Superheroes have had a hard time of it since NBC's Heroes said goodbye last year. The Cape and No Ordinary Family came and went with disappointing results, and Wonder Woman barely got off the ground before crashing down again. Syfy hopes to reverse the trend on cable with Alphas, their sole scripted addition for the summer. Can the latest take on televised superheroes break the mold?
Alphas starts off fast and hard, giving viewers little introduction as an unknown Manhattan man is directed by unseen voices. The man follows instructions, revealing a sniper rifle and a rooftop vantage point. At the insistence of his invisible instigator, he fires.
At this point we meet our protagonists proper. Dr. Rosen (David Strathairn, The Bourne Ultimatum) is a psychiatrist who works for the FBI. He manages and supervises at team of 'Alphas,' humans with extraordinary mental and physical abilities. These abilities lend themselves towards certain skill sets - and hobble their users at the same time. Dossier-style graphics pop up, just in case the audience's powers of inference aren't up to the task.
Malik Yoba (New York Undercover) plays Bill, husband, former soldier and the A-team's heavy. He's able to stimulate his body's production of adrenaline at will, giving him incredible strength and resistance to pain. Unfortunately, he's easily worn out - his body can't keep the adrenaline high going for more than a few minutes.
Laura Mennel (who knows a thing or two about heroes from her role in Watchmen) is Nina, who's basically a walking Jedi mind trick. She's able to influence the decisions of almost anyone, easily lying or manipulating them - a trait that she makes good use of as a general grifter and confidence woman.
The team's resident nerd is Gary, played by Ryan Cartwright (Mad Men). Gary can see and interact with all electromagnetic frequencies (in a fashion best described as "invisible iPad syndrome"). His technomancy makes him a perfect hacker and electronic surveillance operative, but the constant stimulation has left him with something like high-functioning autism - he's basically incapable of having a normal conversation.
Anita Ghanizhada is Rachel, the team's investigator. Her synesthasia allows her to heighten a single sense at the expense of others; for example, she can heighten her sight to Superman acuity, but will be temporarily deaf.
The team answers to G-man Agent Wilson (Callum Kieth Rennie of The Killing), who has assigned them to investigate the murder of a federal witness. The feds believe that the perpetrators are a group of criminal Alphas with unknown intentions - who, as it turns out, have brainwashed the maga-athlete and marksman from the intro, Hicks (Warren Christie).
I wanted to like the Alphas premiere, I really did. After the unfulfilled potential of Heroes and the goofy mess of The Cape, I was looking forward to a more down-to-Earth look at superpowered humans. While Alphas certainly has its own feel and a fair share of potential, the overwhelming feeling after the premiere is one of disappointment.
The story presented in the pilot is unambitious - this tale could have been told from the perspective of the CSI:NY team with minimal tweaking. While it's likely that the producers stuck to grounded ideas that could fit in a limited budget, it'd be better to see big ideas that are a little much for the effects (like Eureka) than a story that's purposefully held back.
Even with a low bar set for suspension of disbelief, the actors seem hard pressed to look interested. Unfortunately, they all seem as bored with the source material as the audience, as if they're just waiting for the story to wrap up so they can go home. Maybe that's what was intended - they do seem like normal people in a situation that's only slightly extraordinary. But while that makes for an interesting deconstruction, it doesn't make for an engaging ninety minutes of TV.
The characters themselves have some redeeming quirks. Nina, Gary and Dr. Rosen (if only for his shrink-isms) are easily the most interesting figures, and mysterious bad boy Hicks will obviously be growing a lot in the episodes to come. The rest just seem to be filling spots in the lineup - as if a strong man, tracker and spook were jobs the FBI needed filled and just picked off of Craigslist. The team hangs out in a cozy office that looks like SHIELD had some major budget cutbacks.
Those looking for a glitzy action show will feel somewhat cheated, as the effects and stunts are underwhelming. While shots of Gary's technical manipulation and the subtle effect of Nina's mind control are believable, the super-athletic feats of Bill and Hicks just come off as poor stunts from a slightly over-the-top action movie. The clunky fights will have you pining for the days of Peter and Sylar in all their overpowered glory. I'm inclined to give Syfy a pass on the low-budget feel, but the same people have been able to do more with less.
All that said, there is reason to be hopeful. The superpowered team seems to work well enough as a low-key X-Men, and it's clear that weekly puzzles and mysteries will call upon each of their superhuman and persona strengths. But Alphas needs a lot more work before it's worthy of a slot in your weekly lineup.
First and foremost: these characters need to seem like they care about their jobs and their assignments. It's hard to give a hoot about the supervillain of the week when the actors seem not only unintimidated, but uninterested. Second, the stories need to get bigger: the Fringe and Warehouse 13 teams take down more interesting bad guys without the benefit of powers. Lastly, the show just needs more flavor - right now, it's just another NYC whodunnit with a bag of neohuman tricks for spice.
While I'll be keeping an eye on Alphas to see how much it improves post-pilot (and to be fair, many shows do quite a lot of that) the first impression isn't good one. Without a lot of help in the story and acting department, Alphas will be the next superhero show to bite the proverbial dust.
Alphas airs Monday nights at 10PM on Syfy.
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