Alphas is the logical extension of Heroes, in which very ordinary people acquire extraordinary abilities. The difference between the two series, however, is profound: The blood-stirring opening episodes of Heroes showed these men and women urgently stepping up to their new roles as heroes (and villains), directing their abilities outwards toward a world toward which they now felt heightened responsibilities. The protagonists in Alphas, by contrast, not only remain self-consumed whiners but seem annoyed by any aspect of their talent that doesn't make their lives easier. These people don't deserve to be called "heroes."
A Tragedy of Errors
The premise of Alphas involves a surprising number of mistakes and misconceptions; my space is limited, so I will only catalog the most egregious. First, Alphas seeks to present its genetic aberrations (called "alphas") as ordinary people who happen to be able to induce a high-adrenaline state that permits great strength, fixate on and immensely magnify one sense at a time, read and control minds, mentally direct physical objects with uncanny accuracy, and interrelate with broadcast electronic information. (The characters I just described are Bill, Rachel, Nina, Cameron, and Gary, played by Malik Yoba, Azita Ghanizada, Laura Mennell, Warren Christie, and Ryan Cartwright.)
One aspect of this relatability is to place them all in an office suite, as if they were a law firm or an investments outfit. We get shots of them sitting alone at their desks, staring into space, and we start to wonder about their paperwork. Do they have Excel spreadsheets? How many trucks shoved aside per quarter? Number of rugs looked at really, really closely and the consequent return on equity?
Didn't anyone see The Matrix? The Wachowskis accurately represented the office cubicle as a lost place of soullessness and evil. It's a place of inaction and recursion, where people squander and second-guess -- death for an action drama. Other aspects of the ordinary-folks remit are similarly off-putting: Rachel's overbearing mother, the scene where none of them has change for the meter, and so on. For supposed superheroes, these people lead lives that are not only mundane but actively uninvolving.
Second, the structure by which they come together is essentially extended group therapy under the gentle guidance of Dr. Lee (or Leigh) Rosen (David Strathairn). The idea would be hilarious as the basis for a comedy (imagine something like Community but as a therapy group for superheroes), but here it's just laughable. The only thing more soul-crushing than an office is an office psychologist. Instead of Charles Xavier, we get Bob Hartley. Actually, Bob Hartley would be something of an improvement: Strathairn comes across as so relaxed and even-tempered, especially in contrast to his charges, that we have no faith in him as a leader or in his ability to control any of his subjects if events ever got out of hand.
Third, the series makes a concerted effort to present all of these abilities as having down sides as well. Fair enough: that's elemental to the superhero game, at least since Peter Parker realized that only Spider-Man could get the girl. But instead of presenting the trade-off in the normal way for superheroes -- social isolation, conflicted identity, and so forth -- Alphas instead goes for the distressingly literal. Rachel, when she zeroes in on something using her enhanced sight or hearing, for example, has all of her other senses muted; so at a key moment she can't be warned of an imminent attack. Nina uses her mind control abilities to steal, influence, and otherwise act like a jerk. Gary is functionally autistic: he can easily talk to wi-fis but has trouble relating to people -- which could be interesting, but his defense mechanism is to be snippy.
The Wrong Kind of Strong
Perhaps most emblematic of the miscues is the way Bill's abilities are manifested. In order to try to connect these abilities to an enhanced version of human biology, Bill's super strength is explained as a massive adrenaline rush, fight-or-flight response that gives him great strength for a time, but if extended too long can induce fatal heart trauma. Interesting in theory. But the way in which this presents in practice is all wrong: Bill has to will himself into a hyperadrenal state until he's wheezing and his face is dripping with sweat, and then when his strength gives out he collapses in agony, forcing the rest of the team to continue the pursuit (for example).
None of this is pleasant to watch. The hero with superstrength is normally the anchor for a superhero team, because that's the most elemental power: it's the ultimate fantasy and the most broadly useful as well. Here, intead of thrilling with the application of super strength, you want to look away, and when he goes through all of that squirm-inducing effort just to move the van that's blocking his driveway, or drops to the ground unable to sustain his ability more than a few minutes, his character becomes the last one you want to see in the crisis climax.
The basic function of superhero stories is fantasy through audience identification. The creators of Alphas want to ground their powers in reality; all well and good, but the reality aspect has to stay on the ordinary-life side to work. The thrill of imagining superhuman abilities doesn't normally involve a gallon of sweat and a myocardial infarction.
Evolution or Stasis?
Alphas (premiere: July 11, 2011 on Syfy) may improve over time: this team might galvanize against a common enemy, the prospect of which peeks over the edge of the relatively tame threat presented in the pilot. (That first threat is, again, potentially interesting -- the bad guy has the ability to bend someone to his will by the touch of his hand. But the execution is uninspired.) It may be that the flaws in the show's construction may be too deep to shake off. As it stands, these are unpleasant, unlikable people I don't want to get to know, powers or no powers.
I used to say that Warehouse 13 was the dumbest show on Syfy -- it's not, anymore, having grown within its own premise. But more than that, even at its most lame Warehouse 13 wasn't ever dull and head-shakingly misconceived at the same time. Alphas now earns that dubious title, and we'll have to see whether it has room to grow out of it the way Warehouse 13 did. I'm not optimistic.