Building a mythology on a more procedural sci-fi show like Alphas can be a bit of a challenge. It often requires saying the same things over and over, just so the audience gets it in its head that these are the main points of the show’s backstory. Here, we’ve already heard the word “Binghamton” about 500 times, but that’s good. That presents us with a nice sense of mystery about what really goes on there, about what our characters will inevitably have to face when they go to check it out. We’ve all seen enough sci-fi TV to know that this is something we’re going to eventually get to check out, and all the show has to do is get us excited to see what happens. Well, after “Anger Management,” consider me officially excited.
“Anger Management” still isn’t at the level of the solid pilot, but it’s very, very close, with lots of nice little moments and a surprisingly dark and brutal tone. There’s a scene in this episode where a guy who seemed like he’d be a major recurring player is beaten to death, and the episode doesn’t shy away from the violence of the act, nor does it downplay the fact that it happened. His partner is shell-shocked. Dr. Rosen and his team can’t believe it just happened. It immediately establishes the stakes for the series: Bad shit can happen to people on Alphas, and it can happen to people you thought would hang out for a while. Granted, this isn’t as radical as killing one of the regulars or something, but it is a fairly big move, and the sequence in which it happens (involving a big fight in Alpha HQ) is strikingly shot and terrifically edited. While the show doesn’t always get everything right, it moves with a lot of confidence, and that makes it easy to just go with certain things.
One of those things is the effects work, which is still pretty cheap looking. Whenever pheromones would get released into the air, bopping around like pollen in an allergy commercial, it just looked silly. The show is usually pretty good about using camera tricks and editing cheats to make things seem more jittery and big-budget than they actually are—look at how that big fight that took out Agent Wilson was mostly done via unlikely camera angles and color filters. But every time the show uses actual special effects, they look like something C.S.I. would have rejected for being too cheesy back in 2002. Since this isn’t a show that needs lots of special effects to work, it’s not like it’s an irreparable flaw. But it does have a tendency to take me out of the scene whenever I see them.
The other bad thing here, however, was completely avoidable: This episode was so, so clearly shot second and meant to air second that it’s hard to reconcile it with the episode that actually aired second. Maybe SyFy thought that last week’s twistier plot would intrigue more people. Maybe it thought this episode was just too darn violent. Or maybe it just liked last week’s episode better. Whatever the reason, swapping the two didn’t make a lot of sense, particularly since we met Agent Wilson’s replacement last week (which meant that it was harder to be surprised when he was killed, no matter how effectively the sequence was filmed). Again, I have trouble holding this against the producers—though they probably could have objected a little more strenuously when the network came to propose this idea—but even if the swaps are minimal in nature, they harm the slow-building story of the characters’ relationships and the growth of the world. This is mostly a procedural show, yeah, but there are elements here that need a proper arc, not a bumpy, jolting start-and-stop kind of rhythm.
But I liked just about everything else, particularly the nature of the Alpha of the week. Alphas is really reminding me of the early days of Fringe at this point, and while I’m glad that show evolved past those early days, it’s not a bad show for a series like this to emulate. You start with meeting the Alpha of the Week in a strikingly shot, chaotic sequence. You transition to some personal scenes among the team. You send the team off to hunt the Alpha. There are scenes where the Alpha is humanized. And then there are the scenes where, regrettably, the Alpha must be subdued and sent off to Binghamton (or supposedly killed). Conclude with some nice character building moments—like all of the team discussing death—and you have yourself a solid formula to build an episode on.
Tonight’s central alphas—a brother and sister—could release extra pheromones into the air that, when inhaled, would cause humans to erupt in extreme rage and start beating each other up. Again, this is closer to an actual, legitimate superpower than some sort of realistic thing somebody might actually be able to do with their minds, but it’s not so unrealistic that it breaks the show’s plausibility or anything. And I thought the chase after the brother was well done as well, particularly when he was in the train station and escaped via using a form of parkour that apparently involves running across people’s shoulders and heads (one-handed, no less). Plus, the moments of human interaction between the characters—like Rosen asking Rachel about her meeting with the man her parents chose for her—were sharper written than in last week’s episode. The more the show makes it feel like these people really care about each other, the more the scenes where they’re out and potentially in danger will feel intriguing and edgy.
But if we’re really being honest, I’m starting to get into this show for the mythology, for the idea that the government’s intentions with the alphas aren’t exactly on the up-and-up. (I mean, this IS a superhero show. How could they be?) For all of the clunky little edges here and there, I’m starting to get into the show’s characters and the show’s world, and that’s just about the best possible outcome for a third episode, even one that was meant to be the second. And a lot of that is due to a terrific cast, with writers who know exactly how to give them good stuff to work with. Even though this episode was meant to be second, I’ll just say that I haven’t felt this hopeful about a science fiction show after its third episode in a good, long while. If Alphas can keep this learning curve up, it’ll become more than just a silly summer treat.
- David Strathairn continues to play the hell out of everything the writers give him, even if it seems like every episode will inevitably feature footage of him falling down at one point or another. (He has fallen down a lot, right? I’m not just remembering tonight’s falling scene over and over?)
- I’ll say this for the show’s guest characters: It’s remarkably hard to remember their names, which would suggest they’re perhaps not well developed enough. This may be because all of their character arcs boil down to the same thing: They’re on the run from government forces they don’t wholly understand and can’t escape without doing some very nasty things. Still, Marcus was more memorable than brother, sister, and the girl that hung around with them.
- Simon Abrams will be filling in next week as I’m at TCA. I’ll see all of you August 8 for an episode entitled “Bill And Gary’s Excellent Adventure” (and won’t that be fun?).