Friday, August 17, 2012

Television Review: Alphas is Turning Into Heroes Done Right

Airs on Syfy Mondays 9 PM EST

Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars

Prior to Syfy's Alphas debuting last Summer, I didn't have high hopes for the series.  When I heard the premise of the show, people with super-human abilities known as "Alphas" investigating crimes by others of their kind, my first thought was Heroes meets Sanctuary meets the X-Men meets CSI.  It sounded like a hodge-podge of your typical superhero, sci fi, and television cliches and looked like another offering among Syfy's nominal budget "sci fi lite" scripted series.  But then the series debuted and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it didn't stoop down to my low expectations and it actually turned out to be a bit of a gem on Syfy's schedule.  Not that it was a ground-breaking series or delivered anything particularly original as it definitely had an air of familiarity about it and quickly settled into a formulaic routine.  But the impeccable cast had a good chemistry and the perfect leader in David Strathairn's Dr. Lee Rosen who gave us a (non-super powered) Charles Xavier of sorts but with his own unique twist.  And each of the team members managed to avoid the expected clichés and develop their own, distinct personalities.  The series also had a good mix of drama and humor and mostly steered clear of copy and paste dialog and tired retreads of genre plots.  The show also continued to improve throughout its first season, and now after four episodes of its second season I'm starting to realize that Alphas is turning into Heroes done right.

When Heroes first debuted back in 2006, it took the world by storm and became an unexpected genre hit.  This show with its many characters, multiple story arcs, sinister company trying to track down people with abilities, and of course Zachary Quinto's delightfully wicked performance as Sylar got off to a strong start and quickly piqued our interest with its buzz line "Save the Cheerleader, Save the World".  And the series had a good run during its first season as we learned more about Hiro Nakamura, Claire Bennet, Matt Parkman, Niki Sanders, Peter Petrelli, HRG and the rest of the extensive cast, following their intertwined story arcs that all converged at season end.  But then, the apocalyptic, knock-down drag-out season finale that we all expected actually ended on a rather anti-climactic note and proved a bit of a let down.  Fans weren't deterred though, as we expected the show to make up for that with its second season that promised plenty of new characters as well as revelations about several of the series regulars.  But then Season 2 laid a big fat egg, and even though the series would continue for two more years after that, it continually struggled with major swings in its quality and never came close to returning to the promise of the show's first season.

Which brings us to Alphas which is treading some similar territory to what Heroes covered, but at this point looks like it could succeed where that show ultimately failed.  There were several aspects about Heroes which eventually did the show in, and the creators of Alphas some to have learned from those lessons.  First off, Heroes had way too many characters.  The core group that the series introduced in Season 1 was extensive, but still workable.  But the second season added more and then they just kept piling them on, limiting the time the show could spend on characters we had become more attached to.  Alphas on the other hand started with a smaller core group, and a good one, and has resisted the temptation to add many more on to that.  We appear to have added one more this season, but we don't know for certain yet whether she will become a regular, and the series also has several ancillary characters hanging about.  But most importantly we haven't experienced Alpha-overload yet. 

Another important thing is that Alphas has kept the extent of the super-powered characters abilities from getting out of hand.  The powers of the main characters are moderate so far: super-strength, heightened senses, temporary mind control, hyperkinesis, the ability to interface with wireless signals.  And the abilities of other Alphas that the team has encountered haven’t gone too far overboard either with most all having some basis in science.  The creative team has thus far resisted the temptation to show characters with excessive or near god-like powers like we saw all too often on Heroes (Hiro being the best/worst example of this).  I predict that at some point they will give into that urge, but I’m hoping they will handle it well when they do, like they have done with the rest of the show.

In addition, the series is well-written, and even though it has ventured through some pretty common ground, the writers have managed to keep the series from feeling completely derivative.  Sure, they have recycled some plots and ideas, even the best shows do that, but more often than not they have managed to put a fresh spin on them.  We can perhaps credit co-creator Zack Penn for this who has an extensive list of superhero movie scripts on his resume including last year’s excellent X-Men: First Class and a shared credit with Joss Whedon on this year’s The Avengers

And yet another major factor in the success of Alphas is its cast, and the chemistry they have demonstrated.  The series has a tight, relatively small cast of characters and they all work well together.  As mentioned, Strathairn provides the perfect mentor center point, adding just the right amount of calming force to this potentially explosive team with his post-hippie blend of affirmative cynicism.  And each of the team members has their sets of quirks and the writers supply them with some clever, well-thoughtout scripts with the autistic Gary getting in most of the best lines, but everybody getting a zinger from time to time.  And The 4400's Mahershalalhashbaz Ali has been a good addition to the cast as the group's government foil who shows at least some sympathy for the team.

The series has so far not been too heavily serialized (though it’s moving more in that direction with its second season), but it has its share of story arcs to keep us hooked from episode to episode.  And it has avoided the apocalyptic scenarios that became such a tired fallback for Heroes, though the developing arc over the war between humans and Alphas could move in that direction (shades of the X-Men).  But for the most part, Alphas has delivered some good stories and has the potential to possibly move from a good to a great series.  For this to happened, I’d like to see more in the way of the moral dilemmas that the team must face because of the government’s treatment of the more dangerous Alphas, but we definitely seem headed in that direction. 

In any case, I am optimistic about the direction of the series and it has definitely helped me to put the ersatz seasons of Heroes in the past as Alphas has given us a much more satisfying sci fi show about people with superpowers.  At this point, I just hope it can survive because it has struggled some in the rating during its second season.  I’d definitely like to see Alphas run several more seasons because there is plenty of material here to mine and I would like to see where they will go with the humans/Alphas war.  If you haven’t tuned yet, or if you gave up on it early, give it a shot.  I believe you will be pleasantly surprised?

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