TV Review: Disappointing ‘Alphas’ Debuts on SyFy Network

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CHICAGO – SyFy’s “Alphas” might have been a reasonable excuse for summer entertainment five years ago but we’ve seen too many shows like it in the last few to give this disappointment a pass. Remember the later seasons of “Heroes”? “Alphas” gives off that vibe with its uninteresting characters, goofy dialogue, and lackluster storytelling. A strong central performance anchors the show enough so it doesn’t completely annoy but this program just isn’t interesting enough to find a wide audience. Television Rating: 2.0/5.0
Television Rating: 2.0/5.0

Now, that doesn’t mean that it won’t find a SyFy audience. Since the departure of “Battlestar Galactica,” this has been a network in the middle of an identity crisis, trying to find the next hit with shows like “Eureka,” “Warehouse 13,” and “Haven” (all of which return this week — check out our “Eureka” & “Warehouse” reviews here and stay tuned for “Haven”). Nothing has taken off in quite the same way and, in fact, science fiction has found more successful homes on BBC America and even Starz (with the recent premiere of “Torchwood: Miracle Day”). The SyFy network needs a real solid critical and commercial hit. Could it be “Alphas”?

Photo credit: SyFy

Despite my reservations about the show, it definitely could be. But it’s going to have to improve. Finding a hit is often about finding a hook and “Alphas” definitely has one. The program was co-created by a man well-versed in superhero storytelling, Zak Penn. The problem is that Penn has been responsible for the scripts for some of the most disliked Marvel films of the last few years including “Elektra” and “X-Men: The Last Stand.” If you hold those films in high esteem, there’s nothing I can tell you about “Alphas” that will matter — you and I just don’t see eye to eye. If you think they’re awful, as I do, then you should know that “Alphas” isn’t THAT bad. Penn seems more attuned to TV storytelling than film, but the fact that he’s simply not a great writer and he’s now entering a medium in which the writer is king is one of the problems with “Alphas.”

Photo credit: SyFy

Definitely NOT one of the problems is the casting of Oscar nominee David Strathairn as Dr. Lee Rosen, the Professor X (although with no actual powers himself) of a group of superhuman men and women who solve unusual crimes with their unusual powers. The pitch for “Alphas” is simple — take the trend of procedurals in which a different crime is solved every week and graft the worldwide obsession with superheroes on it. What if it wasn’t just DNA that solved crimes but superpowers? Not a bad idea but taking two overdone genres — the procedural and the hero story — leads to an even stronger feeling that we’ve seen this before.

Dr. Rosen’s “Alphas” include Bill Harken (Malik Yoba), a former FBI agent who uses adrenalin to summon superhuman strength; Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell), an alpha who basically has Obi-Wan’s force power to make anyone bend to her will just by looking in their eyes; Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright), an autistic young man who is also a “transducer,” someone who can pick up any nearby frequency from a TV signal to a cell phone call; and Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada), a sweet girl who can enhance any sense to the point where she can smell the cologne a shooter wore just from smelling a bullet casing. In the premiere, the team runs across a new Alpha named Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie), a former army sniper with amazing skills of precision that allows him to basically hit any target, even ones he can’t see.

To be fair, the actual superpowers on “Alphas” and the way they’re handled are pretty clever. In particular, the idea that Rachel’s extra-special power would be an ability to smell or hear anything may sound pretty lame but she’s arguably the most powerful Alpha on the show. We’ve seen the strong man and even the persuasive hot chick before but I found Gary’s transducing skill and Rachel’s sensory overload pretty clever. They stole the show.

As for performances, Strathairn is good but he can do this kind of material in his sleep and you can tell. He’s simply not challenged here. One wonders why he took the role, but hopefully it resulted in a solid paycheck that allowed him to take some more interesting parts. As for the rest, it’s too early to really judge them but I found Ghanizada easily the most interesting. The other Alphas over-act a bit in the premiere but Ghanizada has found a nice balance in a character who’s special but seems too shy to realize it.

The biggest problem with “Alphas” is a simple one — over-familiarity. After years and years of sci-fi cable programs and superhero movies, new shows in the genre have to do something more than present a few cool powers to stand out and “Alphas” is simply, for lack of a better word, boring. I never really cared about what was happening in the over-long premiere. We don’t know the characters yet (something that could change and will have to for the program to connect long-term) and the plot of the series premiere just feels too generic. There’s potential here but I can only judge based on what I’ve seen. And the fact is that potential means nothing if viewers don’t come back to see it fulfilled. If “Alphas” doesn’t develop into something more original and more interesting, no super power will save it from being too little, too late.

“Alphas” stars David Strathairn, Malik Yoba, Laura Mennell, Ryan Cartwright, Azita Ghanizada, and Warren Christie. It was created by Michael Karnow & Zak Penn. It premieres on SyFy on Monday, July 11th, 2011 at 9pm CST. content director Brian Tallerico

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