Season 1, episode 1: “Pilot”
Some spoilers follow, but since it’s a pilot, this can’t be helped, so be warned.
A group of misfits with special abilities band together to fight against an evil group who use their own special abilities to commit crimes.
Rooted somewhat more in reality than it’s obvious X-MEN/HEROES influences, SyFy’s new superhero show premiered Monday night in a fairly strong pilot episode that does a nice job of setting up our main characters and hints at some of what may be the ongoing themes of the series. Like most pilots of ensemble shows of any genre, we don’t get the kind of depth of character development we might like, but we do have a few nice moments with each character to hint at things to come.
I would have tuned in just on the basis of the cast and crew, to be honest. Directed by Jack Bender (LOST, CARNIVALE, ALIAS) and co-written by Zak Penn (X-MEN 2, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND) ALPHAS tells the story of a Department of Defense unit of people with extraordinary abilities, tasked with investigating cases that don’t quite fit into the usual criminal investigation models. The cases are brought to them by Agent Don Wilson (Callum Keith Rennie, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA), who clearly has a long history with Dr. Lee Rosen (David Strathairn, SNEAKERS, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL), the psychiatrist who leads the group.
What’s interesting here, and what I like so far, is that the abilities of the team are not so far out of the realm of possibility. No teleporting, no flying, no mind reading or energy blasts, but instead we have super strength powered by adrenaline, hyper sensitive senses and perfect aim. Everyone on the team possesses a small neurological difference that gives them their abilities, but also interestingly, they all come with a cost. These aren’t people likely to end up in spandex or set out to save the world either… for the most part they treat their abilities as something to be used for their job.
Malik Yoba plays Bill Harken, a former FBI agent with the ability to force a fight or flight response that ramps his adrenaline to extreme levels. This gives him immense strength and speed and accelerated healing, but only for a few minutes before his system starts to crash. Happily married and perpetually grouchy, Harken serves as the field leader for the Alphas. He may also be an alcoholic, self medicating to deal with his abilities.
Laura Mennell is Nina Theroux, who uses her voice to manipulate those around her, in what appears to be some sort of harmonics that cause a short lived lesion in the brain that makes her targets susceptible to suggestion. She also has a history with Dr. Rosen, vague at this point, but there are hints that she has known him longer than any of the others, and that they met when her powers were responsible for something bad. Initially she comes across as shallow and manipulative (of course), but her interactions with Rosen imply that may be a facade.
Ryan Cartwright plays Gary Bell, a young man with Asperger’s syndrome who can see the electronic signals such as wireless, cellular phones, and television around him and interpret them. Highly functioning, his syndrome makes him often difficult to interact with, but his ability proves invaluable for field work.
Rounding out the team is Rachel Pirzad, played by Azita Ghanizanda, who can focus her senses to a remarkable degree, but only one at a time. This can lead to some problems in the field, for example, focusing all of her senses into her sight to search a room means she can’t hear anything happening around her. Non-confrontational, she has a close relationship with her family, who don’t seem to understand her abilities.
Though they squabble with each other, there are moments of affection between these people and for the most part they work together well as a team. All of them, with the possible exception of Gary, and then only perhaps because of his condition, regard what they do as important, and when they don’t succeed they take it personally. Even Agent Wilson, in the traditional role of the government man using a team of civilians he finds useful if odd, displays a respect for what the Alphas can accomplish. His relationship with Dr. Rosen is oddly collegial and antagonistic, and a couple of the funniest moments of the show come from their interactions.
When Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie) begins hearing and seeing orders to kill, it leads to a federal witness being shot to death in a what initially appears to be a perfect locked room mystery. With no memory of what happened, Hicks finds himself the target of the Alphas’ investigation, and discovers that his involvement is rooted in his own Alpha abilities. Troubled, estranged from his ex-wife and son, and with a history of drug and alcohol abuse, Hicks has hyperkinesis, but also has enhanced reflexes and perfect aim… the kind of aim necessary to make an almost impossible shot. His lost time and what he did in it reveal the presence of the man Agent Wilson calls the Ghost, a mysterious assassin who seems to have abilities similar to Nina’s but on a larger scale, who uses innocent people as weapons. The Ghost works for a group called Red Flag, rival Alphas who use their powers for criminal purposes, a group that Rosen and Wilson thought they had stopped.
Aaaaaaand here’s where I ran into the first thing I didn’t like. While I appreciated the fact that the Ghost also shared what could be described as downsides to his ability, in his case obsessive/compulsive behavior as well as a physical deformity that actually seems to be the medium he uses to control his victims, and some of the moments the OC pops up, he also was a somewhat bland villain. Oh, he served his purpose here, but he seemed the kind of character who might have been developed into something more interesting. As it is, he doesn’t, for me anyway, get the time he needs for being as scary as such a person would be.
The plot he fronts is actually pretty slick, and the way events unfold are handled well, and as a set up for the series this first episode works well, if not remarkably. Some nice questions are raised along the way that I hope are answered, such as what in Nina’s past brought her and Rosen together and what exactly Red Flag are up to. Also I’m looking forward to learning more about Rosen. There’s a manipulative streak to our good doctor, and they way he makes demands on Agent Wilson speaks to more interesting questions about his past. I’m a fan of Strathairn, and the mix of eccentricity and sharp focus makes him as least as interesting as the Alphas he leads. We also have the potential storylines dealing with the side effects and downsides to these abilities, certainly with Harken and Hicks.
All in all a good start to this series, with lots of potential for story developments. It’s promising, and based on this, I can certainly recommend it. And I’ll be tuning in next week.