Monday, October 17, 2011

"Alphas" Got Better in a Hurry

Boy it feels good to be wrong sometimes. After the series premiere of "Alphas," I was certain that the superhero show was going to position the character of Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie), the former Marine who fits the mold of your typical handsome male action protagonist, as the primary focus of the series. Instead, the people behind the scenes were quick to realize that the show had two really interesting, unique characters - Dr. Rosen (David Strathairn) and Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright) - and gave the bulk of the screentime to them instead. But I think the key to why "Alphas" has turned into a show worth watching over the course of its stellar first season is how the writers have figured out how to make these characters work together as an ensemble.

Kindly Dr. Rosen is everyone's therapist and the team leader, always there to smooth out bumpy interactions and offer sage advice. Gary is an even more unifying force, being an austistic youngster who can't really function on his own without supervision, so everyone else on the team has to put aside their own baggage and look out for him. "Bill and Gary's Excellent Adventure" is a good example that pairs Gary up with unfriendly ex-FBI agent Bill Harken (Malik Yoba) for a madcap case, which finally gets Bill to soften up a little and reevaluate his place on the Alphas team. Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada) struggles to come out of her shell, and ends up rooming with the more outgoing Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell), who has trouble curbing her own worst impulses. Nina and Cameron are clearly in the early stages of a romantic relationship, which Dr. Rosen is doing his best to dissuade, considering Nina's messy past history with men.

Oh, and there's the crimefighting and shiny special effects and action scenes and stuff. Don't get me wrong. That part's all great, but it's a lot more fun when you've got interesting characters dealing with ongoing personal issues at the same time. This is the reason why "Alphas" is one of the few recent superhero shows that works where so many others have failed. It sticks to a very basic procedural format and just lets the characters be themselves and develop organically, instead of trying to shoehorn them into particular roles. Nina and Cameron have the fewest major issues to work out, and often end up being supporting characters, where other shows would have pushed them front and center because they're played by the most conventionally attractive actors. Bill might have been stuck as the go-to heavy, but instead he's being transitioned from grumpy badass to a more paternal figure. Sometimes it's just little character moments here and there, but they count for a lot.

Should "Alphas" really be considered part of the superhero genre in the first place? The show carefully avoids most comic-book conventions like code names, flashy costumes, and secret identities. There's some series mythology, but it doesn't come up all that often, and the episodes are easily watched out of sequence. But when you get down to basics, "Alphas" is a stripped-down "X-men" with a minivan. They've laid the foundation to take on bigger, wilder adventures, and the last few episodes suggest that they could be heading in that direction. If they want.

So future genre entries should take heed. Superheroes can work on television, but the superhero-y parts of a superhero show generally matter a lot less than the stories and characters and simply being good television. Gary Bell's character is about 1% being able to read invisible electromagnetic frequencies, and 99% being an enthusiastic autistic kid, having the time of his life playing secret agent. And that's why he works, and why he's so often at the center of "Alphas."

I feel I've oversold the show a bit, which I don't mean to. "Alphas" is a fun, low-key piece of genre entertainment that's heavy on the humor and light on originality. It has the potential to be bigger and better, but considering it's on Syfy and the original showrunner has been just replaced by someone with a considerably less impressive resume, I don't think we're going to see it get too ambitious any time soon. But that's okay. Not every show has to be "Lost" or "Battlestar Galactica," nor should it be. "Alphas" works just fine as a modest procedural, and if it never upgrades its special effects or turns into a convoluted science-fiction epic, you won't hear any complaints out of me.

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