While there has been no better time to release a superhero movie than these past few years, the same cannot be said for a superhero television series. The once-lauded series Heroes, featuring normal people being suddenly given superpowers, began to meander just as they reached their first season finale back in 2007, and it was finally cancelled on May 14, 2010. Almost immediately, it was succeeded by No Ordinary Family, with exactly the same premise, except for the added focus on family relationships. Unfortunately, it was also canned, almost exactly a year after Heroes was cancelled.
So I guess I found it surprising that there would actually be yet another genre successor so soon, in the form of SyFy Channel’s Alphas, which premiered earlier this week. Yet what appears to set this show apart is that these superpowered humans are already in a team from the get-go, so there’s no clunky origin stories to deal with initially. But would this be enough to save Alphas from the cancellation heap, or is there really no hope for a live-action superhero series?
The pilot starts out rather intriguingly, with a seemingly unassuming supermarket assistant being suddenly told by random strangers, newspapers and billboards that it’s “Time to kill” and “pull the trigger”. An anonymous text message leads him to the rooftop of a building, where he finds a bag containing a sniper rifle. He sets it up like an expert and then takes the shot.
Unfortunately, the show then almost immediately hits a bump, when it starts making short introductions the main characters after the title screen. First, we get introduced to Dr. Lee Rosen, an eccentric braniac who swims in his backyard, chews grass, and brews something that is not coffee. Later, an attractive brunette gets pulled over by a cop, and then uses her power of suggestion to force him to eat the ticket he was about to issue her. The shot then cuts to an introductory screen, where we learn her name is Nina Theroux and her “diagnosis” is “hyper induction – overides willpower in others”.
Immediately, I am concerned. This ability has been represented in Heroes and No Ordinary Family, with Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg) and Daphne Powell (Kay Panabaker). The former flunked out as a cop and the latter was a high school student, but Nina Theroux is a confident, intelligent woman for whom this power is taking the stereotype to extremes. That being said, she is played by Laura Mennell, who was Dr. Manhatten’s pre-superhero love interest Janey Slater in Watchmen, and also had recent guest roles in Smallville, Supernatural and Fringe, so maybe, just maybe, there might be more depth than simply “the hot girl who can make people do things” in the coming weeks.
Nina’s introduction is then followed by Bill Harken with “enhanced strength – from fight-or-flight response”. Really? Did the eventual fates of Niki Sanders (Ali Larter), Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy) and Jim Powell (Michael Chiklis) not teach writers anything? Super-strength is a whole lot of fun in the comics, but when it comes to television shows, all the limited special effects – broken walls, moving vehicles, punching people across a room – just don’t entertain anymore. Plus, casting Malik Yoba as Bill just makes me picture him as an older version of New Avengers leader Luke Cage.
Fortunately for the show, the remaining two characters are much more interesting. Played by talented actors who look younger than they really are, it is my hope that, for their sake, Alphas lasts for more than a season.
Firstly, we meet Rachel Pirzad who is “diagnosed” with “synesthesia – able to enhance sense”. Pirzad is an Iranian surname, and she is played by Afghan-born actress Azita Ghanizada. Though Heroes also had a synesthete in the form of Emma Coolidge (Deanne Bray), Rachel’s ability is simply a complement to her intellect – she is the forensic lab of the group, analysing crime scenes and evidence. CSI: Colourful Synesthesia Investigation indeed.
Yet, she is not a confident person, having been raised by conservative parents a mother who wants her to get married and a father that believes she can never find a suitable husband due to her “condition”. Now, having a young heroine of Arab descent, with a keen mind and a good heart is something that I can never fault no matter how bad the rest of the show gets.
Last, but definitely not least, Gary Bell with “transduction – able to see all electromagnetic wavelengths”. This is an ability that I believe has yet to be fully explored in any superhero media, so it is finally the first original superpower in a long time. Gary is also unique in that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, a type of autism. A superhero with autism? Mindblowing. It also helps that he is played by the fantastic British actor Ryan Cartwright with such aplomb that it is hard not to like him. Cartwright portrays Gary’s ability as if he’s surfing the Web on an iPad, and ironically, this ability of his may be akin to checking out multiple RSS feeds in real time, so it’s actually the most believable superpower.
Rachel and Gary, these are the kinds of characters we should be seeing more of, and not just in genre television.
The ultimate difference that Alphas uses to set itself apart from its predecessors is that they’re not superheroes per se, just human beings who happen to be natural hypnotists, weightlifters, synthetes and savants. This is what creator, writer and executive producer Zak Penn would have us believe. “No flying, no laser beams, no capes. That’s kind of the rule.” Yet, he is also the man who had a hand in writing Marvel movies X-Men: The Last Stand and The Incredible Hulk, the former of which was terrible, and the latter was not exactly a resounding success. Would he have any luck convincing us that his characters aren’t superheroes? I’m not holding my breath, and having them meet like “normal people” in a conference room isn’t exactly proof.
Fortunately, the show’s other executive producer and showrunner is a familiar name: Ira Stephen Behr. Star Trek fans know him from his work on Deep Space Nine, where he was responsible for the epic Dominion War storyline that spanned several seasons and redefined the series. Non-Trek fans would know him from his writing work on The 4400. With Behr taking the lead, I have more confidence in the future Alphas.
Ultimately, the pilot doesn’t feel like anything groundbreaking, but it does leave room for much improvement. To be fair, this show would probably have gone over better if the genre wasn’t accelerated towards its demise by Heroes and then staked in the heart by No Ordinary Family. There’s no harm giving it a chance to see whether it’ll be able to surpass its predecessors, or prove that there’s just no place anymore for a live-action superhero TV series.