Syfy’s new original series, Alphas [Mondays, 10/9C], is a unique take on people with extraordinary powers. It may remind of things we have seen before, but it manages to take familiar ideas into fresh territory. They might seem like superheroes on paper, but the reality is far more interesting.
When the Fantastic Four comic first appeared [and I do realize that I’m dating myself here], the titular quartet didn’t have uniforms and rocked everyday wear. The X-Men are mutants with unusual powers who live in a mansion and wear spandex. Alphas contains elements of both, but with a twist – they are ordinary people who have some neurological deviation that has the effect of giving them unique abilities that are logical extrapolations of conditions that exist in reality. Oh, and they work for an unnamed, underfunded subsidiary of the Department of Defense. It pays the bills and has a great dental plan – but comes with the attendant red tape.
Alphas opens with a young man [Warren Christie, Happy Town] with a military buzz cut stocking shelves in a supermarket. His cell phone rings and, when he answers, he hears a tone – and an address appears on the screen. He leaves work and we cut to him on a rooftop, uncovering a sniper rifle. He sets up and his finger tenses to pull the trigger…
We cut to a lean, middle-aged man swimming in his pool. He is told, ‘He’s inside’ and finds someone in his kitchen. He is Dr. Lee Rosen [Academy Award® nominee David Strathairn] and the man in his kitchen is the Alphas’ handler, Don Wilson [Callum Keith Rennie, Battlestar Galactica]]. Wilson ‘persuades’ him to take on a case.
Cut to a young woman of Middle Eastern heritage, asking someone to raise the hem of a dress one inch – to the disapproval of her father. She is Rachel Pirzad [Azita Ghanizada] and as she’s heading off to work, she stops, briefly, to listen in on her father’s conversation – he is disdainful of her ever marrying – a conversation she not be able to hear over the noise of the business.
Cut to a middle-aged black man trying to find his keys so he can get to work – and his wife, gently cooling him down and helping him find them. He is FBI agent Bill Harken [Malik Yoba, Raines, Defying Gravity] and, when he leaves the house, he finds an SUV blocking his driveway. Drawing upon his anger, he pushes the SUV out of his way and heads off.
Cut to a beautiful brunette being given a speeding ticket. Her name is Nina Theroux [Laura Mennell, Supernatural, Smallville], and, as the officer gives her the ticket, she asks to take off his sunglasses – then tells him to eat the ticket – and the carbon.
Cut to a young man seated at a dining room table. He seems to be vacantly moving his hands about until effects kick in and we see he is seeing and manipulating signals that no one else can see – as his mother plops a bowl of cereal before him. He is Gary Bell [Ryan Cartwright, The late, lamented Mr. Nigel-Murray on Bones], and clearly an autistic savant, but with a truly different gift.
Cool names are given to each alpha’s ability – Harken is hyperadrenal; Rachel is a synesthete; Gary is a transducer; Nina is an influencer [okay, not all the powers have cool names], and our sniper is a hyperkinetic – but their abilities are even cooler in action – though they can also generate problems [when Rachel, for example, focuses on any one sense, sight, for instance, her other senses effectively shut down – meaning she can’t hear anyone approaching her – or calling to warn her].
The case is a classic locked door mystery – a police witness was murdered while in a windowless room with one door and in front of a police officer and Wilson.
With a case this unusual, Rosen demands more information – the case will likely be putting his team of Alphas [as he calls them, because of their ‘alpha abilities’] in danger.
Although there was no writing credit in the press kit accompanying the screener of the 90-minute premiere, the series was co-created by the abovementioned Zak Penn and Michael Kornow, so they probably wrote the pilot/premiere. It’s a complicated, carefully structured episode that introduces the regular cast of characters quickly and efficiently.
Throughout, we learn more about the characters as we see them in action – Gary, for example, seems quiet and absorbed at home, but he’s a bit of a troublemaker at work – without sacrificing pacing. Their antagonist is a member of an extremist/terrorist organization called Red Flag and, as such, remains a mystery throughout. The idea that – even knowing the name of their adversary – the team remains in the dark until a critical juncture, adds to suspense that director Jack Bender [Lost, Alias] builds throughout.
Although, according to the accompanying press release, the screener has [among other things] temp effects, the effects that come into play as Gary watches various electromagnetic wavelengths outside our normal range, are pretty cool.
Considering the amount of exposition required to set up the premise, introduce both a case of the week and an ongoing arc [in other words, set up a mythology] and give us a handle on who each character is, the Alphas premiere is a small miracle. It almost never stumbles, and it folds most of that exposition into the action – though there is a team conference scene to set up the case, it is enlivened by some choice character beats for each of the characters. Plus, the solution to the closed door mystery opens up a gigantic can of worms [see: mythology] – no doubt to be developed later…
After a few viewings, I can say that the Alphas premiere holds up to serious scrutiny. I enjoyed the most recent viewing as much as the first. Part of that is that the ep is just that good; part of it is that repeated viewings allow one to pick up on details that might have been missed earlier.
The best thing about Alphas is that, while it starts off really well, there is potential for it to become absolutely brilliant. I, for one, will be watching it reach for that brilliance.
Final Grade: A-
Photos by Justin Stephens, Ken Woroner/courtesy Syfy