Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Alphas Review, Or, How SyFy Ripped Off the X-Men

From my remarkable powers of deduction, as well as the frankly impressive ability to endure the extra-long premiere (I mean, c'mon SyFy, haven't you ever heard of "Leave 'em wanting more"?) I can tell you with some confidence that the new original series Alphas is merely the latest in a long line of SyFy knock-offs (see: Battle of Los Angeles, The Mighty Thor, etc.) And the newest subject of SyFy's sincerest form of flattery?

The X-Men. Yeah, you totally want to click the jump.

The parallels are fairly clear. A group of extraordinary individuals (Alphas) are assembled by a well-intentioned Doctor (somehow played by David Strathairn--well done Casting Dept.) in order to study and hone their powers, and use them in the pursuit of justice.

Of course, this being a SyFy pilot, the intentions of the characters are not really illustrated clearly by the writers. We don't know how these people assembled or how Dr. Rosen found them, who Leoben/Callum Keith Rennie really is or works for (he's really in everything lately isn't he? Such a genre guy.)  or what exactly they're hoping to accomplish.

Some minor seeds were sown to foreshadow a rival group who operates similarly but with necessarilly less-altruistic intentions (their version of the Brotherhood...or Acolytes...or MLF...or Marauders, etc.) that goes by the name Red Flag (yeesh) and will doubtless prove to be the source of the season's climactic confrontations.

There is a commendable attempt to lessen the intensity present in the X-Men by avoiding the description of the Alphas as a non-human species, instead grounding their differences in minor scientific, neurological developments. While this naturally takes the province of the show out of such weighty philosophical avenues that the X-Men explore (racism, tolerance, community, the Other, etc.) it gives it a basis in reality that is almost believable, and furthermore adds its own twist to the possession of 'powers'. That is, there is always a downside. In addition the powers are more cerebral than the physical nature of many X-mutations, thus lending itself to a more procedural/crime drama type of formula, or at best, the ambitions of a synthesis between crime and superheroes.

The powers are as follows:

Bill (played by the guy who was Ted in Defying Gravity, which, and I don't care what you say, was fantastic and I will always love it and wish it could come back) has super-strength, apparently triggered by his "flight or fight" response. Except for the fact that he can merely clench his fists really hard and get his adrenalin going whenever he wants to use it, as evidenced by him sweating through a fresh shirt in the morning to move a car blocking his driveway. The downside is he can't do it for very long, or it seems as if he starts to have a heart attack. The character itself is flat; he has FBI training but repeatedly misreads situations, is agressive to friend and foe alike, and is generally a douchebag.

Yeah this is from Defying Gravity. Sue me.

Gary is a teenager with aspergers who can read wireless transmissions. The special effects for this are actually pretty good, insofar as they really show you what he's doing. He can follow any stream of data visually, tapping into street cameras to follow perps, internet for research, even read the text messages being sent on your phone. The downside, obviously, is his disorder. His social inabilities are heavily played up, most often against the frosty Bill, while also offerring regular comedic relief.

Nina is a pretty, slim, confident woman who can alter overpower someone's will and bend them to her wishes. Yes, that is as absolutely freaky and morally repugnant as it sounds, but it seems we're supposed to find it endearing that she drives a stolen car and lives in a SoHo penthouse she never paid for. Apparently her downside is she either can't control everyone, or it gets out of control and turns against her (it's called karma, ya mind-rapist.) The unfortunate power set is backed up by a shaky acting job--for the first half of the pilot she is independent and snarky and superficial, and then by the end she seems to be attempting to fill the Mother Hen role of the group. So far she's one of the main weak links in the cast.

We meet Cameron due to his brainwashing by the pilot's enemy ("The Ghost" who has the ability to...well, brainwash) into being an assassin. He was chosen because of his ability, referred to by the show as "hyperkinesis." A simple google search informs one that this is a disorder of restlessness, similar to ADD. What the writers meant was highly developed, instinctive reflexes that rarely falter. Marksmanship, agility, etc. The downside is he's not infallible (I guess?) and when he loses control, he loses it entirely. The example given was pitching two perfect games in a row, and then being unable to throw a single strike. He's rescued, deprogrammed, and reluctantly added to the team. He's also very handsome, which is a definite benefit.

Lastly there's Rachel, a shy young girl with the ability to enhance her senses. The show dossier again screws up their definition of her power, calling it Synesthesia, which is actually a condition that causes the senses to get confused (smelling sounds, seeing numbers as intrinsically colored, etc.) She doesn't have that, she can just focus and use her senses with a super acuity. (Except for touch, apparently, which is unfortunate because that could be enjoyable for her.) The downside is that when she focuses on one sense, visual for instance, she loses the use of the others, and thus can't hear a warning scream or the smell of smoke. The character is meek but well played, and will doubtless experience a journey of inner strength.

I hear...lazy research.
Dr. Rosen doesn't appear to have any powers, except personal eccentricity and a particularly needling "shrink voice" but there is yet another similarity to Professor Xavier that I want to point out: a potential moral ambiguity hidden by complete altruism, and a vague suspicion that he is entirely ruthless. While he stands up for the rights of his team, and encourages their growth and amicable coexistence, it seems as if he may have ulterior motives in the study and harnessing of their powers. A dying sentence from the pilot's "enemy" tells Cameron that he is on the "wrong side" of this fight, and just a scene later Dr. Rosen basically threatens and blackmails an unwilling Cameron into joining the team, though he never changes his even, contemplative tone of voice. Strathairn is great, and I imagine he would only take a role like this if it provided a complete character shift and several exciting roles in one, so remember me when I tell you Dr. Rosen ain't all he's made out to be.

I was nominated for a freakin' Oscar.

Despite the slightly plodding nature of the pilot, and the missed opportunities for providing the shows ultimate mission statement, and a couple casting slips and thin characters, Alphas was still entertaining. And even if I hated it, which I didn't, it would be tough for me to turn away from anything resembling the X-Men. I'm gonna stick with it for awhile, and I'll let you know if it gets better or completely offends me and gets removed from the DVR series manager.

Either way, I'm pretty sure it outshines SyFy's movie event Mega Piranha.


  1. I totally agree with this review. Although just to be clear I think Nina can act, she's just written clumsily. Hopefully that will improve as time goes on. I'm with you on Strathairn having a slightly menacing undertone, like when he leaves Cameron no choice but to join.

    What does "the jump" refer to in blogs? I've seen you use the term a few times.

    Thanks, and keep up the great work!!

  2. i kinda watched this in passing so take this this comment with a grain of salt perhaps. i can't say there was anything of interest about this show that caught my eye or ear. aside from the obvious X-Men parallels they've also got a total Deadshot rip off here to from what i can see.

  3. I see Deadshot. Chris Sims at ComicsAlliance thought he was Bullseye. I personally see a cross between Gambit (agility and moral ambiguity-wise) and Hawkeye.

    Guess we're all a bit colored by our favorites :-)

  4. For me, I thought they were trying to shift Nina at end of the pilot into the "...with a heart of gold" type. The problem is, really, that it is hard to combine "Selfish controller of other human beings" with "...with a heart of gold."

    Bill reminded me a little too much of constantly yelling, "I'm always right," Rex Matheson from Torchwood: Miracle Day. Is this the new look of black people in the genre? Once you are part of the system, you become a prick?

    Still, the pilot didn't suck, and it was filmed in my old stomping grounds of west Toronto, which always earns you a couple of extra watches if only for the fun of "which spot in Toronto is subbing for New York today?" I attended some birthday parties at that Bowlarama with the mural on the wall of where the Alphas work as much as 30 years ago.

    Also, they did touch a little bit on some prejudice. Rachel's father saying she would never get a good man with her condition. You know, her condition of being a hot woman who can completely control a power with no outward effects.

    So far, it is still on my DVR as well. But it is definitely, in my opinion, the weakest of SyFy's Monday offerings.

  5. The writer is the same as one of the X-Men movies. So I think he had a slightly hard time getting away from it and I have a feeling it will improve. I do like your review it is just what I thought mostly. I don't agree on your Nina review I think it was the writing that failed there.

  6. I like Alphas but it is clear as it goes further along that it is a point for point ripoff of the core of the X-Men series. We now have this Stanton Parish guy who is a clear match for Magneto. We even have him sponsoring research in a special medical facility to turn people into Alphas just like Magneto was trying to do forcing mutation on people. And just like in X-Men, there is the warning from Parish to Rosen of an impending "war" between normals and Alphas.

    I mean I like the show but come on, show a little creative genius.