin’ babe and if you didn’t know it before you’ll certainly agree after learning about how she stages so many of her own action scenes. There’s also a video-game sneak peek which looks almost like the actual series due to it’s high-resolution (things have come along way since the Atari 2600 Pac Man game I used to play). A few TV spots and some DVD ROM content that I can’t look at because I don’t have a DVD-ROM drive on my PC. Posted Image

Overall seems to be a nice supply of extra material to satisfy most enthusiasts.

Packaging…

Since this is a series you may be wondering how all those discs are bound together. You get a box that houses 3 clam-shell DVD packages…and each normal-sized DVD clamshell case holds two DVDs. That’s six DVDs in a very nice set. Discs are easy to remove as there is none of that brittle-type plastic to easily snap/break like with some of the paper/plastic “fold out” style multi-disc sets you sometimes see.

Conclusion...


If you already like the series or are looking for a new series to pick up and you’re in the mood for a film-noir suspense/action drama, Touchstone has delivered a DVD with great picture and sound sure to please the most ardent fans. Check it out!

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.



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#2 of 101 OFFLINE   BrandonJF

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Posted September 01 2003 - 01:46 PM

There are actually 4 audio commentary tracks. The one you missed was on the episode "Q & A".

#3 of 101 OFFLINE   Kevin Porter

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Posted September 01 2003 - 03:09 PM

Taking up on David's invitation...

Every episode presented in this season is like a little self-contained 42 minute action movie. A few (about 2 in retrospect) of the episodes are very self-contained and you can watch out of order. But the rest of the time watching in order is the only way to go as there are various running plots that would probably be very confusing out of order.

I don't reccomend purchasing this blind because this show has a number of detractors. Some claim it to be too unrealistic and not very believable. Yes, I will admit that it's not as tightly knit and realistic as 24 (And even on that show you have to have some suspension of disbelief) but that's what sets it apart. It really doesn't exist in this universe but has a universe of it's own as episodes in season two have proven. It's not tailored for all types so I wouldn't advise a blind buy. Order the first disc off of Netflix as the first 3 or 4 episodes quickly find their groove.

I'm kind of disappointed that it's not the cardboard foldout packaging. While I know this type has it's detractors, I think it looks very artistic and I like it. I'll be picking up my set tommorrow at Best Buy. It remains one of my favorite shows on television right now and comes highly reccomended. It's simply wildly entertaining.
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#4 of 101 OFFLINE   Rocky F

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Posted September 01 2003 - 03:24 PM

I have to agree with Kevin, about not being able to watch it out of order. I think that this show may be second only to 24 in the importance of watching in order, as almost every episode ends on a cliffhanger, but hey, that's what season sets on DVD are for isn't it.
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#5 of 101 OFFLINE   MatthewLouwrens

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Posted September 01 2003 - 03:32 PM

Another unusual aspect about the show is that each episode ends on a cliffhanger - sometimes they may be a surprise revelation or something, but more usually it may be that Sydney is on a mission and ends up in trouble. In such cases, the first five minutes of the next episode will actually be the conclusion of the previous episode, and then the story will carry on. So a "self-contained episode" would include the fiirst few minutes of the next show.
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#6 of 101 OFFLINE   Michael St. Clair

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Posted September 01 2003 - 03:57 PM

Quote:
My TV has a non-defeatable digital-noise-reduction circuit that sometimes introduces artifacts into noise/grainy images that aren’t really on the disc so it’s often difficult for me to be sure what’s compression artifacting from poor compression or DNR at the studio when I’m watching challenging source material.


What is your set?

Also, is there any way you could do spot-checks on your PC in cases where you are unsure of digital processing on the disc?

#7 of 101 OFFLINE   ThomasC

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Posted September 01 2003 - 04:08 PM

Quote:
Also, is there any way you could do spot-checks on your PC in cases where you are unsure of digital processing on the disc?
From his review:

Quote:
...I don’t have a DVD-ROM drive on my PC.


#8 of 101 OFFLINE   Kevin Porter

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Posted September 01 2003 - 04:11 PM

Yeah I think you're right come to think of it Rocky. And as Matthew said, Alias follows the tradition of the classic serials with each episode ending with a cliffhanger. The memory is a bit fuzzy as the last season one episode I saw was last summer.
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#9 of 101 OFFLINE   Kenneth Cummings

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Posted September 01 2003 - 04:32 PM

I will be picking this show up this week hopefully. I seen a few episodes before and like the series from what I seen of it. This is the same thing that happened with Buffy years ago. A show that I liked, but only seen a handful of episodes in total.
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#10 of 101 OFFLINE   Michael St. Clair

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Posted September 01 2003 - 04:58 PM

Quote:
...I don’t have a DVD-ROM drive on my PC.


My fault for missing that. To be honest, I only read the sound/picture section in HTF reviews. Extras aren't a critera that I use in deciding a purchase, and I am already familiar with the content of virtually everything I buy.

David, my last DVD-ROM drive cost $30. Consider it. Posted Image

#11 of 101 OFFLINE   David Williams

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Posted September 01 2003 - 05:34 PM

Quote:
Yes, I will admit that it's not as tightly knit and realistic as 24 (And even on that show you have to have some suspension of disbelief) but that's what sets it apart.

That is easily debatable. Posted Image

I find 24 to be more unrealistic than Alias just based on the events in Teri Bauer's life on Day 1 (Not to mention Naked Mandy or the walking Cougar-bait that is Kim Bauer). Alias skews more into the realm of James Bond levels of suspensions of disbelief.

Jennifer Garner's acting (2002 Golden Globe Winner & 2003 Nominee) makes it easy to recommend to just about anyone.
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#12 of 101 OFFLINE   Kevin Porter

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Posted September 01 2003 - 06:33 PM

Wow ya'll sure know how to nitpick reviews! Posted Image
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#13 of 101 OFFLINE   oscar_merkx

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Posted September 01 2003 - 07:45 PM

thanks for the review as I have not seen this yet, but got me curious indeed. I think here in the UK on saturday, season 1 starts so perhaps time to watch some episodes.

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#14 of 101 OFFLINE   DaViD Boulet

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Posted September 02 2003 - 12:40 AM

Brandon,

Thanks for the correction. I've made the necessary edit.

Michael,

Yes, a DVD drive on my PC is one thing I NEED to add...it would also allow me to do screen-shots for my reviews Posted Image Posted Image

Right now I have a 16x9 ProScan 34" direct-view (480P) dispaly that I bought back in 1996 for use with my widescreen laserdisc collection. This TV was definitely ahead of it's time...it was the first consumer-level 16x9 480P display available in the states as far as I know...and it was produced and manufactured all before DVD was even on the radar!

Naturally, it didn't sell as only a few laserdisc geeks like me bothered to purchase one, so ProScan pulled it off the market the year after I bought mine and only dared to enter the 16x9 tube market again more recently after 16x9 DVD had a good foothold.

In any case, the set has built-in digital noise reduction...and has only 3 settings "High, Medium, Low". From a distance of about 3-screen widths the "low" setting produces a *very* true-to-the-source appearnance...basically not monkeying with the signal in any visible way. But if you move closer to the set...to try to simulate what you'd see with a projection viewing angle...you start to notice some artifacts that I used to think were just MPEG compression on DVDs until I started screening DVDs at my friend's house to discover that they often looked much less MPEGgy on the 100" screen. Could be any number of things, but I'll just blame the non-defeatable DNR until I get the projection system I'm saving for Posted Image

BTW, most televisions produce similar artifacts from their built-in digital processing/scaling, it's just that most folks don't sit close enough to be bothered. I have yet to see a Plamsa, for instance, that looks good at less than 3.5 screen-widths away...and even most smaller HDTV displays start to look really "digital" if you get up close to the screen. It's like the TV manufacturers design their sets knowing someone will be about 8-10 feet away regardless of the screen-size.

Anyway...enough of me ranting...boy...I can really type!

BTW, thanks to all for sharing your comments! I *really* encourage it. It's part of the fun for me too...to see people carrying on a fun conversation and sharing stuff in a thread that I wouldn't have been able to come up with.

BTW, you guys are right about the show often not being too realistic...but IMO it's the same sort of non-realism in Spiderman or X-men...it's part of the "action hero" effect and you brain allows space for it.
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#15 of 101 OFFLINE   Kevin_M_M

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Posted September 02 2003 - 01:48 AM

can anyone confirm that the original music throughout the episodes is retained for the dvds? alias uses a lot of popular music in its episodes including dave matthews, sarah mclachlan, etc and i was worried the music might get replaced due to cost.

can anyone confirm this?
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#16 of 101 OFFLINE   DaViD Boulet

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Posted September 02 2003 - 02:13 AM

I know for a fact that the first episode has a Cat Stevens song from Harold and Maude (Trouble?) and the director even mentions it. I tend to think that they do as a whole preserve the original music but I can't be sure having not seen the show on TV prior.
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#17 of 101 OFFLINE   Michael St. Clair

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Posted September 02 2003 - 02:14 AM

David,

I remember those sets...was actually thinking about buying one back then. Consumer-level noise reduction is typically evil; even the best Pioneer or Panasonic laserdisc player will flatten image depth with noise reduction at any setting.

Even professional noise reduction is evil if not used with the greatest restraint and skill; even the THX 'Faces' Star Wars discs are too processed for me.

#18 of 101 OFFLINE   DaViD Boulet

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Posted September 02 2003 - 03:08 AM

from dvdfile:

Quote:
The first two episodes really don't sound very good at all. Volume level on them is set very low by default, and even after raising the master volume on my receiver well above my standard settings they still sounded flat, compressed and lifeless. They have almost no bass and very little surround presence. Gunshots have none of the expected punch and what surround activity does occur is entirely monaural, so those viewers with EX-capable equipment will want to disable the rear center channel or else the entire surround soundstage will collapse toward the middle. True, this is a television show and I don't necessarily expect it to have a feature film quality soundtrack, but Alias does sound better in broadcast and a number of other TV show DVD sets have better audio quality, even without the 5.1 encoding.

However, by the third episode we can already hear a significant improvement. The front soundstage dramatically opens up and volume level comes closer to normal (though it is still a little low). Low-end fidelity finally improves and gunshots start to have the punch that was missing before. Things are still not perfect, though, as the high end of the signal now clips and distorts for at least a few episodes. Fortunately, audio quality continues to improve until the end of the season, which has a very dynamic soundtrack that is more along the lines of what I expected from the entire season. The action scenes are alive and energetic with full-bodied sound, and we even start to get split-surround activity that takes better advantage of the 5.1 mixing.

You know...I noticed the same thing in that episode 3 really changes as far as sound-quality goes (and I'm going to edit my review to include this). What I really noticed was that episode 3 had much more surround-use than the first 2 episodes...thought still not quite as much as I would have liked. But whereas the first 2 episodes basically had *no* surround, starting with the 3rd you get a surround "woosh" when you find yourself at a new city locale.

-dave Posted Image
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#19 of 101 OFFLINE   Daryl L

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Posted September 02 2003 - 04:31 AM

I watch Alias on ABC in HD and the picture quality in HD isn't as good as some other HD tv show. It has way to much film grain added, colors differ drasticly to much from scene to scene and show to show. The show itself is excellent and exciting to watch. As far as the action sequences on Alias, Jennifer Gardner's fighting far surpasses her fight scenes in Daredevil. I'm seriously considering ordering the dvd's because the show is so good.
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#20 of 101 OFFLINE   JamesY

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Posted September 02 2003 - 11:00 AM

Kevin M_M: to the best of my recollection, all of the music is there - I remember most of the songs when these episodes originally aired, and sarah mclachlan is there, peter gabriel, even the techno track from Supreme Beings of Leisure is there. The music is well-picked for the show.

Good review David, I have already been checking out the episodes for the last few hours, and I definitely recommend the set. I noticed two things though that wasn't mentioned in the review, but I hope won't detract people from purchasing this. However, I had to ask:

No scene selection? I watched the episodes straight through anyways, but I noticed that although there are chapters within each episode, there's no scene access from any of the menus. Did I miss something?

The other thing, more of a small comment: the .LFE extension seems pretty weak, if nonexistent. It's true that later episodes get more active in the surrounds, but my sub was pretty dormant. Best example I could find was in Episode 5, "Doppelganger", neither the big car or building explosions could get me anything from my SVS-Ultra or bass shakers. I'll recheck my connections, but anyone else have a similar experience on their setup?

I've watched the first 2 discs, and it looks really good. Not as good as I remember on HD, but I've only had the chance to watch "Phase One"(the superbowl episode) in HD. I look forward to season 2.
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