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Review: With 'Alphas,' Syfy Aims for Superhero Territory

by Maureen Ryan, posted Jul 11th 2011 1:30PM
If you have even casual familiarity with the world of superhero comics and films, nothing about 'Alphas' (10PM ET Monday, Syfy) will strike you as unusual.

There aren't any tights or costumes in sight, but many of the familiar building blocks are put in place by the drama's series premiere: The unusually powerful team that sometimes held back by bickering and interpersonal issues; the abrupt government agent with the ambiguous agenda; the thoughtful, professorial leader of the team who is not named Professor Charles Xavier but who might as well be. (At least 'Alphas' comes by its 'X-Men' connections honestly: Co-creator Zak Penn was one of the writers on a couple of 'X-Men' movies.)

As an origin story, 'Alphas' hits some notes too hard and lacks a certain subtlety, yet there's potential in this tale, especially if it delves into the psychological cost of being extraordinary.

The least interesting thing that 'Alphas' could do would be to devolve into a superhero-flavored police procedural, which is one obvious way the show could go. In the pilot, Dr. Lee Rosen (David Straithairn) leads his motley team as it investigates an odd murder, and though the twists and turns of the investigation provides an efficient way of sketching out the relationships on the team, the most interesting moments of the pilot don't have anything to do with cracking the case.

In one scene, a patient Rosen helps a potential new member of the team understand the range of his abilities, and in another, two Alphas in a dingy apartment have a conversation that is loaded with intriguing subtext. These are really the most interesting parts of this show: Rosen's fatherly, borderline-obsessive interest in his disparate, socially awkward charges, and the ways that the Alphas themselves relate to each other as members of a very strange tribe.

Less interesting are the ways in which the show repeats certain character beats so many times that you may be tempted to shout, "OK, I get it! The Hulk and the autistic guy who is a whiz at processing electronic data don't get along!" Malik Yoba doesn't exactly play the Hulk, but his character, former FBI agent Bill Harken, has "enhanced strength from [his] fight or flight response," according to the show's press notes. So far Harken is the most grating member of the team, given that as a former member of "real" law enforcement, he thinks the Alpha team's membership and methods are beneath him.

Other members of the team include a slick "influencer" who can get people to do her will, a shy young woman whose super-senses allow to her examine crime scenes in an intense way, and a man with "hyperkinesis," which means, I think, that he can do whatever the show needs him to do. As the aforementioned autistic man, Gary Bell, Ryan Cartwright is the cast's early standout; he manages to make Bell not just a collection of predictable behaviors but a real person with a prickly, individual intelligence.

Of course, Straithairn, one of Hollywood's most valuable character actors, is reason enough to tune in. His nicely observed portrait of the slightly eccentric Rosen is compelling, but Straithairn never goes for the hammy, scenery-chewing approach, which makes his low-key charisma all the more effective.

In the pilot, which was direct by 'Lost' veteran Jack Bender, there are some good action sequences, but the pilot script also contains its share of convenient plot turns and coincidences. The agenda of the bad guy that the team is hunting is unclear and the role of the government handler played by Callum Keith Rennie is also murky, but there is time for 'Alphas' to make those aspects of the show interesting parts of the mythology rather than mildly irritating mysteries.

The good news is that 'Alphas' appears to have more grit and dramatic potential than the network's lighter 'Warehouse 13' and 'Eureka,' which also return Monday. Don't get me wrong, I have soft spots for those shows (and 'Warehouse 13' is worth checking out for Aaron Ashmore's arrival as the new guy on the team), but Syfy hasn't shown much ambition in the way of scripted drama since 'Battlestar Galactica' went off the air.

The pilot for 'Alphas' may not be perfect, but it's not necessarily originality I'm looking for here. The "band of outsiders" concept has proven sturdy enough to anchor everything from 'Buffy' to the enduring 'X-Men' franchise, and I'm willing to give 'Alphas' a chance to prove that this particular collection of misfits can mine this familiar territory for compelling stories about loneliness, connection and identity.

If nothing else, there are no vampires. So there's that.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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I agree with you, Joseph. It seems that these critics often make plenty of statements, but fail to back their statements with logic/explanation/reason.

August 22 2011 at 2:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joseph Marquis

Alphas is a real attempt at being an intelligent science fiction show. The characters are designed well and interact poorly with one another. This appears as something intelligent to me, a viewer. They all talk at the same time and rarely respect one another, but yet still care in some fashion. That right there is far more creative, intelligent and complex then x-men or heroes. Such sad attempts at saying "I saw this before". Muddle characters? Way to go for a muddled response. What does that mean? Characters are not meant to be known to us, they are meant to be delivered with time and grace. So if a character is "muddled" I can only say, what? In the end, Critics are endless in sad easy to point to situations where an occurence happened in several other films (i.e. 5 person team) then say - x-men, heroes, lost, crime-procedurals, etc. are being ripped off. How unintelligent. The first action movie is the only original action movie? Critics please begin to write with more clarity and focus. Say what is really going on, then using cornball statements such as "seen this before" or "This character is muddled, but will be defined more".

How do critics get paid vs the rest of us? "I have an opinion" vs "I have an opinion" one gets paid, because he or she has credentials saying it is okay to have an opinion about a movie?

July 28 2011 at 12:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hi Mo - I live in Australia and will probably not get this unless it is successful (or we'll get it in our summer touted as 'awesome' if it fails) but I recommend the British show Misfits which is about young people dealing with the onset of super powers but without the weary conceit that superpowers will provide clarity through the business of being human.
Also the creator applies no glamour and no gloss which is refreshing and makes the milieu being written about somehow poignant. It has one of the most texturally-dense visual landscapes I've seen in a show about super heroes and what I really love is that the (incredibly well-done) production design and direction allow for a deeper reading of the material, without having the characters lose (or implausibly over-reach) their pain and obtuseness.

It is foul mouthed and inordinately fixated on body fluids but though it is about young people and their lives, I think it connects rather than distances.
Worth a look in my opinion.

July 13 2011 at 12:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to olaf78's comment

I completely agree. I like Misfits more than Alphas, but it's DEFINITELY for mature audiences.

Also, Syfy is blatantly stealing Jack and Kate from Lost. Now all we need is a Sawyer.

July 25 2011 at 9:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Eludium Q36

Here's what I didn't find out from this preview: (1) if this show is Tiger Beat bait or a sort-of-serious attempt at drama, and (2) a comment on why Syfy would shoehorn/stuff WH13, Eureka, and Alphas into one night (!) let alone a Monday night .

July 11 2011 at 1:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Eludium Q36's comment

Really, you don't grasp why a network would program complementary shows for the same night? Really?

July 13 2011 at 11:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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