Alphas: “Alpha Dogs”
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Alphas: “Alpha Dogs”

Down at the bottom of everything, Alphas is just a cop show. It’s a cop show with a fun, science-fiction twist, and it’s a cop show with a surprisingly robust mythology. But underneath all of that, it’s a show about people who take on a weekly case—often involving a murder—and try to track down the culprits behind it. As such, the show frequently embeds itself in numerous subcultures, as that’s the usual way modern crime shows come up with their mysteries. On the other hand, these subcultures are already embedded within the shows Alphas subculture, so everything becomes a bit distanced from reality, just by virtue of the way the show structures its stories. This isn’t a bad thing on a sci-fi show, obviously, but it does lead to a place where the weekly crime-solving seems almost completely beside the point.

The second season of the show is doing something more difficult. In tonight’s episode and the season premiére, there wasn’t a real bad guy to pin things on. The real bad guys are Stanton Parish’s crew and society, man, and that’s often a hard thing to turn into a satisfying mystery narrative. Fortunately, Alphas shows some glimmers of playing a long game in this episode, a long game that could end up being quite satisfying. To get the maximum enjoyment out of the episode, you have to take on faith that some of the elements introduced here—the fight club, the experimentation on Alphas, the history of Stanton—will pay off somewhere down the line in a way that you might not have had to back in season one, when the show stuck to its cop show roots much more thoroughly. The serialized storytelling relies on a big payoff, and while it’s not immediately clear that Alphas will be able to stick the landing, it’s fun to see it setting everything up.

Ever since the movie Fight Club was released, network crime shows have been doing an episode set inside of an underground fight club. It’s easy to see why it’s such a promising setting for a C.S.I. or an NCIS. For one thing, the corpse of the week will almost certainly be somebody who was beaten to death. For another thing, underground fight clubs are secretive (at least in fiction), and it’ll be hard to get the witnesses to speak as to who was beating whom. What I like best about “Alpha Dogs” is that it starts out with the idea of Alphas having their own fight club but then seems almost completely bored with the usual structure that would follow. The team finds out very quickly who the culprit is—a big, brutish bald man named Bosevich, who spits acid—and then they spend the rest of the episode searching for him around the edges of the fight club. Instead, the episode becomes much more about how the Alphas feel separated from the world around them.

Bill, of course, is tasked with infiltrating the fight club and finding the bad guys. But he soon finds himself dragged into the middle of the fights, in the midst of a situation where he can’t seem to land a punch on another creepy dude who can appear to be where he isn’t, apparently. While there, Bill meets a young woman—possibly a teenager—named Kat. She’s been living on her own for a while, and she’s been coming to the fight club as long as she can remember. Kat’s Alpha ability turns out to be the ability to learn just about anything she wants to by observing it closely. On the other hand, to make room for all that new information, she’s only got a memory span of around a month. She’ll pop up somewhere—like that fight club—and then assume that’s the way things have always been. Needless to say, this is an ability rife with potential for drama (and exploitation), and I’m glad to see that it looks as if Kat will be hanging out with the team for a little while at least.

Kat’s played by Erin Way, an actress who’s been bouncing around TV guest spots for a while now. Way brings a great sense of vivacity to the character, and since so much of the episode hinges on us believing that Bill and Kat formed a sort of instantaneous connection, it’s a good thing she does. It makes the fact that he’s so worried for her life at episode’s end that much more believable, even though we’ve really only seen the two share a handful of scenes together. The bits where Kat helps Bill release some of his tension and learn to live with his ability could have felt trite in other actresses’ hands, but in Way’s hands, the whole scene—with its New-Age-y tint and mystical mumbo jumbo—was just about perfect. A Bill who’s more at ease with his ability, to the point where he seems ready to kick the shit out of any comers, is another interesting story idea to explore, and I hope he and Kat follow up on the thread of where, exactly, she was taken at episode’s end.

Over on the Dr. Rosen end of things, Lee and Gary are spending time trying to track down the history of Stanton. What they discover is that he was a Civil War general named Jacob Dunham, whose recovery from a fatal gunshot wound caused a doctor of the era to learn of his extraordinary abilities. (Rosen posits that this was the first Stanton knew of what he was capable of, which would seem to shoot Alasdair’s theory from last week that Stanton has been around much, much longer than was previously suggested in the foot.) Rosen discovers that Stanton killed the doctor (in a very funny scene in a library archives room), then comes upon Stanton in a diner. Stanton, for his part, continues to promise that war is coming, that there’s nothing Rosen can do to stop it. I like John Pyper-Ferguson’s work as the dude, but I’m hoping we get to see a little more of his master plan very soon. (Or perhaps a full episode inside of his organization?)

There’s a thread running throughout these stories, however, and it’s the idea that Alphas are always going to be separated from the “normal” humans they’ve been tasked with protecting. Stanton mentions it menacingly, and Bill finds himself reveling in his increased abilities. Kat’s essentially incapable of normal relationships—and doesn’t even remember if she’s eaten a hot dog—and Gary is still dealing with the trauma of his time in Binghamton. (He’s started screaming every morning, something that causes his mother no small amount of alarm.) The series continues to pay homage to its cop show roots and to its formula, but more and more, it feels off-kilter, as if a storm is gathering around these people, one they can’t entirely shut down, no matter how much they might want to. The war isn’t just coming; it might be already here.

Stray observations:

  • Nice direction tonight, particularly in the fight sequences, which managed to stretch the show’s budget quite a bit. I especially liked that shot of the “rubber man” flying backward, framed against the harsh lights of the ring.
  • Awkward dialogue moment: Rosen praising the university for saving its newspaper archives. It screams of somebody somewhere worrying about the audience being able to go with Gary and Rosen finding this information that readily.
  • Of course Gary smells nice! He smells like the washing machine!
  • The relationship between Rachel and Jon progressed a little quickly for my tastes, but at least the show is giving Rachel something to do.
  • Hey, I didn’t miss Nina at all. Did any of you? Please make your case! 
  • I did, however, enjoy the runner about soap between Rachel and Jon. This is one of those things I would not have thought of.
  • Thanks to Alasdair for filling in last week and doing such a great job!

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