Last night, Syfy premiered its latest original scripted series Alphas, starring acclaimed actor David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck). According the show’s official site, alphas are otherwise-ordinary people “with the unique power to stretch the capabilities of the human mind giving them superhuman physical and mental abilities.”
Nina can melt the will power of anyone who looks into her eyes. Her power of suggestion reminds me of the character Pusher from The X-Files. She can “push” a suggestion onto the subconscious of anyone, and in the pilot, she persuades a cop who’s stopped her for speeding to eat the ticket. It’s a powerful skill that also often tests her own will power to control it; she clearly has no problem exploiting it for her own gain.
Rachel has hyper-acute senses: she can see anything—from any distance, detect barely-visible smells and tastes. However when she goes into a state allowing her access to these enhanced senses, she is unable to hear, deeply immersed as she is. Her parents view her unusual abilities as a social albatross—she’ll never attract a husband with her “condition,” they moan in one of the opening scenes.
Bill is an FBI agent with the ability to produce vast excesses of adrenaline in his body, which gives him unusual strength and speed. But too much and he “spikes,” leaving him breathless and weak. We get the sense that Bill has a past with the FBI that only barely allows him to keep his badge. Whether that has to do with his “talent” is something we’ve yet to learn.
Gary is the youngest of the group, and has the most interesting and probably for him, the most disturbing, skill. He is able to focus on any magnetic wavelength, seeing the magnetic traces of any and all electronic signals swirl around him holograph-like. He demonstrates this useful ability when the team has to track the location of a specific cell phone signal. But where the others on the team are all social misfits in one way or another, Gary exhibits the most extreme behavioral quirks; his awkwardness annoys even members of this elite outside-the-circle club.
Leading this group of extraordinary, but very human, individuals is neurologist/psychiatrist Dr. Lee Rosen (Strathairn), a mild-mannered professor, with obviously much more lurking behind that kindly, slightly awkward demeanor.
Part Dr. Phil and part Dr. Xavier, Rosen identifies alphas out there in the wilds of New York (or wherever), teaching them how to use and control their special abilities, as well as cope with their differentness. Funded by an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense called the Defense Criminal Investigation Service, Rosen’s project isn’t just academic. There are, of course, strings attached, and dangerous ones, at that! Agency guy Donald Wilson calls upon Rosen’s group to combat other, not-so-nice, alphas who work for an organization known as Red Flag. We don’t know a lot about this group, except that they are a menacing lot, and in the pilot they try to expose the team in order to eliminate the threat Rosen and his alphas pose to them.
When a strange assassination case comes to Wilson, he enlists Rosen and his team to identify the killer—and to determine if he (or she) is an alpha. Identifying the assassin is easy enough—he’s grocery clerk with a killer arm who threw two perfect baseball games in a row. But as the team digs deeper, they learn that the man, Harkin, is ex-military—the most accurate marksman in history. So why is he a grocery clerk? Like Rosen’s alphas, Harkin has a hard time “fitting in.” He’s perfect prey for Red Flag and someone code-named “Ghost,” an alpha with mind control abilities through a rather gross-looking lesion on his right hand.
Ultimately the team realizes that assassination is really a set-up to bring Rosen out into the daylight and destroy the team. Identifying Harkin as an alpha with extraordinary dexterity and aim, Rosen offers to help him cope with his life—and put him to work.
I’ve been of fan of David Strathairn’s work ever since I first saw him appear as the awkward Moss Friedman on the Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. Since that quirky 1980s comedy series, Strathairn has gone on to much greater things, including his Oscar-nominated turn as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck. I’m also a sucker for a good science fiction story—or television series. So it was great anticipation that I tuned in last night. I was not disappointed.
There is much familiar about the series fundamentals. Grizzled brilliant mentor? Check. Misfit gifted (or superhuman), but otherwise ordinary, young people? Check; Skeptical, cynical government man/agency really controlling the strings? Check. Equally gifted bad guys? Check.
On its face, Alphas is the next in a long tradition of superhero stories. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The pilot is a quick-paced 90 minutes with a menacing villain and a couple of surprise turns. Lots of action—chases and shooting, but enough character stuff to make me want to learn more about Dr. Rosen and his group of alphas. There are obvious tensions between government guy Wilson and Dr. Rosen, so I’m thinking (and hoping) there’s more beneath the surface of the series than good guys chasing bad guys. I hope the plot grows as psychologically and politically complex as time goes on, and we learn more about Rosen’s background, including the origins of his tenuous relationship with the FBI and Donald Wilson. It’s gotten a good start, and I’m coming back next Monday night for more.
The series was created for Syfy by Zak Penn and Michael Karnow; Jack Bender (Lost) directed the pilot. In addition to Strathairn, Alphas also stars Malik Yoba (New York Undercover), Warren Christie (October Road), Laura Mennell (Watchmen), Ryan Cartwright (Mad Men, Bones) and Azita Ghanizada (Castle).
If you missed Monday’s pilot, you can watch it on Syfy’s site. Alphas airs Monday nights at 10 ET on SyFy.