Thursday, 14 July 2011

Review: ALPHAS, 1.1 - "Pilot"

Thursday, 14 July 2011

NBC's Heroes went into permanent eclipse years ago, but its vestigial influence on television continues. Syfy hereby launch another superhero drama hoping to capitalize on the decade's love-affair with people who've been touched by God. Alphas, created by Zak Penn (The Incredible Hulk, X-Men: The Last Stand) and Michael Karnow, is about a gang of individuals using their super-abilities to help the government solve various cases. It's a less imaginative version of The Champions, really. As pilots go, Alphas has a good one, aided by creative choices in how the characters are introduced and showing how their powers work.

Dr Lee Rosen (David Straitharn) is the group's Professor X analog, presiding over his "Alphas" and utilizing them on behalf of FBI Agent Don Wilson (Callum Keith Rennie). The gang themselves are comprised of the following: ex-Fed Bill Harken (Malik Yoba), who can trigger his "flight or fight" response to gain short-lived super-strength/speed and immunity to pain; Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright), a young man with Asperger's Syndrome who can see every electromagnetic spectrum, meaning he can view audio-visual signals in mid-air; Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell), an attractive woman with the power to control minds by "pushing" her thoughts onto others; and Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada), a woman who can intensify each of her senses to give herself super-hearing/taste/vision/smell when required.

In the "Pilot", the Alphas are tasked with solving the murder of a police suspect who was somehow shot in the head from inside a closed interrogation room. The team reason that the hit was achieved by a sniper from a rooftop across town, aiming through an exterior air vent, which naturally means the culprit is someone with preternatural aim and accuracy (or "hyperkinesis). This eventually leads them to "bad boy" supermarket shelf-stacker Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie), a man we're introduced to hallucinating members of the public telling him it's "Time To Kill". It turns out Hicks is merely a pawn in someone else's masterplan, having been the victim of brain surgery that's turned him into a brainwashed assassin, and joins the team as their latest recruit.

There was plenty to enjoy about Alphas. I especially liked how they introduced the characters. There was no laborious setup about Dr Rosen's program, or subplots jostling to explain each characters' back-story and power. Instead, the group was already assembled from the start and the pilot showed each character's personality and ability during the flow of the story. I particularly enjoyed how super-villain Hicks was revealed to be an unwitting patsy before joining the good guys, as I didn't expect that to happen. It probably helped that I've largely avoided reading about Alphas before broadcast, as a simple outline of the regular cast would probably have spoiled the surprise.

Alphas' handling of its super-powers also avoided a problem that commonly ties shows like this in knots. Bill's super-strength isn't permanent and feels like it has a psychological toll when he uses it, Rachel loses her other senses when amplifying a particular one (leaving her deaf when using her super-sight, for example), Nina's ability to influence people isn't guaranteed to work on everyone she encounters, and Gary obviously has his Asperger's to contend with. It's so important to give superheroes flaws and weaknesses, and Alphas manages to get the balance just right. Throughout this episode, you're aware that this is a super-team with great power and skill, but also that they’re fallible and can't always rely on their gifts. When you compare this setup to that of Heroes, which was awash with God-like people who could never use their powers logically because it would end stories too quickly, it's clear the writers behind Alphas have avoided a trap.

However, while there's almost nothing here to actively hate (the mythology's strong, the concept succinct, the actors capable), Alphas is still just the latest version of a show we've seen numerous times. And not just in the superhero genre, as there are strong similarities here to A&E's Breakout Kings with the gang's dynamic and case-of-the-week format. I've seen so many TV shows about superheroes in the past six years that it no longer carries resonance or excitement, and unless there's a genuinely unique attitude or premise involved (see: Misfits), it's hard to feel passionate about a superhero show's future. At heart, Alphas is just another drama about a bunch of superheroes solving crimes under the tutelage of a wise mentor (sans capes and tights), and that's no longer fresh—no matter how well it negotiates the genre's tropes and pitfalls.

Overall, Alphas launched with a confident and intermittently creative hour, although there's nothing inspired about the concept, characters, or production style. I think long-term success rests on how well the writers keep the characters and their missions interesting. It could very easily slip into case-of-the-week monotony now everything's established, as I'm already sensing a procedural leaning to this show's makeup. And the problem with procedurals is how the formula can become predictable and boring, especially for the natural audience of superhero dramas, who usually prefer serialized storytelling. If the Alphas are chasing bank robbers, foiling burglaries, and finding kidnapped people every other week, I'm not sure how long those kind of stories can be told before audiences will get restless.

Still, on the merits of this episode as a well-formed pilot with appealing and creative elements, Alphas certainly warrants a few weeks of commitment to see what might develop.

written by Zak Penn & Michael Karnow / directed by Jack Bender / 11 July 2011 / Syfy