The premise felt all too familiar: a group of five people with superhuman abilities (the Alphas) working for the government to stop crimes committed by other Alphas. This is territory that had been trod on many times before from X-Men, to Heroes. Yet SyFy’s new summer action series, (Monday nights at 10 p.m.), is swiftly developing into SyFy’s newest cult hit. Yes, the show’s plots can feel formulaic at times with the “bad Alpha of the week.” In its first few episodes, the series seemed to be finding its way a bit. And yet Alphas manages to find and breathe new life into a genre that appeared to be done to death.
It helps that the show looks great, managing excellent production values on a shoestring budget, proving that it’s possible to deliver the goods without massive pyrotechnics. The action sequences invariably use the surroundings in surprising and stylish new ways, particularly when displaying Alpha Cameron Hicks’s hyperkinesis ability. We not only get to see Cameron, played by Warren Christie, shoot people through a ventilation system or climb walls, but also throw a baseball in just such a way that it will bounce off a wall and disable an entire satellite system. And that is a relatively simpler use of Cameron’s gift!
Cameron’s gift comes with some pretty heavy downsides too; he’s an emotionally unstable, alcoholic, with authority issues. In fact, as the show makes a point of emphasizing all the Alphas’s abilities appear to have a price tag attached to them. Do you ever wish you could “push” people to do whatever you want like the seductive Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell)? Then you’ll probably always find yourself battling the temptation to abuse your gift and give way to every impulse, at one point in the past, with fatal results. How would you like to amplify your serotonin levels to have bouts of super speed and strength like Alpha and former FBI agent Bill Harken (Malik Yoba)? Well, before you go thinking you’re Superman, remember those bursts are temporary and you seem to have anger management issues, particularly dangerous as your ex-co-worker’s broken clavicle can attest to.
Would you like to have your senses heightened to the point of making you a living, breathing, crime lab like the young, insecure, Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada)? Well super senses come with super sensitivity. Your family will consider your condition to be freakish, and romance will be difficult to impossible when making out with a guy triggers a full sensory overload.
Or maybe you would love to have an ability as amazing as Gary Bell’s (the remarkable Ryan Cartwright), and be able to view and interact with wireless communications out of thin air, processing them faster than any computer? Well Gary is a high functioning autistic who lives with his mother. In fact, the show’s depiction of Gary is probably by far the best representation of autism I’ve ever seen on television. They get everything right from the little things (Gary having to go over in his head to remember right from left), to the larger issues of Gary’s slowly awakening sense of independence and desire to live his own life rather than constantly being cared for by others. When Gary’s mother finds out the true nature of her son’s work with Dr. Rosen, she tries to protect him by keeping him at home and finding a new job for him with his uncle. This prompts Gary to run away; he comes back to remind his mother that she’s always said she wanted him to be happy and now he is happy. He’s got work he enjoys and that’s appreciated by others—and he’s developed friendships within the group. Indeed, the relationships between the Alphas are the glue that holds the series together.
Most of the credit for that goes to David Strathairn (who has long been one of the most underappreciated actors of his generation) and his performance as non-Alpha doctor Lee Rosen. Lee’s an absent-minded professor type and ex-hippie who seems to regard his Alpha patients as surrogate children—but there’s a dark shadow disturbing his little “family.” The Alpha unit under Lee is working for the Federal Government under terms that seem more like a draft than voluntary service. Moreover, the Alphas that are deemed threats are sent off to a mysterious compound that promises some shady secrets. As Dr. Rosen becomes more and more uneasy about his mission statement, the Alphas often find themselves circumventing their own command orders. And that, far more than the Alphas investigation into the rogue Alpha terror unit “Red Flag,” has become the driving tension of the show. You sense a massive confrontation is coming but when and how?!? I guess we’ll all just have to stay tuned!
10 p.m. Mondays