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Brand New Spy and Cult Classic Alias Play Spy Game--by Different Rules

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! October 31, 2011 at 3:45AM

In this week’s “Now and Then” column, Matt Brennan takes a look at two players in the small-screen spy game, the new Sky 1/Hulu comedy Spy and J.J. Abrams breakout cult hit, Alias.
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In this week’s “Now and Then” column, Matt Brennan takes a look at two players in the small-screen spy game, the new Sky 1/Hulu comedy Spy and J.J. Abrams breakout cult hit, Alias.

Espionage parody is a tricky thing. On the face of it, spy thrillers are ripe for satire: from the dangerous gadgetry to the cloak-and-dagger routine, there’s something a tad ridiculous about secret agents. Even the James Bond films, for better or worse, have long been in on the joke, from Q’s exasperated bumbling to Bond’s unique brand of blatant sexual puns.
 
Rarely, though, do the laughs fly. A venerable subgenre stretching from Johnny English to Austin Powers, spy parody invites more than its fair share of duds. FThat's because when the humor is played with any more than a sly wink, what’s clever quickly becomes grating: parody turns into paralysis. The same lesson applies to the disappointing new series Spy, now available Fridays exclusively on Hulu.com: the laugh lines might as well be accompanied by a brass band.
 
Spy stars Darren Boyd (pictured) as Tim, a blundering single father, computer-store clerk and avid puzzle-solver who accidentally sits for, and aces, a British intelligence service entry exam. His travails as an inept spy range from the mundane — a recurring gag about the faulty wiring in his apartment — to the surreal — something about a training mission, a homeless illegal immigrant from Bulgaria, and a trashy talk show.
 
Spy, as this description suggests, is really just a loose accumulation of set pieces ginned up for absurdist laughs that never arrive, with the attendant self-conscious “kookiness.” It relies on some of same outlandish personality tics that have made Modern Family a hit, but the precocious kid (newcomer Jude Wright, as the most miserable little brat imaginable) and obsessive family social worker (Rosie Cavaliero), who might be funny in a domestic sitcom, seem forced here. Straining this hard never makes for good comedy, and after three preview episodes I developed the gnawing desire to see Tim ditch the menagerie of lunatics in his orbit and go for something subtler. Funny, I feel the same way about Spy.
 
Where the series does hit on a genuine comedic moment, it’s usually brief and witty, enough to catch you off guard. In the office of Tim’s handler, for example, the camera catches a glimpse of a portrait of Judi Dench. A wry riff on her role as M in the Bond films, it has the same sense of being on nodding terms with the genre as J.J. Abrams’ rollicking Alias. Starring Jennifer Garner (in a brilliant star turn) as double agent Sydney Bristow, it makes its allusions gently, from the jet set locales to the unapologetic way Sydney uses innuendo to complete the task at hand. Where Bond had sports cars, she has disguises — part of the great fun of any episode of Alias is watching Garner inhabit not one role but many, from pink-haired rebel to Southern belle.
 
Leavened by such warm humor, Alias gets away with some of its more convoluted aspects, like the conspiracy theory involving a Da Vinci-esque Renaissance genius. This may have more to do with Garner’s effortless blend of ferocity and earnestness than the show’s inherent quality, but in the meantime I’m happy to follow her impish spy without much concern for ripped-from-the-headlines realism: when she walks back into SD-6 with the big take from a rogue mission in the series pilot, even the power of her stride is compelling. Far more than Spy, which feels tired even as it’s still hot off the press, Alias remains fresh, from the youthful electro-pop theme (composed by Abrams himself) to the unabashed thrills of its perpetual cliffhangers. (The moodier, almost punk sensibility that has revitalized the Bond franchise owes much to the Alias playbook.) In other words, it’s a show confident enough to sail on with a wink and a nod, the kind of flirtation that doesn’t have to work too hard for your attention, because it already has it.

[Spy photo and trailer courtesy of Sky 1 HD/Hulu; Alias photo and season 4 promo courtesy of ABC.]

This article is related to: Directors, Franchises, Genres, Headliners, Web/Tech, Video, Reviews, TV, Now and Then, J.J. Abrams, Thriller, comedy, Action, Classics, Hulu, Trailers


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.