Alphas 1.01 Review

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Paul Brian McCoy
When a witness is inexplicably murdered in a locked room at a federal courthouse, Dr. Lee Rosen is put on the case. He leads a team of "Alphas", human beings with enhanced abilities due to differences in their brain structure. They've all come together for the common good with Rosen as their mentor, teaching them to further control their abilities with each passing day. As for the courthouse murder, it's not long before the team uncovers that one of their own kind was responsible - Cameron Hicks, a former Marine sharpshooter with supernatural balance and aim (he guided the bullet through a ventilation duct). After bringing him in, however, they realize someone even more powerful was pulling the strings... someone with a new technology that can be used to mimic one of the team's gifts.

I've been ranting a bit lately, so excuse me if I use this opportunity to make some points. If you take a stroll around the Interwebz trying to see if this new Syfy series Alphas is worth your time, you're likely to find a pretty mixed bag of reviews.

With patience, you'll see that a healthy chunk of the reviews are positive, although a healthy chunk of that healthy chunk are cautiously optimistic. In another subsection of reviews and particularly in the responses to reviews, you'll find the fanboys.

Although to be honest, I don't think they're really "fans" of anything but hearing their own voices/seeing their own words. Fans enjoy the subject of their fanaticism. These people are more Comics Obsessives than Comics Fans.

So you've got the Obsessedboys making their checklists and getting their dander up because the powers of the characters in Alphas are similar or identical to some powers of characters on the page. Somehow, this means that the show is clearly a rip-off of the great comic works that came before. Not homages, not tributes, but rip-offs.

So clearly there can't be anything good about a rip-off, right?

Well, here's the thing. If you're reviewing a television show and you get hung up on one element, that can ruin a show for you. I understand that. But when that one element is something in the character design, and you can't see or even really comment on the personalities or interactions of the characters, the plot, the dialogue, the performances, and/or the direction/production as a whole, then that's on you, not the show.

For example, the first episode of Alphas doesn't break a lot of new ground. It's formulaic and, yes, most of these powers are variations on abilities many viewers will have seen before. But that's not the point of the show, it's just a milieu of the story engine at work here. What makes a show work and will pull viewers back for more is the core concept along with the characters and the performances.

Although it pains me to say so, even the writing and directing is secondary to the characters and the performances. This doesn't excuse bad writing and directing, though. And we always want to see a total package, like the UK superhero show Misfits (to see what we think of that show – IT'S GREAT!!! – click one of the links there on the left), and making shows of that quality should always be the goal. But if the performers are charismatic and the characters are interesting and they interact in ways that are fun and entertaining, a show still works.

The Mentalist, Leverage, or Alphas' Sister-Show Eureka are a great examples of this. Every week, you know what's going to happen and you know how it's going to be resolved. The devil is in the details and some episodes are better than others, but damn near every week is enjoyable and entertaining. Every week they leave you wanting to come back for more. The mysteries, the scams, and the science aren't really important, nor are they the point. It's all about hanging out with these characters for a while.

And that is part of what Alphas has going for it in the first episode. Thankfully, it doesn't take this opening salvo as the opportunity to start from scratch. Hell, if there's one nearly universal single complaint and outcry from fans when it comes to superhero movies and shows, it's PLEASE, NOT ANOTHER ORIGIN STORY!

That in itself wins Alphas some points from me. Sure, we're getting introduced to the characters, but their names and powers were slickly dealt out in splash pages, while the revelation of personality is done organically and through the use of our POV character, Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie). Hicks is the Bullseye of the show, to use the Obsessedboy shorthand, and he was brainwashed into becoming an assassin for the super-powered terrorist group.

Hicks is an ex-military marksman and failed baseball player, but his real problem is that he's lost his family to divorce. He can't be there for his son, and by the end of this episode he's beginning to develop bonds with his new family. And they need him, to be quite honest.

Because our entry point to the ongoing story, the trigger that provides the motivation for the season, is that our Alphas are now the target of said terrorist group. So we skip the recruiting of characters, the day-to-day of their usual work, and jump right to the reason they're being put into the field and into immediate danger.

The Alphas are essentially analysts, rather than field agents, and only one member of the group, Bill Harken (Malik Yoba) has any kind of law enforcement experience. And on a personal note, I was entertained to hear that the two characters that make up the defensive portion of our heroes go by Bill and Hicks.

That's the sort of subtle shout-out that warms me to the show.

As is Dr. Lee Rosen's (David Strathairn) love of Glam Rock, which allows for a soundtrack that kicks all sorts of ass. Strathairn is a huge part of why this first episode works. If all you do is read comics, this might have slipped past you, but Strathairn is a sign of quality. He's a frequent collaborator with writer/director John Sayles and has knocked it out of the park in films like Silkwood, L.A. Confidential, Matewan, Eight Men Out, and the incredible Good Night, and Good Luck where he played Edward R. Murrow.

This man walks the walk and can talk the talk.

To be quite honest, all of the main performers, Azita Ghanizada as Rachel, Laura Mennell as Nina, and Ryan Cartwright as Gary, all work together naturally and intelligently. The use of cross-talking and the emphasis on providing neurological origins for their powers is a functional way of establishing verisimilitude that goes a long way to selling the believability of whole project.

There's a pretty good chemistry here, is what I'm trying to say. Particularly between Strathairn and Callum Keith Rennie as Agent Don Wilson, their Pentagon contact and liaison. I don't know if Rennie is actually signed on for more than the pilot, but I hope to see him again. Agent Wilson makes a great foil for Dr. Rosen and their interactions were my absolute favorite parts of this first episode.

I enjoyed the actual threat, too. The brain-washing spook, Ghost, was enigmatic and interesting, providing a serious threat to our heroes (and his own henchmen) that was, unfortunately, settled with all too quickly. But how cool was Hick's flick-of-the-wrist kill-shot? Just a little bit cooler than Ghost's dying declaration that Hicks is on the "wrong side".

So let's see.

We've got a super-powered terrorist group operating in a real world setting. Our heroes thought that their analyst-work had put a stop to them, but as it turns out, they've just gone underground and are now gunning for them specifically. The government agency our Alphas work for is a trifle shady, but seem to be the good guys, however the "terrorists" believe that they are the ones fighting the good fight.

Sure, we've seen this in the comics and on the big screen. But we haven't really seen it with the melodrama rolled back enough to play out as a super-powered 24. Plus, these characters and actors are likeable and talented enough to make me want to see more of them. I think the fact that this show reminds me more of The Mentalist or Leverage than Heroes is about the best thing I could say about it. The good here, easily outweighs the bad, making this a solid episode, for me.

They're off to a great start, with the first episode garnering an impressive 2.5 million viewers and a 0.9 in the adults 18-49 demo. That's better than one of my favorite shows that fell along the wayside last year, Terriers, ever did, sadly. How about that? Now let's see what else they can do.

Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to What Looks Good and Shot for Shot. He currently has little spare time, but in what there is he continues to work on his first novel, tentatively titled Damaged Incorporated. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, sci-fi television, the original Deathlok, Nick Fury, and John Constantine. He can be summed up in three words: Postmodern Anarchist Misanthropy. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.

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