The thing I like best about Alphas is its no-nonsense character relationships and interaction. Over the course of the first season, it took a group of six characters and made them act like a real team, a workplace family where the strengths of the various people on the team filled in the weaknesses of the others. It looked at a character like Gary—an autistic man who can see signals in the air—and made him both a pain-in-the-ass and someone capable of great humor and great moments where he reached beyond himself for his friends. The other characters weren’t as well-developed as Gary or leader Dr. Rosen, but they all took on new shades as the first season went on, and when the season ended, I was legitimately invested in all of them. (Okay, maybe not Nina, but that might just be my general lack of interest in characters with mind control powers.)
The thing I like the second-best about Alphas is the way it approaches every episode like a puzzle to be solved. It introduces a new Alpha, it comes up with unusual situations to place the regular characters in, then it finds fun ways to unravel the problems it’s placed before them. The characters’ various powers are well-chosen to keep them limited as to their abilities but add up to something more, and that makes how the show’s writers will combine those powers to take down, say, a woman who can manipulate your vision so she’s always in your blind spot all the more fascinating. At its best, Alphas plays like a combination of an ‘80s “mission” show, where the characters take on a seemingly impossible task and chip away at it bit by bit; a quirky sci-fi tale, where the characters bounce off of each other in humorous and unexpected ways; and a puzzle from a graphic adventure game, where the solution is staring you in the face the whole time but isn’t immediately obvious.
“Wake Up Call,” the second season premiére of the show, tries to do both of the above things, but it’s only half successful at each. Fortunately, the two halves add up to something that’s mostly successful, but not without its awkward moments. The biggest problem is the same problem every show that’s had the “The team has been split up, and now we’re going to watch them get back together” plot in its season premiére episode has had: It’s simply not all that compelling to watch people we usually enjoy working together get back together. To the show’s credit, it comes up with some fun predicaments to place its characters in—like locking Gary and Bill together in Gary’s cell—but the ways out of those predicaments turn out to almost always be, “Call in another Alpha” or “Call in Dr. Rosen.”
Rosen is in a mental hospital, the government having successfully branded him as a crazy person in the wake of last season’s reveal that the Alphas are real and among us. On the one hand, this feels a bit timid. Last season seemed to definitively push the show in a new direction, and now, we’re right back to where we were, only there have been a few slight adjustments to the status quo that will probably be removed fairly quickly. On the other hand, I liked that the show didn’t cheat and say nobody had believed Rosen. He’s been seriously discredited, and when the government finally has to turn to him to handle the situation in Building Seven, he’s got the clout to ask them to describe the situation before he decides to help out. David Strathairn is so good in this role that it’s easy to not praise him for his work, but he really brings a touch of prickly irritation to Rosen in this episode that suggests, after several months in the mental hospital, he’s starting to get just a touch pissed off.
I also really like the build we’re getting toward what I assume will be a season-long war with Stanton Parrish and his team. Stanton and the Alphas he broke out of Binghamton blow up a train at the end of the episode, and that’s cool and all, but what’s really going to be interesting here is the way that Rosen’s daughter has signed up with Stanton, despite the fact that her relationship with her father seems to be progressing as well. Rosen’s daughter’s Alpha abilities have a lot of potential in terms of storylines, and the more that Rosen is torn between wanting to integrate the Alphas into mainstream society and fearing such a thing can never happen, the better. If his daughter’s on the other side, that’s going to push him even more, and make for some solid emotional conflict, underneath all the trains blowing up or what-have-you. Yes, it’s basically the story that every X-Men arc or film explores, but it’s a good story, and there’s plenty of room for unexplored territory that Alphas can mine.
Unfortunately, the episode itself left a bit to be desired on levels other than setting things up for the rest of the season. Splitting up the team is a tough thing for the show to overcome, and while the problem of how to deal with the inmate uprising at Binghamton has its moments, particularly when any one of the characters is trapped alone and surrounded by the bad guys, the whole story feels as if it’s solved a little too easily. There’s a good reason for this, of course: The heroes can’t stop the villains, because the villains need to escape and spend the rest of the season following around the Big Bad. But it still doesn’t make it very satisfying when it seems like Bill and Gary are going to have to find their way out of a considerable pickle and, instead, mostly hang out in the cell, waiting for something to happen. The attempts to bring Gary back from the brink—something he’s been pushed to by having a chip that messes with his brain installed by force—are good, but they conclude a little too easily, with a big, long hug-fest that felt a little too gooey.
So if the premiére isn’t everything you’d might want from an episode of the show, it’s still laying a lot of groundwork for a season that could be aces. And there are plenty of smaller moments that make the episode worth watching, like Bill and Hicks getting caught right in the middle of that Alphas attack on the grocery store or Rachel trying to shut the world out in her room or Gary slowly coming back online as Bill watches and marvels. It’s not a wholly satisfying episode, but it probably couldn’t have been, given the structural problems. Now, with all the pieces in place, here’s hoping that the episodes to come take this intriguing set-up and run with it.
- There was plenty of behind-the-scenes upheaval on the show since season one ended, but I couldn’t really tell in the premiére, outside of that scene at the end, which felt just a little too schmoopy. But, hey, I’ll spot the show that one. These people were probably worried Gary was in serious danger.
- Is it just me, or did this episode feel somewhat like it was returning for the show’s fourth season or something? Most of the situations the characters were in had to be explained to the audience on the fly, and most of the exposition was handled very well.
- I’ll be away at the Television Critics Association press tour next week and won’t have a screener. Alasdair Wilkins will be stepping in, but I’ll handle the rest of the season.