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Everyday Superheroes, Felled by Disinterest

What went wrong with 'Alphas'? Was Syfy out to get it? Did it ever belong there?

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Ryan Cartwright as Gary Bell

Maybe Gary knows: Ryan Cartwright as Gary Bell in Alphas.

Russ Martin/Syfy
Updated January 21, 2013

Once again, no news has been unmasked as bad news.

It was confirmed this week that Syfy had elected not to renew Alphas for a putative season 3, leaving the ultimate fate of the band of ordinary-folks psy-powered superheroes up to the imagination of the fans.

Making It Official

"Syfy has decided not to renew Alphas for a third season," read a network-released statement. "We've been proud to present this entertaining, high-quality series for two seasons and to work with an incredible ensemble of talented actors, producers and creatives as well as our partners at BermanBraun Television. We'd like to thank the show's dedicated regular viewers for their tremendous support."

Alphas concluded its second season last October with a shade over 1.0 million viewers tuning in to the finale, far below its launch-time viewership in July 2011, 2.5 million viewers. In the world of televised drama, low ratings are subject to interpretation and mitigating factors, but dramatically plumeting ratings are certain death.

Thanks from the Stars

As is the form these days, a lot of fans heard the sad news directly from the series's stars themselves via well-worn Twitter feeds. (Did any a sci-fi show from 50 years ago do a good job of suggesting the dissemination of news factoids in the hands of the people in 140-character, stream-of-consciousness bursts? Star Trek had cell phones, but perhaps even the Great Bird would have puckered his brow at tweeting.)

Actor Ryan Cartwright wrote, "Unfortunately #Alphas is cancelled :( "; Warren Christie tweeted shortly thereafter, "Like my buddy @RyanCartwright has reported, unfortunately #Alphas has been cancelled. Thanks for tuning in the last couple of years!!"

Most often shared is this vigorous paean from Azita Ghanizada: "Sad to say that ALPHAS will not be returning. What an honor to get to play Rachel for 2years & to work w/ & for the MOST AMAZING PEOPLE EVER."

Did Alphas Belong at Syfy?

Why did Alphas founder? Perhaps it was a bad fit for Syfy. After all, the series, created by Zak Penn and Michael Karnow via a grueling development hell that started in 2007 and involved ephemeral berths at both NBC and ABC before landing at Syfy, reshaped and meddled with every step of the way, nonetheless managed to hold onto a key conceit of its premise: emphasizing the trade-offs of having abnormal abilities.

For each of the empowered characters on Alphas, having abilities is as much about the problems it creates -- especially physical and mental, but also social and familial -- as about the fleeting joy of neutralizing the threat posed by someone very likely dealing with, and perhaps only driven a little further to extremities by, the same issues they are. And how much fun is that, compared to watching Eddie McClintock clowning his way through the latest ridiculous crisis on Warehouse 13?

But the whole dark-side-is-a-bummer doesn't hold water, as a look around at Syfy's other series makes clear. Just take Being Human: it's about monsters, for Pete's sake -- three people whose abilities derive from violent, blood-soaked inhumanity, whose very being causes physical and emotional pain. The North American Being Human doesn't pull any more punches than its UK big brother in being about finding meaning in life and friendship as a means of counteracting your own wrenching existence.

The Dark Side as a Syfy Trope

The rest of the scripted dramas are good company. Haven's take on metanormal abilities is framed as "the Troubles" -- random abilities popping up in this small town invariably wreaking pandemonium, just like the science in Eureka kept wrecking everyone's lives there. Lost Girl started out with a blood match between a succubus and a monster, with the fae world arrayed in destructively hostile camps. Even the magical sci-fi gadgetry in Continuum is flagged as eliminating privacy in the service of peace -- and that's the good guys; the bad guys use it for terrorism and genocide.

And when you get right down to it, doesn't Pete play the fool on Warehouse 13 mostly when artifacts are creating pain for people he cares about? If you think about it, Warehouse is littered with people who walked, or ran, away from their bagging-and-tagging of chaotic evil, or died, or went insane, or grew steadily more morose from the strain.

The problem with Alphas, in fact, is not that its subjects suffered painful trade-offs for their pseudo-explainable mental abilities. The problem is that it wasn't on an operatic enough scale. The creators of Alphas wanted to make their heroes ordinary people, and the problems they encounter in connection with their augmented lives just seem like augmented everyday hassles. Maybe the scene in the pilot where Bill used his superstrength, at the cost of considerable physical discomfort, to move a van that's blocking his driveway really did say it all.

The Rise of the (Ghost) Hunters

The other theory is that Syfy sees scripted sci-fi as a poor stepchild, and pushes as many of its dramas off the side as it can if it can make room for more lucrative reality series. Certainly that's the A.V. Club's starting point, as cunningly inferred in its subtle headline, "Syfy cancels Alphas so it can shove ghosts into more popular reality show templates."

Again, it's difficult to give credence to this line of thinking. Yes, it's true that Syfy has been expanding its reality series programming. Yes, it accounts for more than twice the slots in Syfy's schedule as dramatic series. And yes, a deplorable amount of it is Syfy visibly ripping itself off to generate more profits from these cheap-to-produce series (we now have Ghost Hunters, Ghost Hunters Academy, Ghost Hunters International, and Ghost Mine, not to mention Haunted Collector, Haunted Highway, etc., etc.).

Reality and Unreality

But however little we think of it, Syfy's reality programming has not crowded out its dramatic programming. Four years ago, Syfy's drama output consisted primarily of Stargate Atlantis, Eureka, and Sanctuary; the next year we had Caprica, Eureka, Sanctuary, Warehouse 13, and Stargate Universe. These days, in addition to Alphas, we have Being Human, Lost Girl, Continuum, Haven, Merlin, Warehouse 13, and (in a couple of months) Defiance and Primeval: New World, plus more new scripted series in development.

There's not much of a case to be made for sci-fi being pushed off the screen by ghost hunters: for that to cue up, Syfy would have had to have buried Alphas, hoping it would fail so that the reality side could steal the hour from the drama side. But Alphas was the anchor for the network's Powerful Mondays and was promoted on-air just as much as Being Human or Face-Off.

We can blame Syfy for not giving Alphas a chance to come into its own, which is the main indictment of the network in the case of Stargate Universe, also canceled after two seasons just when it was starting to gather strength and purpose. But the cancellation of Alphas feels more like when Syfy killed off Caprica: the network let the show linger past the point it had proven it could not draw an audience, and then pulled the plug rather than attempt to save it by trying harder to make it work.

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