SyFy’s Superpowered ‘Alphas’ TV Show Has Everything You’ve Seen Many Times Before
This week, the SyFy Channel -- fresh off the cinematic triumph that was Almighty Thor -- have once again thrown their hat in the grand ring of super-hero television. This time, they're going with Alphas, a new series created by Michael Karnow and Zak Penn. Penn, who wrote the pilot, has a lot of experience handling super-heroes as the screenwriter of The Incredible Hulk, X-Men 3 and others. Even if you didn't know that going in, however, you'd probably be able to guess, because there's an awful lot of Alphas that's going to look pretty darn familiar to a comic book-reading audience.
First up is Nina (Laura Mennell), a sexy socialite with no qualms about using the power to control the minds of those around her to live rent-free in a penthouse when she's not out Alpha-ing around. In other words...
She's Emma Frost as a brunette.
It's a comparison that becomes abundantly clear when she's introduced in a scene where she's stopped for speeding on her way to Alpha Headquarters -- which I believe is a bowling alley, a touch I actually thought was pretty fun -- and she hits him with a telepathic command to eat the ticket.
To be honest, I was actually hoping that the cop would be the guy who joined up with the super-hero team. Telepaths are tired in the world of super-hero fiction, but a policeman who just walks up to people and starts shoving parking tickets, spare bullets and flashlights into his mouth while staring at you and never, ever blinking? I'm pretty sure that would freak people out so bad that they wouldn't be able to concentrate on any evildoing.
Sadly, everyone wants to create the next Wolverine, but nobody's willing to create the next Matter-Eater-Lad.
Anyway, our next Alpha is Bill (Malik Yoba), an FBI agent who Hulks out with super-strength whenever his "fight or flight" instincts take over. Except that instead of turning green, he just gets really sweaty.
I'm pretty clear on the basic premise -- as is Penn, who wrote an entire movie about that premise that starred Ed Norton and a bunch of CGI -- but I have to say that he could've figured out a better way to introduce it than by having Bill shove an SUV out of the way so that he could get in his car and drive to work. Having someone block your driveway isn't really a "fight or flight" situation. It's more of a "go ask the neighbors to move their car" situation.
There is an interesting touch that plays into the idea that all the Alphas have drawbacks, though, which is that if he Hulks out too long, it takes a toll on his heart.
Next is Rachel (Azita Ghanizada), who's probably the least-used character in the episode. She's Daredevil, except she's not blind.
As little as she's used, though, she's also the source of one of the pilot's biggest plot holes. While she's searching through a dude's apartment for a murder weapon -- presumably using her super-senses to track items by smell, as represented by visible color-coded stink lines -- the guy himself comes home, and her comrades are trying to warn her by phone and by walkie-talkie. So if she's got the ability to hear an acoustic guitar from three New York blocks away (which she does later in the episode), then why can't she hear her own cell phone?
As mentioned, each Alpha's power is said to come with a drawback -- which makes me wonder if the show's bible came in the form of an RPG manual -- but it's never mentioned whether she can only use one super-sense at a time, and she's certainly looking at and touching stuff while she's sniffing it out. In the grand scheme of things, it's minor and easy to guess what's going on, but having such a crucial moment of the plot marked with such an apparent contradiction shows the rough edges.
The murderer in question, and the viewpoint character for the series, is Cameron (Warren Christie), and he is just straight up Bullseye, right down to being a baseball player in his secret origin.
Christie himself is doing his best impression of Hugh Jackman in X-Men to solidify his role as the team's resident badass, but to its credit, the show does some clever stuff with his powers that even manages to work on a budget, like having him get a soda from a vending machine from ten feet away by throwing change at it.
The last member of the team is the only one who doesn't have an obvious comic book analogue, and also the one whose powers are the most visually interesting for the show: Gary (Ryan Cartwright), who has the ability to "see all of the electromagnetic spectrum."
In show terms, this means that he's able to do stuff like watch TV broadcasts in mid-air and trace cell phone signals by looking at them as they move in straight lines down city streets, which is the kind of comic book crazy that I can definitely get behind. The only problem is that his constant twitchiness -- a result of seeing the world like a giant iPad screen -- occasionally pushes the character's portrayal of a kid with Asperger's into the territory of unintentional parody.
Finally, there's their leader, Dr. Rosen (David Straithairn), who isn't shown to have any powers himself.
But, his behavior, especially at the end of the show, seemed to be pretty reminiscent of the Chief in Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol. Admittedly, by that time I was looking for references, but in a show that's not exactly subtle about hiding its influences, it wasn't hard to see.
It's also worth noting that they've got a government contact named Don Wilson, but since it's neither the announcer from the Jack Benny Show nor the VHS-era action movie icon...
... he's not really worth discussing.
But even with the frustratingly obvious
rip-offs homages to the world of comics, I have to admit that Alphas puts things together in a pretty interesting way. And the most enjoyable aspect of the pilot is that it's not an origin story.
The show starts by showing us Rosen in a speedo, which I thought was a pretty bold choice until I remembered that SyFy's highest-rated show is WWE Smackdown, but that's beside the point. The point is that by the time the story starts, the Alphas are already a growing-concern as a covert crime-fighting organization, to the point where the entire plot is revealed to be a massive revenge scheme based on the fact that they've been bringing down super-crooks for a while now.
In an era when the movies and even the comics themselves can't stop retelling and rebooting origin stories, something that just cuts right to the action is refreshing, especially when it's coupled with a premise that embraces the prominence of super-heroes in the mass media as something that doesn't really need to be explained for an hour before the action starts.
Of course, the fact that this attitude is lifted wholesale from the first X-Men movie with Wolverine swapped out for a carbon-copy Bullseye makes it a little harder to enjoy as a creative effort.