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Checking In on 'Alphas,' the Summer's Most Promising New Drama

Date August 30, 2011
Checking In on 'Alphas,' the Summer's Most Promising New Drama In my 'Happy Endings' piece yesterday, I noted that I'm using this week to check in on shows I won't be able to write about during the September premiere crush. Today's program: Syfy's 'Alphas.'

The bad news is, 'Alphas' doesn't return until Sept. 12. The good news is, you have almost two weeks to catch up on this Syfy drama, which has turned out...

Checking In on 'Alphas,' the Summer's Most Promising New Drama In my 'Happy Endings' piece yesterday, I noted that I'm using this week to check in on shows I won't be able to write about during the September premiere crush. Today's program: Syfy's 'Alphas.'

The bad news is, 'Alphas' doesn't return until Sept. 12. The good news is, you have almost two weeks to catch up on this Syfy drama, which has turned out to be surprisingly good, especially in recent weeks.

I say "surprisingly" not just because much of Syfy's recent scripted fare has been lightweight, unambitious or slipshod (or all three), but because so much could have gone wrong with this particular show, which follows a team of investigators with superhuman abilities.

Not only has 'Alphas' successfully avoided many of the pitfalls that have bedeviled other superhero-flavored projects, it's done a good job of balancing character-driven moments with taut, well-paced storytelling. Not every episode has been an unqualified success, but the Aug. 15 and Aug. 22 outings, to name my favorites, were truly excellent, if not downright badass.

It's annoying that only the pilot for 'Alphas' can be obtained for free online. What is Syfy thinking? The pilot is serviceable, as I noted in my review, but this is a show that could probably snag a lot of viewers if it were easy to sample subsequent episodes, several of which are better than the pilot.

You might check to see whether your television provider has more episodes available on demand, or, if you're intrigued enough by my recommendation, here's a representative batch of episodes to snag from iTunes or elsewhere after watching the pilot: 'Rosetta' (which first aired Aug. 1), 'Bill and Gary's Excellent Adventure' (Aug. 15) and 'Catch and Release' (Aug. 22).

The last of those episodes featured Summer Glau playing a very Summer Glau-ish role -- Skylar, a street-smart, rebellious Alpha who cans build almost any tech out of spare parts and household appliances. But the episode didn't merely rely on Glau's solid skills and her intrinsic appeal as nerd bait; there was much more going on in 'Catch and Release.' One of the best things about 'Alphas' is that it has has wisely wrapped all the characters in layers of alliances and conflicts, all of which have gained heft and complexity as the first season has progressed.

The actions of Glau's character posed a special challenge for the team, given that she used to be one of them, but her cautionary tale was just part of the show's promising mythology, which is not off-puttingly dense but which -- fingers crossed -- should supply interesting developments and moral quandaries down the road.

Checking In on 'Alphas,' the Summer's Most Promising New Drama It all so easily could have gone another way, and if I hedged a bit in my initial review, it's because we have ample proof that premises like these are ridiculously easy to screw up (swing by your local movie theater some time if you don't believe me). But so far, 'Alphas' has generally good pacing, lively direction and the cast has proved itself up to the material (though, truth be told, cast members Ryan Cartwright and David Strathairn are operating on a whole different level at this stage).

Still, all the team members are dealing with a number of conflicts and dilemmas, emotionally and professionally. These aren't necessarily people who work well in group settings, the team's government minders have a mysterious agenda of their own, and there's a rogue Alpha group out there called Red Flag, (which, as I reported here, will figure prominently in the show's Sept. 26 finale).

It's all promising stuff, but I'll admit that I expected 'Alphas' to be far less interesting than it is. It hasn't avoided every pitfall, and it's a little worrying that the "freak of the week" episodes have sometimes been weak, given how often the show may have to go to that well. Still, 'Alphas' has gotten a lot right, and as I watched the first season unfold, I kept compiling a mental list of all the things 'Alphas' is not:

It's not 'Heroes.' Unlike that meandering NBC show, 'Alphas' has a clear sense of who each character is and where he or she is going. Sure, at times, the characters are a bit too predictable, especially Malik Yoba's Bill Harken, a former FBI agent and the show's Hulk-tastic Alpha. But it never depicts having a super-skill skill as a tragedy or as fodder for pointless adventures that never really have complicated, realistic consequences.

It's not 'X-Men' Lite. Sure, 'Alphas' echoes that iconic comic-book and film series at times, especially since 'X-Men: The Last Stand' scribe Zak Penn is one of the show's creators. But when 'Alphas' invoke the superhero canon, it's subtle and intentional, and the nods in that direction (most of which involve Dr. Lee Rosen, David Strathairn's "Professor X" character) aren't overbearing. And there are differences: The X-Men obviously save the world a lot, but the canvas of their adventures is bigger and they essentially work for themselves. What makes the Alphas' situation intriguing is that members of the team live in the mundane, ordinary world and spend their days working for the government, chasing down other Alphas and solving unusual crimes.

Rosen appears to be increasingly uncomfortable with the government's methods and goals, and Strathairn is a perfect vehicle for the good doctor's doubts and protective instincts. Without overplaying the role, he makes you understand how much the reticent team leader cares about his employees, and it's painfully apparent that he sees both sides of this knotty situation. He knows the Alphas would be more or less functional if they weren't part of the team, but they'd be less fulfilled and far more prone to getting in trouble, and they are certainly able to accomplish much more with governmental resources. But what is the government's endgame and who are the real bad guys here -- rogue Alphas who don't want to do the Man's dirty work, or a government who ships rogues off to be "studied" at a secure location?

It's not sloppy. The show, saints be praised, does not use the characters' abilities as get-out-of-jail free cards. Sure, the woman who "pushes" people to do her bidding or the character who uses her finely tuned senses to follow trails can use their abilities to get information or figure things out much faster than regular people would, but generally speaking, the characters' abilities are deployed in service of brisk pacing and cool twists, not lazy shortcuts. And (shades of 'Chuck') their abilities can't always be relied upon to get them out of tough situations.

I wasn't overly enamored of the Aug. 29 episode, despite a good guest performance from Garret Dillahunt -- the "freak of the week" story seemed a little predictable and simplistic (a little 'X-Files' season 1, if you will). Still, the episode gave the very skilled Strathairn some compelling notes to play, and it's that kind of multi-layered, emotionally infused storytelling that's going to keep me coming back.

On that note, maybe it's now time to talk about what 'Alphas' is, instead of what it isn't. It isn't perfect -- the first few episodes weren't necessarily graceful as they laid the groundwork for later developments, and not all the characters are equally interesting at this stage (though Laura Mennell and Warren Christie have been well used as two wary team members who are beginning to learn to trust each other).

Checking In on 'Alphas,' the Summer's Most Promising New Drama But from the start, one of the things that made me keep watching was the terrific performance of Ryan Cartwright as Gary Bell, an autistic Alpha who can effortlessly hack into cell phone traffic and other data streams.

Talk about a character who was rife with disastrous possibilities. Even if Gary was written well -- which he is -- it's often tempting for an actor to ham it up in a role like this, but Cartwright never overdoes it. Ever. Not only does Cartwright deftly make Gary a fully realized human being with complex desires and understandable emotions, he's also given the role dimensions I'm not sure it even had on the page.

Maybe Cartwright's stint as Lane Pryce's assistant John Hooker on 'Mad Men' helped him hone his skills in the dry comedy arena, but, for whatever reason, Gary has emerged as one of the most slyly funny characters on TV. Of course, I'm not laughing at him -- good God, no. Gary's relentless self-awareness and ferocious dignity would make that kind of mockery unthinkable. But Cartwright manages to make Gary the show's much-needed comic-relief by smartly underplaying the material and making it clear that Gary enjoys being a wild card.

At one point, the Alphas team was issued government badges, and the way Gary kept saying, "Respect the badge!" and "I'm a secret agent" never failed to crack me up. He's having the time of his life as an Alpha, and the fact that his job with Dr. Rosen has given him a chance at independence and autonomy is actually the point of the character. Gary is not a cookie-cutter "autistic character," he is a young man trying to make his way in the world, and whatever distinctive qualities he brings to the table make him more compelling, not more predictable. He and Strathairn really are reason enough to watch the show, and as long as the writers keep supplying them with meaty material, I'll keep watching.

As I said in my review of 'Alphas,' the "team of misfits" premise is one of the oldest ones in storytelling. Yet it's all in the execution, and while I can't assess the season as a whole yet, I'm enjoying 'Alphas' and the momentum it's developing. I almost didn't want to hope for anything with 'Alphas'-- we've been burned with shows like 'Heroes,' 'No Ordinary Family' and the U.S. version of 'Being Human,' and there was every chance we might get disappointed again.

But 'Alphas' is not just getting the basics right these days, the show understands that it can't just be about the characters' emotional dilemmas or their unusual adventures -- the show has to meld both those things in twisty, resonant ways. So far, it appears to be headed in the right direction, and if you watch those episodes above, you, like me, will probably want to know what happens next. (When 'Alphas' returns Sept. 12 -- speaking of nerd bait -- Brent Spiner of 'Star Trek' and Rebecca Mader of 'Lost' will guest star in an episode that finds the team "under siege by an undetectable Alpha.")

You could wait until Sept. 26 to watch an all-day marathon of the show's first season. Or you could catch up now, and together, we could see if these superhuman men and women live up to their ample potential.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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