Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Quick Thoughts on "Alphas"

Syfy premiered a new original series on Moday night, "Alphas," the latest in a string of shows about people with comic-book superpowers. After the slow, sputtering demise of "Heroes," the ignominious splats of "The Cape" and "No Ordinary Family, and the non-start of "Wonder Woman," does "Alphas" hit the mark? Well, it's not off to a bad start.

The premise is "X-Men" lite, following a collection of average Americans with extraordinary abilities. There's Bill Harken (Malik Yoba), a former FBI agent with super strength, Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell), who can make you do whatever she tells you to do, Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright), a teenager who can see all electromagnetic frequencies in living color, and Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada), who can sharpen each of her individual senses at the expense of the others. They're counseled and trained by Dr. Lee Rosen (David Strathairn), a slightly scruffier take on Professor X, who has to check in occasionally with a G-man named Don (Callum Keith Rennie) for the team's crimefighting assignments. Technically Rosen and the Alphas are working for the government, but this is surely an arrangement of convenience, as Rosen repeatedly makes it known that he isn't happy about sending his charges into dangerous situations.

Does it seem like the cast is missing an angsty thirty-something white male that fits into the typical action star mold? Don't worry. They go and recruit one in the pilot. The Alphas are sent to find the killer of a government witness, and discover a sharpshooter named Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie) was responsible, but has no memory of the event. It turns out that Hicks was being controlled by a villain with long range mind control powers. The rest of the episode is spent chasing the bad guy around town and getting Hicks situated as a member of the team. Oh yes, it turns out that he's an Alpha too, one with the potential to perform amazing physical feats. And it takes him no time at all to start making eyes at Nina, monopolizing the attention of Dr. Rosen, and making it clear that despite being the blandest character on the show so far, he's our hero and will be getting the most screen time. Oh joy.

Hicks aside, I like how the characters and premise have been set up so far. The Alphas work out of a converted bowling alley in a shopping center rather than some secret super-high-tech laboratory - which is probably more likely when you're government funded. Each of the Alphas have distinct personalities that hold interesting potential. Bill is the most experienced, but also an inconsiderate jerk at times, Gary has Asperger's syndrome - shorthand for being a lovable kook in TV-land, Nina's carefree glamor girl routine isn't fooling anyone, and Rachel is the sweetheart with a head full of science. They're all easy cliches to some extent, but you can seen the beginnings of more interesting team dynamics developing, which will be necessary considering the size of the cast. It could just as easily all go nowhere, especially if the more interesting characters get pushed off to the sidelines. The show's biggest asset right now is David Strathairn as Dr. Rosen, who lends enough just gravitas and credibility to his exposition to get us over many of the pilot's expository bumps.

And boy are there bumps. Instead of being mutants or being changed by some sort of supernatural event, the Alphas have powers which are billed as extensions of existing human abilities. This is where the writing gets very sloppy. Rachel is said to have abilities based on synesthesia, the neurological condition that causes sensory confusion so some people taste colors and smell numbers, but this has nothing to do with her powers. Hicks is supposed to have hyperkinesis, which isn't quite the right descriptor either. There are a couple of other gaps and mistakes like this that signal the writers haven't done their homework and probably haven't thought the show's mythology and mechanics all the way through. However, they're already dropping references to a "compound" where the less cooperative Alphas are sent, and an organization called Red Flag, which rhymes with Big Bad.

But what about the action and the special effects and the exciting stuff? All very good in the pilot. I especially liked the way we got to see how Gary's powers put him in his own little world of colorful lights and flashing video streams. The physical feats displayed by Bill and Hicks were more conventional, but a lot of fun to watch. None of the chase and fight scenes were particularly fancy, but they looked great for a TV budget. But again, the writing wasn't quite up to snuff. The plotting was awkward in many places, and someone decided to put fashion plate Nina in a chase on foot, which just looked ridiculous. And as with all pilots, there's no guarantee that this level of production quality is going to carry over to the rest of the series.

There's plenty of potential in "Alphas" though, and I think it's on firmer footing than either "The Cape" or "No Ordinary Family." Hopefully the creators will learn from the mistakes of their predecessors and give us what we want from this kind of show - more action and ensemble interaction, less angst and inscrutable, twisty plot stuff for now. I'm really hoping "Alphas" will turn out to be a lighter, episodic action show like "Leverage" or "Burn Notice," as opposed to a glummer, super-serious drama like "FlashForward." Oh, and since the villain didn't survive this episode, best rustle up a new bad guy quick.

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