Alphas – Pilot Review

When a grocery clerk commits an impossible assassination, the government calls in Dr. Leigh Rosen and his team of “Alphas”: unique individuals with neurological mutations that give them special abilities. The team must determine who the killer is and track him down, but soon discover that a greater plan is in motion.

I was very ambivalent about Alphas when I first heard about it, the premise sounded like a cross between Heroes and CSI, both of which started out very interesting but quickly ran out of steam. Heroes collapsed under the weight of its convoluted backstory after a fantastic first season, and CSI quickly became very repetitive. While I don’t know how Alphas will fare in the long run, the first episode definitely shows some promise.

One thing that I particularly liked about the approach that the writers have taken to Alphas is that we are dumped right into the middle of the story. Origin stories for people with special abilities have been done to death in recent years, and we all know what sort of conflicts the characters are going to face because we’ve seen it a dozen times already. Alphas has ditched all of that angst and thrust us into a fully operational team of interesting people who use their powers as part of their day job.

Granted, it's not your ordinary day job...

Some of the powers do seem a little far-fetched given the pseudo-scientific explanations behind them, but that’s par for the course with this type of show. We expect that these people have superpowers and we’re happy to leave it at that. I think that Alphas would have benefited from avoiding explanations of the various powers and just going with a catch all evolution excuse like X-Men or Heroes.

The plot of the pilot was fairly standard, an interesting mystery that required all the main cast to use their powers together to catch the bad guy. I felt that the story was pretty well executed and there were only a few occasions where I felt that a scene was thrown in there just to show off a characters powers. The story also did a pretty good job of establishing limits for each of these characters without lots of exposition. Virtually every character came up against a wall at some point during the story which served to remind us that these powers aren’t going to solve everything.

Bill's just hit the wall.

While the plot was fairly well executed I have to wonder how Alphas is planning to grow over the season. Procedurals have been proven to work well in the mainstream, but Alphas needs to bring something more to the table then just a few quirky superpowers. People tune in to science fiction to see something different, and they can see a procedural anywhere. Hints where dropped throughout the episode that there is a shadowy organisation that the Alpha Team will be butting heads with, so hopefully we’ll see a bit more than crime of the week in the coming weeks. Of course, it’s a fine line to walk, because as I mentioned earlier, too much complication can lead to a show collapsing under the weight of its own conspiracies (X-Files, Heroes etc.).

So, what about the characters?

Dr Lee Rosen

Dr. Lee Rosen (David Strathairn) is the guy tasked with controlling this difficult little group of ‘Alphas’. David Strathairn gives a great performance here as they kindly old psychiatrist who takes his subjects’ little quirks in his stride while trying to direct them towards bigger goals. Rosen is used for a lot of exposition in the pilot, but it never feels over the top, I really loved his performance here and I was intrigued at the hint of steel that was shown under the soft exterior in the final scene. I’m fairly sure that Dr. Rosen is much more than he appears, and I look forward to seeing the reveal of that throughout the season.

Rachel Pirzad

Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada) doesn’t a lot of screentime in the pilot, but she was definitely important. Her ability to superpower any one of her senses while ignoring the rest was one of the more balanced powers on display. There’s a lot of potential for this character to get in danger while using her abilities and this was certainly demonstrated during the pilot. I hope that she doesn’t end up as the damsel in distress each week as that would be a waste of Azita Gahnizada’s talents. She manages to pull off the precocious young Rachel without being annoying.

Cameron Hicks

Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie) starts out as the suspect in the case, but given that he’s in all the publicity shots it’s not surprising that he’s asked to join the team. Warren Christie turns in a good performance here showing us a war veteran who’s just trying to live a normal life suddenly shoved into a world full of superpowers. He was a really believable character and I can forsee a lot of conflict coming between his desire to just live a regular life and the new role that he is forced to play.

Gary Bell

Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright) seems to be channeling Rain Man here, but it seems to work. I found him an endearing character and his mannerisms never seemed to be just for the sake of being different. While the nature of his superpower could have made Gary very distant and detached, character moments like his insistence on wanting to drive the minivan kept his character grounded. With his ability being so vague and potentially powerful, I hope that the writers don’t give in to the temptation to turn Gary into the series’ Deus ex Machina.

Bill Harken

Bill Harken (Malik Yoba) is one of the weaker points in the pilot. His character started out ok with a moment that anybody who has ever been parked in has fantasised about, but from that point onwards he seemed to do nothing but whine about how unprofessional the rest of the team was. I can see where they where going with the character, a former FBI agent who is thrown in with a bunch of civilians is a great opportunity for conflict – but there was never really a moment where I sympathised with him. Hopefully his character will lighten up a bit over the next few episodes because I want to see some more Hulk style action without disliking the character.

Nina Theroux
Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell) seems at first to be copied directly from Eden McCain (Nora Zehetner) in Heroes. We even get to see her use her powers of persuasion to get out of a speeding ticket. We also get plenty of hints about a chequered past that led to her working with the government after the intervention of her new boss. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the character, but it was really hard to not be making comparisons with Eden throughout the show. Nina is looking like she is the lynchpin of the team, so hopefully her character will be able to evolve into something unique over the course of the episode.

While the show definitely looked good, it was obvious that Alphas is not running on a massive budget. There wasn’t any point where this seemed to hurt the show, but it was definitely noticable given the production values that we’ve seen out of other SyFy (I really hate that name) shows. The CGI was hit and miss as well, seeing Gary and Rachel’s view of the world when using their powers was really well done, but stuff like going inside Bill’s body as he hulks out just didn’t work. Since shows tend to use a large portion of their budget putting together a pilot I don’t think we’ll be seeing any big increase in production quality any time soon, but for the most part the production team seems to be doing a good job of using what they have.

Sure it looks like a school storeroom, but we'll go with it.

Overall, Alphas was far more enjoyable than I expected, and a step up from big budget premiere’s like Falling Skies. There was a lot to enjoy in the premiere, but it remains to be seen how the show evolves over the course of the first season to avoid becoming stale. If you’re a fan of superpowers, then this show is worth checking out.

What I Liked – Some very interesting characters. Avoided doing another origin story. Hints of secrets yet to be revealed. Well executed plot.

What I Didn’t Like – Bill was a very unlikable character. Nina seemed to be copied out of heroes. Some poor CGI. Superpower explanations didn’t really work.

Rating – 4 out of 5 (Really Enjoyable)

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