Alphas debuts tonight on SyFy at 10 p.m. Eastern with a 90-minute pilot.
It’s tempting to write Alphas, SyFy’s new original drama series, off as “SyFy does Heroes,” as someone on my Twitter feed described it. That’s certainly how the network is selling the series, and it’s certainly the sort of thing you could see the constantly-confused-about-its-own-image network trying to pawn off on TV viewers. But Alphas is quite a bit better than that, if not yet perfect, and there’s a lot to recommend. Heroes, thanks to its prominence as a brief, giant hit, is going to be the comparison point of interest for superhero shows on TV (at least until some other superhero show comes along to dislodge it in the public consciousness), so it’s interesting to look at some of the things Alphas does well that Heroes did not.
1.) It’s not a show filled with origin stories. The basic premise is simple: Dr. Lee Rosen (a very good David Strathairn, though when is he not good?) is asked by the U.S. government to keep an eye on four people who can heighten the usual capabilities of the human mind to do fantastic, seemingly impossible things. Rosen helps them with their assorted issues, since he’s a neurologist and psychiatrist, and the government gets to call in the team when there’s trouble brewing. In the pilot, that trouble is one of those inherently fun scenarios that all too often makes for great TV: A man is sitting in a locked interrogation room with no windows. Someone puts a bullet through his brain. How, exactly, did that happen?
But the show goes one better: Rather than try to do an episode where Rosen recruits these special-powered people (the show calls them “alphas”), it does an episode where they’ve already been working together for years and years. In the first 10 minutes, the pilot lays out just what powers all of these people have, and it lays out just how they use them to get through the day or to help Rosen and the government out. It’s not the most original structure in the world, but it’s deployed efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. Unlike Heroes, which kept splitting people up just to have them split up, Alphas already has a team-based mechanic in place, and the four alphas on Rosen’s team already have petty squabbles and running jokes within their number. (It also helps that Rosen is around to play a fatherly figure, something Heroes kept trying to make the Jack Coleman character but could never quite figure out.)
2.) It has a mission-based structure. The more TV sci-fi shows we get that try to copy the massive, world-spanning stories of Lost and Heroes, the more I become convinced that such a structure only works every once in a great while. The most successful TV sci-fi shows generally take a particular group of characters, then send them through a predictable episodic structure that gradually allows the series to expand the mythology of the world. It’s procedural world-building, and it’s something that shows as diverse as The X-Files, Firefly, the early days of Battlestar Galactica, and Fringe have used to come up with interesting and coherent alternate worlds.
Alphas also uses this structure. The story of the man who dies in the locked room is a “case of the week” that leads the team to get involved in some business that points outward toward stories that would suggest a larger, more complicated and dangerous world than the one we initially get. But it’s only that hint, that tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t strain too hard to give us giant storylines that take us from continent to continent. No, like an early Marvel comic, this is all pretty much confined to a New York City where there are superpowered humans, but they’re quite rare and easy to write off as fake if you haven’t met one before. Instead, the pilot takes us to new and interesting places within the comfort of the case-of-the-week structure. There’s no real guarantee this will lead anywhere special—the pilot is the only episode SyFy sent out, and that’s sometimes a bad sign—but as used in the pilot, this structure works quite well.
3.) Though serious, Alphas doesn’t become too pretentious. There’s certainly an element of the kind of self-seriousness that could make Heroes howlingly bad at times present in Alphas, but it’s thankfully reined in in the pilot. Where Heroes would feature awkward monologues that tried to make the story of the series seem like more than it actually was, Alphas knows that what it is is a show about a squad of superpowered humans who use those powers to fight crime. Heroes had delusions of grandeur and importance it never lived up to; Alphas knows that it’s pretty much just a fun show on SyFy for now, and it doesn’t want to do too much more than that just yet. There’s a sense that this is going somewhere, but it’s not a sense that overwhelms the mostly enjoyable characters.
I say “mostly,” because you’re not going to find a single original character type in this bunch. Ryan Cartwright (who played Mr. Hooker on Mad Men) turns up as Gary, a kid who can manipulate video and audio data beamed through the air to keep up constantly with the bad guys. Gary’s probably the show’s worst character (which is too bad, since Cartwright is good playing him), yet another variation on the character type that’s become sadly predictable in this kind of show: the guy who’s probably autistic (though they’ll never say he is) who doesn’t quite grasp all of this human interaction stuff but possesses a brilliant mind. And if you go through the rest of the cast, there are plenty of other character types that are fairly rote: the twentysomething girl who still lives at home and doesn’t get how great she is, the family man trying to keep his terrifying powers tamped down, the kind-hearted father figure. And so on and so forth. As created by Zak Penn, none of these characters displays a flash of originality. They’re not bad characters; you’re just pretty sure what they’re going to do at any given moment (outside of Rosen, since Strathairn makes some pretty cool acting choices here and there). If this were just another crime-solving show, it’d be easy to write it off as yet another NCIS ripoff.
Fortunately, though, it’s not just another crime-solving show. The introduction of superpowers to your basic detective procedural proves inspired, and at least in the pilot, Jack Bender (the guy who directed many episodes of Lost) gives the whole thing an epic sweep that hints that bigger things are on their way. Penn’s script, though often more functional than deft, moves things along at a brisk pace, and the actors have solid chemistry and make for a fun team. There’s every concern in the world that once this thing moves to weekly episodes, it loses something, since it won’t have Bender or a lengthened running time or what looks like a pretty substantial pilot budget. But in the pilot, at least, Alphas looks like it could turn into a pretty fun show, a summer TV fun-time that only wants to offer up a fun ride but does that with style and panache.