Just finished watching the third season of Alias on DVD, and I thought the portrayal of women was pretty satisfactory. Actually, the whole show is good – great cast, solid writing, fun stuff despite the typical mistake (or is that just my personal taste?) of slowing down the action to focus on romance. But overall, a good job with perfectly credible (within the context of double and triple agent spy work) characters of both genders. Except for one – and this time, it’s not a woman:
Michael Vaughn is a spineless weenie boy.
* (Contains some spoilers for seasons 1-3, so don’t read it if you don’t want to know some things that happen.)
Vaughn (Michael Vartan) starts out okay, when he’s Sydney’s (Jennifer Garner) handler at the CIA. There’s actually a comment in the first season that he’s not really a field agent, but that’s okay – he does a good job assisting her from surveillance vans and from his desk. Naturally, because this is TV and the world would explode if it this did not happen, he and Sydney develop a bit of a “thang” of the romantic variety. But at least it’s handled fairly: when it interferes with the job, that’s acknowledged in the story. When it doesn’t… well, that’s when I go to the kitchen or something, but maybe that’s just me.
Anywho, Vaughn starts going on missions with Sydney in the second season, and we quickly learn he’s not only less skilled than she is – he’s kind of an idiot. There’s an episode where a gigantic tsunami of water is chasing Sydney through an office building, and when she catches up to Vaughn, yelling for him to “Go! Go!” ahead of her, he lingers in shock and ends up getting trapped on the wrong side of a door with the water. I mean, the man has been trained. It’s not like “Go!” is a difficult order. Roughly 80% of the audience would have gotten out in time.
Okay, so he’s not that great an agent. That’s still forgiveable. If he really loves Sydney and is good for her, that’s what counts. So, how does he fare on that score?
Well, before he and Sydney get together, he’s been dating another woman off and on for some time. Not that he mentions that to Sydney or anything – there are CIA regs preventing them from dating, so I guess he feels no additional reasons needed to be given. And it’s definitely a lot easier to string somebody along if you neglect to mention your bed partner. But he’s been hinting to Sydney for some time that if it weren’t for the regs, he’d be all over her, so he gets the official Two-Timing Hussy Award. And in case you thought his behavior there was understandable, one morning he breaks up with his girlfriend, and that afternoon he asks Sydney to date him despite the regs. Must’ve been tough being without a girlfriend for, like, eight hours. So he also gets the Can’t Live Without a Woman Award, which I just had to invent because until now, there’s only ever been the Can’t Live Without a Man Award. And then at the end of Season 3, Vaughn has a full-on meltdown that causes him to compromise Sydney, other agents, and the operations they’re on in pursuit of a personal agenda. So he gets the Self-Obsessed Neurotic Award as well. Big night for him at the Emmys Weenies!
There are two reasons this doesn’t stop me from watching the show. One is that it’s really good otherwise – almost every character is interesting, the writing is pretty high-quality, and the execution is superb. The second reason is that we’re not told we have to think highly of Vaughn, or consider him Sydney’s ideal love. There’s plenty of room for us to think of this as one of those weird coupllings that you see in real life and don’t understand there, either.
Why is Vaughn the only deeply irritating character to me in a show filled with interesting people? Is it just a writing flaw? Or part of some behind-the-scenes alleged formula for success that eludes me? Either way, Alias shows us that the Deconstruction of the Secondary Lead can work just as, er, well for men as it does for women. Is it what I personally want to see? Well, no – I’d prefer to see great characters, period. Is it more equal than what we’ve gotten in the past? Well, unfortunately, yeah. And the bottom line is, as long as talent-free individuals are given jobs in film and TV, this presents a solution to equalization that even they can handle: trash the men along with the women, if you can’t write good characters of either gender.