Alphas has been having its ratings troubles this season, falling below the million viewers mark last week and not doing all that well before it either. Considering this is meant to be a centerpiece of the Syfy lineup, that’s not the greatest record in the world, and the network has decided to see if the show’s ratings will improve in the 8 p.m. timeslot. This seems like a really strange choice, since the primary change in the show between the first and second seasons is that it’s gotten a whole lot darker. But it’s probably necessary, given the popularity of Grimm, which appeals to the same sort of audience (just a larger one) in the same timeslot. Still, it’s something that doesn’t inspire confidence that the show will live to see a third season.
This is really too bad, because while the second season has had its problems in this first section of its run, it’s a much more confident show than in season one, and it’s moving with real purpose. This is a series that obviously knows where it’s going, and it’s fun to give yourself over to that sort of a show. I like the way the series is playing up its darker aspects, the ways the characters’ interactions have just a touch of desperation to them, and how the series is getting deeper into the sheer loneliness of being an Alpha. I also like the way the series is giving Dr. Rosen some real mad scientist type tendencies, where you can see that he’s a good guy, but the fight against Stanton Parish is causing him to take some real risks (particularly with Nina). I like the way the series is digging deeper into its characters’ traumas and the overriding mythology. And I like the way it’s not afraid to stick the knife in your gut, then twist it a bit. It’s a show that understands darkness isn’t an end, in and of itself. It’s a way to raise the stakes, but not the be-all, end-all.
That this goes against the overriding Syfy ethos is an understatement. The only other scripted series the channel airs that’s at all similar to this in tone is Haven, and that show doesn’t really come close to this show in its most despairing moments. Compared to series like Eureka (which I’ve quite enjoyed) and Warehouse 13, Alphas feels like it belongs somewhere else. There’s no comfortable place for it within the Syfy brand, and in an age where branding is so important to cable networks, that could mean the show dies a death of 1,000 cuts.
I wouldn’t be focusing on this so much were it not for the fact that this episode is a perfect example of how the show’s darkness has grown exponentially in season two. “Gaslight” is a really creepy haunted house story that makes nice use of Alpha abilities and real science to create a “ghost” that’s spookily effective at isolating the cast members and forcing them to face down their own greatest fears. It even finds a way to bring back Gary’s dead friend Anna in a fashion that feels non-cloying and surprisingly moving. (When Rosen finally persuades Gary to let Anna go, it’s one of the stronger moments of pathos in the show’s whole run.) Plus, there’s some really nice mind-fuckery, as when Alpha of the week, Adam, is trying to get to his sister, whose being kept in a drawer in a morgue, and eventually discovers that what’s in there is… just some dead woman. It’s a nicely eerie moment, and one that reverberates at other points in the episode.
What’s more, the mystery in this episode isn’t immediately obvious. For a while, it seems as if the team might really be dealing with a ghost, and even though we know that’s not the case—this isn’t that kind of show—the episode does a good job of feinting in this direction, that we might start to wonder if it would ever become this kind of show. As it turns out, however, the reason for all of this craziness at the hospital is an Alpha named Jason, who’s in a coma and is triggering infrasound waves—embedded with the message “Help me”—that will have particular resonance for other Alphas. Considering this is the best explanation science has for why certain buildings seem to be haunted (particular levels of infrasound can prompt various strange noises and images), it’s a fun little added scientific twist to the normal crime-solving procedure. By distracting us with Adam for a while, the show manages to keep the true identity of the culprit unknown, to make the “ghost” explanation seem briefly plausible, at least until Rosen pops up and explains to us just what’s going on.
There are things that don’t really work here. The link between Stanton and Jason’s abilities—which are triggered by the flashes from the device manufactured by August and used to monitor Jason’s brain activity—feels incredibly convenient, particularly in an episode where the major B-story involved Nina heading down to Washington to find out what a Senator (played by Lauren Holly!) knew about Stanton’s plans. (As it turns out, her memories of that had been removed, an interesting wrinkle.) Stanton can’t know everything about everything and become responsible for every case the team has to solve, or he becomes an unbelievable supervillain, rather than the compelling figure he’s been built up to be so far. This stretched that level of credulity just a bit too far. Similarly, it feels like the show leans on the “Rachel is in trouble, and Hicks needs to save her!” button too often, and those scenes never had the snap of the scenes with Gary, or even with Cameron worrying about his son.
The series is doing such a good job of depicting how these characters are trying to fill the gaps at their centers this season, however, that all of this feels like small potatoes in the face of moments like Gary saying goodbye to Anna or Kat trying to sketch the woman in the repressed memory Nina and Rosen brought to the surface for her. This was a fairly garden-variety episode of the show—as opposed to last week’s more experimental hour—but it played along with all of the things that are making this show work as well as it is this season. It took the characters and their emotions seriously, it told a fascinating mystery story, and it came up with some beautiful, dark expressions of what it would mean to have an ability that always kept you separate from the rest of the world. When Gary connects to that message at the end, it’s meant to be a signpost in the overarching story of Stanton’s coming war, but it also feels like a lonely man finding the link to the larger world that he needs, at least on some level.
- I still have no idea how the new timeslot will work for this show, but I hope it salvages some of the audience and brings the series back to season one numbers. Given how competitive the landscape is about to become in a few weeks, though, I’m not hopeful. Maybe it’s time to start a “save this show” campaign?
- Ryan Cartwright’s performance continues to amaze. The way he plays with his tie throughout tonight’s episode is really terrific.
- Now that the show is playing around with some interesting story threads for Nina, Rachel is the character who’s the most underserved. Here’s hoping the show figures out something better to do with her. I like her!