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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Why Syfy’s superhero series Alphas is TV’s best show about mental illness

Illustration for article titled Why Syfy’s superhero series Alphas is TV’s best show about mental illness

TV has always had trouble tackling mental illness as a topic. The idea of doing a series about depressed, manic-depressive, or schizophrenic characters is daunting: Where is there room for the semi-standard weekly moments of uplift? HBO’s In Treatment took viewers through several weeks of intensive psychotherapy with a variety of patients, but it never delved too deeply into actual mental illness; instead, it focused more on people with debilitating problems in their past that could be overcome with diligent talk therapy and lots of focus. (To its credit, the show never suggested these people could be “cured” in a matter of weeks, but it did speed along the process leading to their breakthroughs.) The Sopranos and Homeland revolve around protagonists with mental-health issues, but this is a color around the edges of the show, an element that informs the other stories going on at any given time.


TV’s best current show at tackling the topic of mental illness (and many other issues as well) is a science-fiction series that seems, at first, to have nothing to do with the subject. Syfy’s Alphas, ending its second season on Monday, October 22, appears to be the most successful superhero show in many years, though it never calls its characters superheroes, or involves them in typical comic-book stories. For the most part, it’s a superhero procedural, in which the central “team” of Alphas use their powers—everything from super-senses to the ability to read the electronic waves floating all around us—to track down villains who are using their own abilities to evil ends. The show’s second season ties this all together into an overarching narrative about the team’s battle with the seemingly immortal Stanton Parish, who wishes to wipe non-Alphas from the Earth. Which may sound a little like an X-Men plot, because it is.

Yet Alphas contains a surprising emotional resonance for a series that seemingly aims to be just another Syfy case-of-the-week show. Alphas is good at bread-and-butter sorts of things, with teammate banter and action sequences that are a cut above other Syfy shows. Yet the show is capable of moments of superb feeling and beauty, and it’s always striving to do much more than simply tell superhero tales in a modern setting. After just a superficial look at the show, it becomes clear what it’s really about: a group of mental patients coming together to work through their issues in a group-therapy setting. (It’s no coincidence that the show’s ostensible protagonist and team leader, played by David Strathairn, is a psychologist.)

To be fair, this is easy to miss. I certainly did, and I’ve reviewed two seasons of the show so far. What turned me on to this undercurrent was this comment by The Real Dylan Toback on a recent review. Toback points out the similarities between the way the show frequently shows the more negative flipside of the characters’ powers and the mental illnesses that would most commonly be associated with those sorts of powers. For example, Rachel, the character who has super-senses and can focus all of her ability into one sense or another to, say, track an escaped Alpha by his scent, also has to keep her distance from other humans and has to have things in a certain way, so as not to set off her too-keen senses. The show has frequently portrayed this downside of her power as something akin to obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it’s made the scenes this season where she learned to let her first boyfriend in several years into her personal space all the more affecting.

Toback’s comment unlocked a world within the show for me, one that had always been lurking underneath its surface without really calling attention to itself. Team member Bill—who’s capable of immense brute strength when provoked—is dealing with rage issues, while Hicks—able to make incredible shots with only the slightest moment to aim—has little patience or empathy for those who won’t do things his way. The show’s newest character, Kat, and a prominent guest character this season, Mitchell, offer resonant takes on amnesia and Alzheimer’s. Kat can only remember about a month’s worth of her experiences. This rapid short-term memory cycling allows her to pick up anything she wants in short order, but it’s also kept the truth about her past from her. (In a devastating reveal, a memory she had of her mother turned out to be a memory of a TV commercial.) Mitchell, meanwhile, has the opposite problem. He’s able to take on any memory anyone else gives him, becoming a sort of journal of Alpha experience, and obscuring his own memories. The two play out different sides of the memory-loss coin, with Mitchell rattling off memories from others that have no meaning to his present company, and Kat creating endless video diaries to remind herself of things she already knows for when she no longer knows them.

The series similarly builds up its mental-illness analogies in its structure and mythology. Straithairn’s character, Dr. Lee Rosen, assembled the team because their particular abilities would be helpful in capturing the bad guys, sure, but the characters also frequently talk through their problems, hopes, and aspirations, as would be common in a group-therapy setting. Rosen, for his part, aims to do his best to help them move past the downsides of their abilities, to become more fully realized human beings and celebrate what’s good about their powers, just as anyone suffering from mental illness will eventually have to come to terms with how it’s a part of their life. The villains of the week tend to be characters whose Alpha powers have relegated them to the edges of society, where they vainly struggle to belong, or use their powers for ill-gotten gain. These stories also frequently deal with the Alphas having to cope with situations they don’t entirely understand because their own powers (or illnesses) keep them from doing so. For instance, recurring character Skylar (played by Summer Glau) is attempting to build a better life for her Alpha daughter than the one she had. Even the series’ most horrific end for the Alphas—a place called Building Seven at a facility in Binghamton, New York—strongly resembles a mental hospital in almost every way, right down to the way Alphas sent there are essentially sedated, so they don’t have access to their powers.

The show’s second season has focused the most attention on three characters who drive home the series’ fascination with mental-health issues even more. One character, Gary (played by Ryan Cartwright, in one of the best performances on TV right now) became prominent simply because he was so popular in season one. Yet the show is careful to depict how the flipside of his power—the ability to read those waves floating out in the ether—becomes a kind of debilitating autism, one that was keeping him from meaningful human interaction with anyone other than his mother until he joined the team. He hasn’t been cured, or anything close to it, but he’s learning, through his proximity to the others in the group, how to function in society, to the point where he moved out of his house this season and began to work through the trauma incurred during a stint in Binghamton.


Much of the season’s first half focused on Rosen’s daughter, Danielle, a character with ties both to her father and Stanton, the season’s Big Bad. Danielle’s power, the ability to feel what anyone else was feeling and then communicate that to someone else, was in some ways the flipside of Hicks’ ability: She had too much empathy, where he had too little. (Naturally, they started sleeping together.) A closer read of Danielle’s arc—she died midway through the season, in a moment of self-sacrifice that seems remarkably close to outright suicide—reveals that she was the show’s take on depression, on finding the world and its emotions a little too close to the surface, and too difficult to take. It wasn’t always clear what the show was doing with this character, but once she was gone, Alphas became even more pointed on this particular notion: Rosen spent his life trying to save his daughter from the demons he knew would inevitably consume her, and he failed. The situation sent him spiraling.

But the strongest work of the season in this regard came from Nina (Laura Mennell), one of the characters fans least liked in season one. Nina’s power involves being able to look into anyone’s eyes and give them orders that must be obeyed. The show calls this ability “pushing,” and the downside of has been portrayed as something akin to addiction or narcissistic personality disorder. Nina has an all-encompassing need to control the situation around her, to make everything go a certain way, and when the season begins, she’s splitting off from the group, ready to go her own way and abuse her power to get whatever she wants. In a terrific episode called “When Push Comes To Shove,” the series not only depicts how this becomes her psychological nadir, but also how events in her childhood—when she realized she could use her power to force her parents to stay together—cycled outward to create the damaged wreck she is today. The episode is impressively dark, though it ends with a moving moment where Rosen chooses to trust her not to push him, so he might help her get better. The episode contains a moment of naked recognition of what anyone suffering from a mental illness goes through, a moment when Nina looks into a car window at her own reflection and tries to push herself into feeling better. It doesn’t work. She can’t escape the cycle by herself. She needs help and diligence, and the only place she can find them is in that therapeutic setting.


Alphas hasn’t yet figured out how to escape the dilemma of all series whose leads have mental illnesses—namely the idea that such illnesses make the characters such super-bad-ass crime solvers that their powers become enviable. (For an execrable example of this, check out TNT’s Perception from earlier this year, about a crime-solving professor with schizophrenia.) This is, perhaps, the sort of thing the series will never escape, given that superpowers will always seem cool on their surface. Yet the series has committed so successfully to portraying how these powers line up with real-world mental illnesses that it mostly sidesteps this question. Yes, there are cool moments, and yes, there are moments when the guy who seems least likely to save the day does so, but there are also the dark hours of the soul, when all seems lost and nobody knows what to do. At its core, Alphas is a series about healing, but it also realizes that all healing is only temporary. These people can—and will—always be wounded again.