Monday, July 18, 2011

Review: Alphas (Pilot)

With Heroes and Smallville over and buried there is a superhero void in the television world. Syfy has filled this with their offering, called Alphas.

Alphas is very much like Heroes on the surface. A group of people display abilities beyond the norm and use them to handle crime and intrigue. Alphas takes a step away from Heroes in terms of superabilities-- they are more limited and also more unusual abilities, and yet still broad enough to be useful in a variety of situations. Alphas also deviates by being more closely linked to government agencies and while it has all the intrigue and ambiguity raised by the X-Files and Alias, it lacks the mythology that Heroes developed. This is not a bad thing.

So Alphas works as a concept and offers a promising future, but most shows work as an elevator pitch or they wouldn't have gone into production at all. Stargate: Boring certainly offered promise and failed to deliver. Does it work as a show?

Well, Alphas is not excellent. Nothing about it is bold or surprising or even particularly thrilling. It does not deliver the slam-bang opening that, say, an Aaron Sorkin show does. But it does work, and it works for several rather usual, for a television show, reasons.

The first is the cast. It is an ensemble piece where all the characters have roughly the same importance-- Stargate: SG-1 rather than Bones, let's say-- and it has six primary characters who require screentime. This can mean characters who take a while to get going while they jostle for their true position within the group. Alphas is no exception: everyone's got a personality label and in the short time we get for each of them to present themselves we're mostly only getting that one characteristic. However, this wasn't as disastrous as it was in Fringe. Characteristics were usuallt subtle, rather than in-your-face, which meant we weren't being smacked in the face by how much of a jerk one character was or how much of a powerhungry sociopath another was.

And there were a few standouts. David Strathairn fit his role as scientist/psychologist/team leader very well, providing exactly the right mixture of competance, intelligence and concern for his team. Ryan Cartwright, who I recognised as the factual intern from Bones, has also secured himself an interesting part as a person with high-functioning autism-- which as one of the bolder moves for the show could have been a disaster had it gone poorly, but in fact it was played remarkably well and actually gave the characters something to react to and rally around. I suspect things wouldn't have gone quite so well without Cartwright's excellent performance.

Another thing I noticed about the show was the dialogue. It wasn't stellar, by any means. However, it was, for the most part, invisible. The writers, Zak Penn (with a writing past littered with superhero stories) and Michael Karnow (with a comedy background) wrote a very naturalistic script with a lot of naturalistic chatter, which was probably instrumental in saving the characters from having wholly canned personalities. The script felt like a lot of time was spent on it. The only thing lacking was anything more than the faintest whiff of humour-- but it certainly has the potential for a quiet kind of amusingness in the future.

Lastly, what made the show work was location and I suspect this comes from the writers as well. It felt like someone's personal environment-- a record shop, a laundry, a low-end house with older cars on the road, nothing particularly flashy or exuding the kind of wealth that normally populates a show like this. Location choices like that add colour to a show, literally and figuratively, because it looks more real than the beautiful, clean (or all-too strategically cluttered) all-American locations we are used to in shows like this.

"But Teshi," I hear you cry! "You have not talked about any of the normal things you witter on about-- how dense the show is, or what it does in the first ten minutes, or whether things make logical sense!"

Alphas is not a standout show yet. The Pilot wasn't great, but neither was it awful. It does make logical sense, if you accept the superabilities at face value. It is not dense or fast moving but aside from a few moments that overextend their welcome it's dense enough to keep me interested and has the ensemble, the abilities and the location to carry it along well.

And yes, in 10 minutes the opening is done and the plot is in full swing. No stretched out action, no dithering about with mysterious unknowns. It's not a spectacular opening by any means, but it sets the scene, introduces the characters and and puts them all together in ordinary show time by just over the ten minute mark. Good work, team!

There's still something I haven't mentioned because it didn't really strike me until I put all the above factors together above. This show is homey. Most of the characters already know each other well and you get that feeling from their relaxed and familiar dialogue. The settings are lived in and interacted with. You've entered in medias res but that's okay because you don't feel unwelcome in the story.

I look forward to seeing this show develop and I really hope it is a slow burning show that delivers consistantly, because it has that potential.