“Heroes” ultimately turned out to be a terrible show, but its initial success – and the way that certain viewers stuck with it long after it became clear just how terrible it was – suggested there was a significant appetite for that kind of TV show. So expect other networks to keep trying with superhero series until the next one hits. (And then for the networks to try even harder to copy that one.)
“Alphas,” which debuts tonight at 10 on Syfy, was originally developed for ABC back in the height of “Heroes” mania. ABC execs apparently didn’t feel comfortable with the idea at the time (though those same execs tried and failed with “No Ordinary Family” this past season), and eventually the script filtered its way on down to Syfy.
And the pilot is promising enough to make you understand why the project was able to escape years in development hell.
Like “Heroes,” “Alphas” is a superhero show that tries to do without the costumes, codenames and other elements that can seem goofy on a TV budget. The series focuses on an ad hoc team working for the government, comprised of “alphas.” The things they can do – super strength, super senses, mind control, etc. – are what we would normally call super powers, but instead it’s left to the warmth of star David Strathairn as scientist/team leader Leigh Rosen to comfortingly wrap it all in technobabble.
“You have a neurological difference that confers some special advantage,” he tells a potential new addition to the team.
But where “Heroes” shied away from the genre tropes and labels because its creator didn’t know much about the genre, “Alphas” was co-created (with Michael Karnow) by Zak Penn, who’s worked on the scripts for a lot of superhero movies over the years (including a couple of the “X-Men” sequels, and the Ed Norton “Incredible Hulk”). He knows this world and the kind of storytelling, and for the most part understands how to make it work on the scale he’s been given by Syfy.
The “special advantages” of our heroes are familiar and yet with just enough tweaks and vulnerabilities that none feel like we’ve seen them 50 times before. Criminologist Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada) can enhance any one of her senses to superhuman levels (she can read a newspaper from 10 blocks away), but has to shut down the other four in the process. High-functioning autistic Gary (Ryan Cartwright) can see every electromagnetic wavelength – allowing him to watch TV, surf the web, trace phone calls, etc., without benefit of any equipment – but can’t hack a Nokia signal. (“It’s a different protocol,” he shrugs.) New recruit Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie) is a world-class marksman, acrobat and athlete, but his abilities are dependent on his confidence level.
It’s an eclectic mix of powers and characters – also including Malik Yoba as super-strong (and super-angry) FBI agent Bill Harken and Laura Mennell as Nina Theroux, who can make almost anyone (except Gary) do what she tells them to – and the group interacts well with each other. Where “Heroes” tended to be oppressively humorless whenever Hiro and Ando weren’t on screen, “Alphas” is able to wield a light touch when necessary. Dr. Rosen is an aging hippie who’s amused by the paranoia of their government handler Don Wilson (Callum Keith Rennie, last seen heading to Sonoma on “The Killing”), Bill likes to tease Gary while the women are protective of him, Gary (who’s always multi-tasking on top of whatever attention issues he has due to his autism) is always badgering Rosen to let him drive the team’s van, etc.
Like the two successful Syfy veterans it’s being paired with, “Warehouse 13” and “Eureka,” “Alphas” recognizes the need to mix likable, interesting characters with the powers, chase scenes and other fixings. Strathairn alone elevates the proceedings significantly with his presence, as he approaches “Alphas” the same way he seems to approach ever job: openly, honestly and with a gravity that makes the ludicrous seem utterly plausible.
The pilot episode is a mix of a standalone procedural idea (the Alphas investigate a locked room mystery where someone was shot in a place with no guns present) and a touch of serial storytelling (the case turns out to involve a rival group with its own agenda for the specially-advantaged). Ultimately, I was more drawn in by the team’s interactions than I was by either aspect of the plot, but that’s probably better for the show’s long-term viability. Stories can be punched up – especially once we don’t have to establish who everyone is – where if the characters don’t initially click, it requires a writer with superhuman abilities of his or her own to fix that down the road.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org