Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Alphas is Heroes Without the Crazy (Or the Interesting)

It is impossible to find interesting screencaps of this show.
Let me introduce you to this new shiny thing I found. For the record, that is the phrase running through my head when I start most of my articles. When it comes to pop culture, I’m something of a magpie.

In this case, I’m talking about Alphas, as SyFy original show that I was vaguely aware existed and spontaneously popped up on my Hulu queue last week. I don’t remember subscribing to it, but I’m not one to back down from a challenge, so I watched it. It’s not bad, it’s just…a little stale.

To summarize the premise, there are these people with extraordinary abilities that seem to be an extension of the powers of the human mind and possibly the next step in human evolution. (Sound familiar?). They’re called Alphas, and there’s a core group of them who, with the help of a totally human David Strathairn, investigate Alphas who use their powers for evil, and then bring them to justice. Or as much justice as they can without telling the whole world these powers exist.

Heroes liked to bring the crazy.
Again, sound familiar? That’s because it is. Not only is this plot an incredibly familiar take on the X-Men­ formula, it’s also a dead ringer for another show that graced our screens not too long ago: Heroes.

You may not remember Heroes with fondness, but I do. Mostly because I pretend that it was tragically cancelled one episode before the end of season one, but still. What Heroes had going for it was a simple premise: there are superheroes among us, and sometimes ordinary people have to save the world. Pretty cool, right?

Well, Alphas takes it one step further. While Heroes did feature a sinister, amoral, pseudo-governmental organization committed to controlling the superpowered, Alphas is set there.

It makes for an interesting twist on the genre. With a more hybrid feel, combining the science-fiction and crime show aspects, the series is more accessible. It fits in really well with SyFy’s general brand right now, alongside Eureka and Warehouse 13. So, bully for them.

But I think that something is lost when we focus so exclusively on crimes and how to stop them. Personally, I want to see more of the home lives of all of the characters, from Rachel’s overbearing family, to Gary’s mother and her calm acceptance of his abilities but exasperation with his inability to eat cereal like a normal person. That’s the cool stuff. The rest is just gravy.

The show has a tendency to focus on story over character, and that’s what makes it feel a little stale. Heroes at least had the strength that every story was driven by character, even when they went overboard and you wanted to strangle them for how heavy handed they were. It was always about character. So too in X-Men, where the crime of the week is generally less important than the development of the characters and their various relationships.

It’s a common failing of sci-fi, to be honest, that assumes that since the characters have abilities that aren’t the same as ours, we can’t relate to them. It’s just not true. And the tendency to shove these characters into premises that mimic the popular shows on other channels is insulting. We love shows because we love the people they’re about. If you don’t show the people, then who is your audience supposed to be? Robots?

That is not meant to offend any robots who may or may not be reading this. I come in peace, please don't kill me in your inevitable uprising.

Now, despite that rant above, Alphas does have its strong points. For starters, it’s got a pleasantly gender-neutral cast. Three major female characters who frequently talk to each other about things other than boys. So, win right there. Also, it has two major characters of color, which is a high ratio for a science-fiction show.

It’s worth noting that Heroes and X-Men are both known for these things too. What is it about the band of superpowered misfits scenario that lends itself so well to gender and race equality? My only guess is that when you make a show about a next stage in evolution, all those other arbitrary differences between us stop mattering. But that’s just me.

And while the episodes are a little simplistic, and usually focused too heavily on the plot of the week, the plots of the week are cool. A bad guy who releases aggression pheromones? That’s a new one. Right on.

I guess what I’m saying about Alphas is this: if you’ve never seen something dealing with ordinary people that get superpowers out of the blue, go for it. If you have, and actually want to see it again, go for it. But if Heroes and X-Men stand out in your mind, and you’re satisfied with the stories they told, you should probably give it a miss.

Count this one up as a big old meh, feminist aspects notwithstanding. 

Two women in one shot, and one of them isn't white? Alert the presses, we've got a live one!

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