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"Alphas" Review: "The X-Men" Crossed with "Heroes" Sounds Great, Right? Not So Much

By Dustin Rowles | TV | July 21, 2011 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | July 21, 2011 |

I’m as sick as many of you with the proliferation of diluted genre fare on television these days. For every “Game of Thrones,” there’s a “No Ordinary Family,” and for every “Torchwood,” there’s a “Torchwood: Miracle Day” (a show that lost a lot of its luster in the second episode, thanks in part to the horrendous performance of Bill Pullman). The idea of another “Heroes”-type show — ordinary people with extraordinary powers — assembled “X-Men” style didn’t have much appeal to me, especially on a network that spells itself “Syfy.”

Nevertheless, “Alphas” had two things going for it: It was written by Zak Penn (X2) and it stars David Strathairn, who is fairly effective at making shit look like shinola. But “Alphas,” at least based on a weak pilot episode, is simply too big a dud for Strathairn to overcome.

Developed originally for ABC, “Alphas” was kicked by the network during the Writer’s Strike and eventually wound up at Syfy, where at least it gained a few years separation from “Heroes.” The concept is not a bad one. It’s yet another team of ordinary people with extraordinary powers, but the powers here are at least were more unconventional. Moreover, those powers all come with weaknesses: FBI agent Bill Harken (Malik Yoba) has super-human fight or flight strength, but it only comes in short bursts, leaving him weak afterwards; Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright) can process ultraviolet waves (and thus listen to and watch radio and TV signals floating in the air) but the kid has autism; Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada) has the ability to amplify her senses, but only one at a time, and while one sense is magnified, she loses use of all the others; and Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell) can hypnotize people instantly (her weakness has not yet been made apparent).

The pilot episode, thankfully, is not an origins story for the organization itself — which works with the FBI under the leadership of the hippy hyper-intelligent professor, Dr. Lee Rosen (Straithern) — but it does introduce a new member of the group, a man capable of pinpoint accuracy. This man can toss a quarter into a vending machine from 20 feet or bounce a bullet of a vent and into a man’s head from 1000 feet. It also introduces the shadowy organization made up of people with similar extraordinary powers who want to take down the Alphas because the Alphas want to take down the Shadowy Organization. There’s even a small hint at the end of the pilot that the Shadowy Organization are the good guys, while the Alphas are working for the bad guys.

“Alphas” should work. It comes from a respectable feature screenwriter, the lead is Oscar-caliber, and it the pilot is directed by a proven entity in Jack Bender (“Lost”). Unfortunately, the writing, it turns out, is terrible; the directing is clunky; and Strathairn is like Professor X by way of Michael Keaton in “Family Ties.” It’s a bad formulation of the character, and it’s not helped by the weak acting talent that surrounds him.

Granted, it’s a sci-fi, comic-book kind of show and certain improbabilities are expected, so some leeway is afforded it for camp value. But “Alphas” is simply too cheesy. It’s not heavy enough for the genre. It feels like a version of “Heroes” for the USA Network, but it’s missing the addictive candy quality of some of those USA Network shows. It plods and it rumbles, but it never crackles or provokes. There’s simply too much camp for a show that takes itself as seriously as it does, yet the camp is all that saves it from tedium. I don’t rule out the possibility that it gets better in subsequent episodes, but the pilot alone gives me no reason to watch anymore.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.