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October 6, 2015

Checking In on 'Alphas,' the Summer's Most Promising New Drama

by Maureen Ryan, posted Aug 30th 2011 3:00PM
In my 'Happy Endings' piece yesterday, I noted that I'm using this week to check in on shows I won't be able to write about during the September premiere crush. Today's program: Syfy's 'Alphas.'

The bad news is, 'Alphas' doesn't return until Sept. 12. The good news is, you have almost two weeks to catch up on this Syfy drama, which has turned out to be surprisingly good, especially in recent weeks.

I say "surprisingly" not just because much of Syfy's recent scripted fare has been lightweight, unambitious or slipshod (or all three), but because so much could have gone wrong with this particular show, which follows a team of investigators with superhuman abilities.

Not only has 'Alphas' successfully avoided many of the pitfalls that have bedeviled other superhero-flavored projects, it's done a good job of balancing character-driven moments with taut, well-paced storytelling. Not every episode has been an unqualified success, but the Aug. 15 and Aug. 22 outings, to name my favorites, were truly excellent, if not downright badass.

It's annoying that only the pilot for 'Alphas' can be obtained for free online. What is Syfy thinking? The pilot is serviceable, as I noted in my review, but this is a show that could probably snag a lot of viewers if it were easy to sample subsequent episodes, several of which are better than the pilot.

You might check to see whether your television provider has more episodes available on demand, or, if you're intrigued enough by my recommendation, here's a representative batch of episodes to snag from iTunes or elsewhere after watching the pilot: 'Rosetta' (which first aired Aug. 1), 'Bill and Gary's Excellent Adventure' (Aug. 15) and 'Catch and Release' (Aug. 22).

The last of those episodes featured Summer Glau playing a very Summer Glau-ish role -- Skylar, a street-smart, rebellious Alpha who cans build almost any tech out of spare parts and household appliances. But the episode didn't merely rely on Glau's solid skills and her intrinsic appeal as nerd bait; there was much more going on in 'Catch and Release.' One of the best things about 'Alphas' is that it has has wisely wrapped all the characters in layers of alliances and conflicts, all of which have gained heft and complexity as the first season has progressed.

The actions of Glau's character posed a special challenge for the team, given that she used to be one of them, but her cautionary tale was just part of the show's promising mythology, which is not off-puttingly dense but which -- fingers crossed -- should supply interesting developments and moral quandaries down the road.

It all so easily could have gone another way, and if I hedged a bit in my initial review, it's because we have ample proof that premises like these are ridiculously easy to screw up (swing by your local movie theater some time if you don't believe me). But so far, 'Alphas' has generally good pacing, lively direction and the cast has proved itself up to the material (though, truth be told, cast members Ryan Cartwright and David Strathairn are operating on a whole different level at this stage).

Still, all the team members are dealing with a number of conflicts and dilemmas, emotionally and professionally. These aren't necessarily people who work well in group settings, the team's government minders have a mysterious agenda of their own, and there's a rogue Alpha group out there called Red Flag, (which, as I reported here, will figure prominently in the show's Sept. 26 finale).

It's all promising stuff, but I'll admit that I expected 'Alphas' to be far less interesting than it is. It hasn't avoided every pitfall, and it's a little worrying that the "freak of the week" episodes have sometimes been weak, given how often the show may have to go to that well. Still, 'Alphas' has gotten a lot right, and as I watched the first season unfold, I kept compiling a mental list of all the things 'Alphas' is not:

It's not 'Heroes.' Unlike that meandering NBC show, 'Alphas' has a clear sense of who each character is and where he or she is going. Sure, at times, the characters are a bit too predictable, especially Malik Yoba's Bill Harken, a former FBI agent and the show's Hulk-tastic Alpha. But it never depicts having a super-skill skill as a tragedy or as fodder for pointless adventures that never really have complicated, realistic consequences.

It's not 'X-Men' Lite. Sure, 'Alphas' echoes that iconic comic-book and film series at times, especially since 'X-Men: The Last Stand' scribe Zak Penn is one of the show's creators. But when 'Alphas' invoke the superhero canon, it's subtle and intentional, and the nods in that direction (most of which involve Dr. Lee Rosen, David Strathairn's "Professor X" character) aren't overbearing. And there are differences: The X-Men obviously save the world a lot, but the canvas of their adventures is bigger and they essentially work for themselves. What makes the Alphas' situation intriguing is that members of the team live in the mundane, ordinary world and spend their days working for the government, chasing down other Alphas and solving unusual crimes.

Rosen appears to be increasingly uncomfortable with the government's methods and goals, and Strathairn is a perfect vehicle for the good doctor's doubts and protective instincts. Without overplaying the role, he makes you understand how much the reticent team leader cares about his employees, and it's painfully apparent that he sees both sides of this knotty situation. He knows the Alphas would be more or less functional if they weren't part of the team, but they'd be less fulfilled and far more prone to getting in trouble, and they are certainly able to accomplish much more with governmental resources. But what is the government's endgame and who are the real bad guys here -- rogue Alphas who don't want to do the Man's dirty work, or a government who ships rogues off to be "studied" at a secure location?

It's not sloppy. The show, saints be praised, does not use the characters' abilities as get-out-of-jail free cards. Sure, the woman who "pushes" people to do her bidding or the character who uses her finely tuned senses to follow trails can use their abilities to get information or figure things out much faster than regular people would, but generally speaking, the characters' abilities are deployed in service of brisk pacing and cool twists, not lazy shortcuts. And (shades of 'Chuck') their abilities can't always be relied upon to get them out of tough situations.

I wasn't overly enamored of the Aug. 29 episode, despite a good guest performance from Garret Dillahunt -- the "freak of the week" story seemed a little predictable and simplistic (a little 'X-Files' season 1, if you will). Still, the episode gave the very skilled Strathairn some compelling notes to play, and it's that kind of multi-layered, emotionally infused storytelling that's going to keep me coming back.

On that note, maybe it's now time to talk about what 'Alphas' is, instead of what it isn't. It isn't perfect -- the first few episodes weren't necessarily graceful as they laid the groundwork for later developments, and not all the characters are equally interesting at this stage (though Laura Mennell and Warren Christie have been well used as two wary team members who are beginning to learn to trust each other).

But from the start, one of the things that made me keep watching was the terrific performance of Ryan Cartwright as Gary Bell, an autistic Alpha who can effortlessly hack into cell phone traffic and other data streams.

Talk about a character who was rife with disastrous possibilities. Even if Gary was written well -- which he is -- it's often tempting for an actor to ham it up in a role like this, but Cartwright never overdoes it. Ever. Not only does Cartwright deftly make Gary a fully realized human being with complex desires and understandable emotions, he's also given the role dimensions I'm not sure it even had on the page.

Maybe Cartwright's stint as Lane Pryce's assistant John Hooker on 'Mad Men' helped him hone his skills in the dry comedy arena, but, for whatever reason, Gary has emerged as one of the most slyly funny characters on TV. Of course, I'm not laughing at him -- good God, no. Gary's relentless self-awareness and ferocious dignity would make that kind of mockery unthinkable. But Cartwright manages to make Gary the show's much-needed comic-relief by smartly underplaying the material and making it clear that Gary enjoys being a wild card.

At one point, the Alphas team was issued government badges, and the way Gary kept saying, "Respect the badge!" and "I'm a secret agent" never failed to crack me up. He's having the time of his life as an Alpha, and the fact that his job with Dr. Rosen has given him a chance at independence and autonomy is actually the point of the character. Gary is not a cookie-cutter "autistic character," he is a young man trying to make his way in the world, and whatever distinctive qualities he brings to the table make him more compelling, not more predictable. He and Strathairn really are reason enough to watch the show, and as long as the writers keep supplying them with meaty material, I'll keep watching.

As I said in my review of 'Alphas,' the "team of misfits" premise is one of the oldest ones in storytelling. Yet it's all in the execution, and while I can't assess the season as a whole yet, I'm enjoying 'Alphas' and the momentum it's developing. I almost didn't want to hope for anything with 'Alphas'-- we've been burned with shows like 'Heroes,' 'No Ordinary Family' and the U.S. version of 'Being Human,' and there was every chance we might get disappointed again.

But 'Alphas' is not just getting the basics right these days, the show understands that it can't just be about the characters' emotional dilemmas or their unusual adventures -- the show has to meld both those things in twisty, resonant ways. So far, it appears to be headed in the right direction, and if you watch those episodes above, you, like me, will probably want to know what happens next. (When 'Alphas' returns Sept. 12 -- speaking of nerd bait -- Brent Spiner of 'Star Trek' and Rebecca Mader of 'Lost' will guest star in an episode that finds the team "under siege by an undetectable Alpha.")

You could wait until Sept. 26 to watch an all-day marathon of the show's first season. Or you could catch up now, and together, we could see if these superhuman men and women live up to their ample potential.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Christine M. Horan

Id like to have the power of being able to feel the feelings of people that come near me,that way Id have a heads up on the emotiional feelings of people that come near me .Very helpfull when it comes near people who cant speak or hear.They all have their own special abilities!GARY is sooo funny!

November 04 2011 at 10:39 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Thanks for your review. I have been watching this show since the beginning and aside from " The Hour" and a few others it has certainly been a wasteland for new shows, The critical scene has been quiet on this show and I'm glad too it get the attention it deserves

September 06 2011 at 10:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thanks for your review. I have been watching this show since the beginning and aside from " The Hour" and a few others it has certainly been a wasteland for new shows, The critical scene has been quiet on this show and I'm glad too it get the attention it deserves

September 06 2011 at 10:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was so reluctant to even give this show a try, given all the SyFy/SciFi botches. They've seemed very moribund to me since BSG ended. However, I was bored the other day and decided to give it a try... and BAM, I watched all the episodes in 48 hours, and some of them twice.

Everything is fun and well executed and I'm loving it so far. I agree that Aug. 29th's episode was one of the weaker ones, but only in comparison to the huge apex they've built. I never thought I'd go for an episodic sci-fi show like this and feel compelled to watch every episode (whereas it's easy for me to do that on shows like BSG, which tie you into deep story lines), but there's enough character growth and enough reminders that bigger things are going on that I'm fully invested. Sept 12th feels so far away. LOL.

September 06 2011 at 2:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Mo, I think you're giving this one way too much credit. I agree that it avoids the pitfalls of shows like Heroes and No Ordinary Family, and tonally it's very consistent and easy to watch. Unfortunately, I think every episode is exactly the same: Introduce a new Alpha, introduce what they can do, the team will help/catch them by the end, throw in a tiny bit of mythology, and all is done. USA shows run on a similar procedural model, and I find it crushingly dull.

I could give this Mad Libs screenwriting a pass if the characters were more interesting, but the only great character here is Gary. The rest are bland and boring. They either need to make it The Gary Show or up the serialization if they want to win me back.

August 31 2011 at 9:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jason Winslade

I've been surprised by this show. I love little touches like Rosen's interest in record albums (along with the great Jean Genie sequence). But I have to disagree vociferously about Being Human. I actually think Alphas is in the same stylistic field as Being Human (and I thought it was odd to have Lindsay Wagner's character from Warehouse 13, implying that Alphas is in the same universe as Warehouse 13 and Eureka).

As a fan of the British original of Being Human, I had low expectations for the American version, but I absolutely loved what they did with the show and the choices they made to change the story and characters. I think the writers thought a lot about the implications of those different choices. Lots of similarities but I believe both the US and UK versions stand alone as two wonderful shows. Can't wait for season 2. If anything, I'd like to see an Alphas/Being Human crossover.

August 31 2011 at 8:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Jason Winslade's comment
Mo Ryan

I really tried with BH US, but I just felt it was too clunky and melodramatic. I got through the first 5 episodes of the first season, do you think it improved beyond that? I found it such slow going, honestly, and didn't find the US versions of the characters all that engaging. It had its moments, but it just dragged for me. I'd love to hear more on why you like it. I've had a few folks on Twitter and elsewhere make the case, I'm wondering if I should give it another chance. Then again, it may just not be the show for me.

And I have to confess, I thought BH US did make some of the same mistakes that Heroes and NOF did -- making the powers often seem like burdens and bummers. Just my 2 cents!

September 01 2011 at 1:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I watched the first 2 episodes when they first aired. I have to say, the show wasn't doing it for me. I guess now that Mo's given it her blessing I'll have to go back and start watching it again. Good thing the episodes are still on my DVR. And, hey!, it's not like there's a whole lot else on TV at the moment.

August 31 2011 at 3:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

you can watch a couple of episode on http://www.spacecast.com/Alphas.aspx

its a good summer show, I like it

Ryan Cartwright is crazy good playing Gary Bell, he should win something for that role!

August 31 2011 at 8:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

So at what point will the show get Alan Tudyk to guest star as the first Alpha?

August 30 2011 at 9:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to TAUSIF's comment
Mo Ryan

ha! I would actually love that.

August 31 2011 at 1:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Mo, thanks so much for this review. I'm pretty excited about Alphas and was looking for someone I respect, like your or Sepinwall, to take it seriously. I'm sometimes impatient with the stand alone episodes, but the story arc, with Rosen's complex set of loyalties and concerns, and the intriguing nature of the rogue Alphas and Red Flag, really works, I think. I'd add the second episode, "Cause and Effect," to your list. I really want to see Marcus, the rogue alpha introduced in that episode, again.

But frosting on the cake is the realization, thanks to your article, that Ryan Cartwright is also John Hooker from Mad Men ("I'm Mr. Pryce's right arm; I'm not his typist.") Talk about an actor with range! I agree: Gary is brilliantly portrayed.

Please keep up the attention the Alphas.

August 30 2011 at 7:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to JohnR's comment
Mo Ryan

Thanks, John! Really glad I got a chance to catch up with the show. It's been a pleasant surprise to watch it really embrace all the potential it has.

August 31 2011 at 1:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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