Alphas is a new show which debuted this past summer on Syfy, as part of their attempt to actually have a solid block of genuinely sci-fi themed programming on their channel. It concluded its first season a few weeks ago, and after some ambiguity on its status, it has been confirmed to be receiving a second season.
The premise of Alphas is one that’s increasingly familiar: there are people among us who have special in-born abilities that set them apart from the rest of the human race. Some of them use these abilities for good, some for evil; some people believe they can live in harmony with the “normals”, some people believe a war is inevitable. It’s a premise that has been the driving force behind the X-Men comic book series (and later cartoon and film franchise) since the 1960s, and also the recently-euthanized NBC series Heroes.
So the premise isn’t new; does the show handle it well?
Unlike Heroes, which introduced its protagonists separately and had them come together through increasingly-ludicrous contrived coincidences, Alphas has a central team of characters who are brought together by Dr. Lee Rosen (David Strathairn), a noted neurologist and psychologist. He functions much as the Professor X of the group, acting as the off-the-field leader and therapist, but there are a couple of key differences between Rosen and his group of Alphas and Professor Xavier and his X-Men. The first is that Rosen is sponsored by the government, which he is ambivalent about, but it provides a layer of legal protection for his group. He prefers to find Alphas and help them understand their abilities, but the Department of Defense, through liaisons Nathan Clay (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) and Kathy Sullivan (Valerie Cruz) prefers to use his group to apprehend Alphas who are using their abilities for criminal purposes. Troublesome Alphas are sent to Binghamton, a secure holding facility. Benign Alphas are helped with their problems and occasionally recruited to the team (we only see this in a couple cases, but it’s implied this is how all of Rosen’s team was formed.)
The other key difference between Rosen and Professor X (and similar characters) is that although Rosen is the foremost expert on Alphas, he himself is not one. He has no special abilities, and this occasionally causes strife with some of the members of the group and outside Alphas, who often doubt whether his apparent benevolence is sincere.
Rosen’s team consists of five (at present) members, each an Alpha with an ability that is distinct within the group (though not unique in the world at large; the series often shows other characters with abilities that are at least somewhat analogous, and sometimes exactly the same.) The powers are something that Alphas handles reasonably well; the powers are at least somewhat hand-waved as extensions of human abilities, so there isn’t anybody with an ability that’s too “super” such time-travel or copy-catting powers (at least, not yet.) Further, the powers have limitations and even downsides, which are based directly on what the ability is. Although the show’s use of scientific terms is often off, the writers are at least attempting to think about the powers logically and to keep them within reasonable limits.
Laura Mennell plays Nina Theroux, a woman with a limited form of mind-control; when she is looking someone in the eyes, she can command them to do as she wishes. However, it only works with direct eye contact (even sunglasses are enough to block the effect), and the deaf or blind are immune. Also, anybody whose mind is too inflexible will be immune to some or all of her commands. Nina is the most “together” of Rosen’s team, although she states she was “a mess” before he found her, and she is working on giving up all the things she has gotten for free by pushing peoples’ minds. She often serves as second-in-command, with Rosen delegating to her and confiding more in her than in the other members.
Bill Harken (Malik Yoba) is a former FBI agent with the most traditional power among the group. At will, Bill can give himself an adrenaline surge, enabling him to have a degree of super strength, pain resistance and moderately increased speed. However, doing it for too long puts a strain on his heart, and additionally he’s always in an elevated state of aggression. As the only person on the team with law enforcement experience, he’s often frustrated by the inexperience of the other team members when dealing with Alpha criminals.
Ryan Cartwright, who played recurring character Vincent Nigel-Murray on Bones, plays Gary Bell, who is able to see and interact with most of the electronic spectrum. He can hear radio waves, surf the internet without a computer, and eavesdrop on most telephone calls (he can’t pick up Nokia signals for some reason). Gary is autistic, but mostly able to function in society with only some awkwardness. Gary often serves to provide comic relief, with his near-inability to lie (giving a cover story and then telling the person that it’s just a cover story) and his tendency to phrase things oddly and place equal emphasis on things of differing importance (“Dr. Rosen’s in here! And he hurt his leg. And he has bad hair.”) However, he’s also portrayed as a complete human being, who cares about his friends, has ambitions, and who struggles to be taken seriously by his mother and his co-workers.
Azita Ghanizada plays Rachel Pirzad, a former CIA linguist. Rachel has enhanced senses, and is able to further enhance any one sense by shutting down all the others. (The show, in one of its looser grasps on scientific terminology, refers to this as synaesthesia; well, I suppose it could be considered a form of it, but it’d be one so different that using the term isn’t really helpful.) This enables her to track people by scent, see fine particles without a microscope, and hear over great distances. She is socially reserved, and something of a neat freak — a consequence of being able to see the grime in greater detail.
The fifth member of the team, brought in during the pilot episode, is Cameron Hicks, played by Warren Christie. Hicks is a former marine and minor league baseball player who has exceptional motor coordination, able to perform such feats as running on rails, inserting coins in a vending machine from half a room away, or shooting a man through a ventilator shaft from the next building. However, while Bill gains his abilities from stress, stress interferes with Cameron’s abilities; it only works if he remains calm and doesn’t think too hard about what he’s doing. Hence why he could pitch two perfect games in a row in the minor leagues, but washed out of the majors. For the first few episodes, Hicks serves as someone for the rest of the team to explain things to, the usual means of introducing things to the audience in a semi-natural fashion. Afterward, he and Bill usually serve as the ones most likely to be in charge of capturing the bad guys.
For the first few episodes, the show takes a “villain of the week” format; as it goes on, the season reveals the start of a plot arc, with an underground organization known as Red Flag. Red Flag is an Alpha terrorist organization, with the usual motives of “they’ll never understand us, so we’ll bring war to them.” I have to say my feelings are kind of mixed on this. On the one hand, I know that just about any ongoing drama nowadays tends to have an overarching plot arc (though I’ll note that crime dramas tend to do just fine with “villain of the week”). On the other hand… we’ve definitely seen this arc before. It’s classic X-Men, and it was also used in Heroes after the first season (and I can’t help but note that the first season was the only one of Heroes that was worth watching.) Though at least, unlike Heroes, Alphas blows the secrecy out of the water in the season finale, with Rosen revealing the nature of Alphas to the whole world. There’s some hope it can avoid the pitfalls of Heroes with that, though it’ll still have to do some work to avoid being too much like a non-costumed X-Men.
I’ve been wavering a bit on how I feel about the quality of this show. I again find myself with the feeling that, with a first season show, it’s still finding its footing. It’s not bad, but although it’s decent, it’s not great either. It has the potential for it, but it also has the potential to become rather stupid. (Still feeling burned on Heroes.) I can feel some hope in that so far, there has been a logic to the plots that I haven’t usually seen in similar stories, and while there have been twists, they haven’t been the lunatic “shocking swerve” twists that lesser shows try to rely on. Still, though I’ll keep watching in the second season, I’m going to be a bit wary yet, especially with a new show-runner coming on (Bruce Miller, formerly in charge of Eureka.)
Speaking of Eureka, the writers and Syfy have apparently decided to make Alphas part of the same story-universe as Eureka and Warehouse 13, with Warehouse 13‘s recurring character Dr. Calder (Lindsay Wagner) appearing in one episode this season. Gotta say, I’m not sure how to feel about that. On the positive side, it provides a bit of a hand-wave for Pete’s “vibes” and Jinks’s living lie-detector ability in Warehouse 13; evidently, they are Alphas. On the negative side, it also raises some questions; first, Pete and Jinks’s abilities lack the characteristic downsides of Alpha abilities, and seem to be more potent than similar abilities shown in Alphas, so it doesn’t quite work as an explanation (and the idea of there being two separate types of in-born abilities within the same universe would be an inelegant kludge.) Plus, there’s the bigger question of just how the right team always winds up going to the right event when there’s unexplained phenomena going on. The Warehouse team isn’t equipped to handle Alphas, Rosen’s team isn’t equipped to handle artifacts. Dr. Calder’s guest appearance on Alphas has her tracking down a rash of illnesses as part of her CDC job, and contacting Rosen under the (correct) suspicion that an Alpha is responsible. How did she know it wasn’t an artifact, as it was in one of the episodes of Warehouse 13 she was in? Of course, sooner or later, they’re bound to have a team go to an event and find out it’s under the other one’s purview, and that’ll give a reason for a cross-over. But given that the Warehouse 13 episodes with Eureka guest stars were among the weakest of the series, that’s not exactly encouraging. Still, I guess I can wait and see and hope that when the inevitable happens, it works out better.