[07/11/11 - 12:09 AM]
The Futon's First Look: "Alphas" (Syfy)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

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The network's description: "Alphas follows a team of ordinary citizens whose brain anomalies imbue them with extraordinary mental and physical abilities. Taking the law into their own hands, the unlikely team, led by Dr. Lee Rosen (David Strathairn), investigates cases that suggest other Alpha activity to uncover what the CIA, FBI and Pentagon have not been able, or willing, to solve. These gifted individuals must balance their quirky personalities and disparate backgrounds with their not always visible powers as they work to solve crimes, stop the ticking time bomb and catch the enemy.

What did they leave out? "Alphas" began as "Section 8," with ABC giving the project a blind six-episode order back in September 2007, a commitment that was ultimately derailed by the WGA strike. Syfy subsequently snagged the drama - newly dubbed "Alphas" - in August of 2009, commissioning a pilot. Casting however wouldn't be set until the following summer with the series ultimately being ordered in December of last year. We gave the original script a look back in July of 2008, which actually isn't too far off from the final product here.

The plot in a nutshell: When a federal witness is inexplicably murdered by a sniper inside a locked room, Agent Don Wilson (Callum Keith Rennie) reluctantly calls upon Dr. Lee Rosen (David Strathairn) and his team for help. To say they have unique abilities is an understatement: Rachel Myers (Azita Ghanizada) can amplify one of her senses by turning off the others; Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell) can impose her will on unsuspecting brains using just her voice; Bill Harken (Malik Yoba) can spark his fight-or-flight reflex to gain superhuman strength; and autistic savant Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright) can literally see the electronic frequencies in the air.

Aside from Bill however, none of the "alphas" as Dr. Rosen calls them are trained agents, while their abilities themselves often come with debilitating side effects. For instance, used too long, Bill's gift sends him into cardiac arrest; while Rachel is literally blind and deaf when she uses her super-hearing. Dr. Rosen then is much more than their leader, he's their doctor, helping them achieve at least the resemblance of a normal life. And so, despite said foibles, it's not long before Rosen and company uncover that someone just like them - Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie) whose hyperkinesis gives him perfect balance - is responsible. He however claims no memory of the event, making their investigation an even bigger mystery.

What works: It's all pretty standard super team stuff, from the case file title cards to the usual mix of personality tropes to the blessing/curse nature of their abilities. Overall, those hoping for something akin to a small screen version of the "X-Men" likely won't be disappointed here. And while it's far from an earth shattering or game changing take on the genre, it doesn't aim to be. The cast is in general is likeable enough with Strathairn and Cartwright being among the standouts.

The former brings a quirky charm to the proceedings ("Why do I feel like I'm in a Beckett play when I talk to you?" Wilson quips at him) that's more than welcome, while Cartwright's Gary is responsible for the few doses of humor in the pilot ("Except for Nokia, it's a different protocol," he mutters after Rosen tells Cameron he can read cell phone transmissions).

What doesn't: Speaking of the humor front, the pilot tries to infuse a workplace comedy dynamic at various points - Bill steals food clearly marked for other people from the community fridge! Gary's steam of consciousness talking to himself is annoying! - all of which fall flat or feel scripted and unnatural. It's a symptom of the show's somewhat ill-defined tone and throughline. For all the tub-thumping that Rosen and company are amateurs, they're extraordinarily efficient and successful. And for all their office squabbling, they're overly protective of each other.

I realize that said facets aren't mutually exclusive, it's just the former aspects frequently come across as paper tigers rather than legitimate counterweights. It ultimately gives an awkward vibe to the plot, as slowing down the action to watch Bill rudely eat cake off Rachel's plate doesn't quite jive with when, a few scenes later, the same guy risks his life to save a random bellman. It all just feels like piped in schadenfreude rather than an organic aspect of the show, let alone the character. All in all, it's not a bad show but...

The bottom line: ..it's not a great one either.

  [july 2011]  


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