By Aaron Broder
It’s almost too easy to overlook Syfy’s new series “Alphas.” After all, it wasn’t that long ago that NBC’s “Heroes” tried the “realistic superheroes” conceit, and despite a strong start, it eventually was crushed by its overcomplicated designs. Last year’s “No Ordinary Family” barely made it to the end of its first, and now final, season. But even though the concept might not be original, last week’s “Alphas” premiere delivered a show that managed a twist and backed it up with a great group dynamic.
Though comparisons to “Heroes” are inevitable, “Alphas” is, on the surface at least, a much less ambitious show. A typical episode from the NBC program would generally involve at least two different countries and half a dozen characters. “Alphas” is much smaller in scope: rather than fighting crimes, the titular Alphas (led by the stereotypical friendly professor character) use their powers to solve unusual crimes, like this episode’s “locked-room” mystery.
Ostensibly, the team has been together for some time before the show starts, and despite a bit of awkward dialogue that’s clearly for the audience’s benefit, their interactions hold up. The characters have a good, albeit burgeoning chemistry, and that’s in part due to how well defined their roles are. Not only are their powers distinct – ranging from enhanced senses to what’s essentially a Jedi mind trick – but they all have a more mundane use on the team as well. Bill Harken, for example, not only has short bursts of super-strength, but his history in the FBI gives him training and contacts that help get the team information. The group dynamic as it stands is probably one of the strongest features of the show.
There is a misfit, however: the autistic Gary Bell is really only a source of comic relief when he’s not using his power to visualize wireless signals and watch YouTube videos in thin air. While his character was one of my favorites in the pilot, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to maintain a credible and interesting role unless he gets a bit more fleshed out in later episodes.
One other character doesn’t quite fit in with the rest, either: the obligatory “new guy” Cameron Hicks. As the subject of the investigation for the first half of the episode, he didn’t have any time to carve himself a niche within the group. His powers aren’t as clear-cut as the rest; he can, on rare occasions, pull off unlikely physical feats like tossing coins in a vending machine from a few meters away. The other team members’ roles were, in contrast, so carefully outlined that it’s hard to see exactly where Hicks will fit in.
It’s too early to tell whether “Alphas” will take an episodic or a serialized approach, but hopefully it will strike a balance that avoids the overwrought twists that damned “Heroes.” The writers have also managed to sow a few seeds for character development and toyed with the idea that, although the powers may give the Alphas huge advantages, they can also be limitations both physically and – in the cases of Hicks, Bell and the episode’s villain – psychologically.
“Alphas” doesn’t do a whole lot that’s new. Crime procedurals have been around for ages, and superheroes for even longer. And it certainly has flaws: a lot of the dialogue feels stilted and fake, and while the characters work well as a group, individually they cling to stereotypes. However, this unorthodox approach to superheroes “fighting crime” seems to be more sustainable than the concepts behind “Heroes” and “No Ordinary Family.” It may never reach the highs that the other shows did in their best moments, but it might just be a “realistic” superhero show that lasts.
Watch “Alphas” on Syfy Mondays at 10 p.m.