My TV

07 September 2011

Pilot Watch: Alphas

By // TV

From the start, it’s kind of hard to peg down what kind of a show Alphas wants to be. It has whip-smart writing and glorious one liners (see Random Thoughts, at the end) that seem to lend themselves to a wisecracking action comedy. It has a complicated mythology filled with good, evil, and mind control, which seems straight out of pulp comics. And it has the snap cuts, musical cues, and overall tension-filled explorations typical of procedural cop shows.

In all, I’d probably call Alphas the anti-Heroes. When the once-great NBC drama Heroes attempted to translate comics into the modern age, it did so by dialing in on the epic pretentiousness. It demanded that you take the characters and their super powers seriously, while draping them in cheesy, often-unbelievable plotting and wooden dialogue. Alphas, by contrast, doesn’t really care if you take its superhero roots seriously, because it has created such a serious world around it. By mixing the mythos of Heroes with the comedic and action bents of the greatest procedurals (24 and Bones in their prime spring to mind), it’s created a really engaging near-perfect pilot episode.

Not to hammer home the Heroes comparisons, but nowhere is the excellence of Alphas more obvious than in the ways it parses out information. It takes no more than one tense and funny scene with David Straithern’s Hippy/psychologist Dr. Lee Rosen to think we know everything about him. The show doesn’t need to spell out all these people and their powers, the acting and action carefully walk us around their roles in the group, their importance to the mission, and the downsides to their particular brand of superherodom.

I do have a few issues.

It’s one of my biggest pet peeves in both comics and sci-fi in general when a chick’s power is mind control, which she uses pretty much exclusively to manipulate men in a vaguely sexual way. Plus, if you can just make everyone around you think you’re wicked hot, why would you bother wearing high heels all the time? But that’s a quibble, since about halfway through the episode the offending character, Nina, had won me over. I also question the decision to stick Malik Yoba with such an unlikeable character in the always-angry Bill. Within the course of the first episode, he steals food from the pretty much helpless Rachel, picks fights with the clearly-stricken-with-something-akin-to-Aspergers Gary, and kisses Nina despite the loving and supportive wife back home. I get that he’s going through a bit of a redemptive arc, but so far I’m not feeling it.

Back to the good.

It was a clever idea to start with most of the gang already in the fight and already aware of the powers. It avoids endless repetition in the vein of “You’re a wizard, Harry.” Allowing our one intro point into this world to be Cameron Hicks, a man who’s just starting to realize how complex this world around him is, was also a good choice.

At the same time, I liked that the world wasn’t too well established. There’s still a lot of kinks in this system, and our rag tag group of heroes doesn’t exactly work together like the smooth Justice League-esque team Dr. Rosen would probably prefer they be. It’s in these friction points, such as the-ex-British-intern-on-Bones’s (Gary) inability to really relate to the people around them or The Incredible Hulk-turned-FBI Agent Bill’s complete assholery towards everyone around him, that the show really excels.
And then there’s the capper to episode one, which sends the show dashing off from “pretty good” pilot towards a maybe great show. The show injects just enough ambiguity into its premise to seem to promise that there’s more going on here than meets the eye, and it’s up to us as the viewers to figure out where exactly morality falls within this strange, and yet oddly familiar world.

Alphas is currently playing on SyFy.

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