John Ostrander: Alphas
In the past, I’ve generally shied away from ongoing series on the channel now known as Syfy. Their version of The Dresden Files sucked toads (sorry, Emily, but compared to the novels by Jim Butcher, the series was execrable) and they put on a Flash Gordon with no space ships. I repeat: No. Space. Ships!
This trend was reversed with the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica and continued with such shows as Eureka, both of which I’ve enjoyed a great deal. They have several other original series now that have gained a viewership but the one that attracted me most has been Alphas. The series concerns a group of metahumans who are dubbed alphas, each with different abilities, all of which were gained at birth. Can you say X-Men? You’d be right. There’s good reasons for that.
The series was created by Michael Karnow and Zak Penn. The latter worked on story and/or script on several X-Men movies, The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers, and my own personal wonky fave, Incident at Loch Ness. So he has chops. And he knows what the X-Men are about.
The series centers around a team of Alphas, recruited to handle bad alphas (sound familiar?) by brilliant non-Alpha Dr. Lee Rosen, a psychiatrist, played by David Strathairn (notable in the last two Bourne movies and, in one of his best roles, Good Night and Good Luck where he played Edward R. Murrow to stunning effect). Straitharn was a large reason I decided to watch the series in the first place; he’s an excellent actor and I’ve never seen him in anything in which he wasn’t honest and believable, even when he plays bad guys. Frankly, I was surprised to see him doing a cable TV series but he has done a significant amount of TV work. In this, he’s the Professor Xavier analog without being a copy.
There are other analogs in the show. The main bad guy, Stanton Parish (played by John Pyper-Ferguson) is a Magneto type. While he doesn’t have the same powers, he’s an alpha (read mutant) who is gathering his fellow alphas and wants to save them from common humanity. He has a respect for his opponent, Dr. Rosen, and seems to be a reluctant mass murderer.
One character, Bill Harken (Malik Yoba), is sort of a Colossus analog in that he is the strongman of the group. The most original character, Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright), can plug into and read any wavelength but the character is also autistic (on the level of Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man) and his interactions with the team and the world around him are always interesting.
Do I like the series? Yes. It’s not a rip-off of the X-Men per se; it’s more a re-imagining of the core concepts of the X-Men. People are born with special powers and some of them try to save a world that fears and hates them but it’s a more realistic take on the concept (“realistic” being a relative term). No costumes, no spandex. A touch of soap opera, yes, but almost all comic book superheroes have that these days.
Above all, it has David Strathairn who I think I would watch in almost anything. His character is nuanced and fallible and shows a deep, if sometimes flawed, humanity. I’d give the whole series a B+, A-. A third season has not yet been announced but I hope it will be. You may want to catch the first two seasons before it comes back because the storyline and underlying mythology does build. Not as impenetrable as the X-Men have gotten but I’m not sure just jumping in on the third season would be the best idea.
Besides, it’s enjoyable to watch.
MONDAY: Mindy Newell