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Saturday, 24 of August of 2019

You Should Be Watching: Alphas

“Respect the badge.”

Alphas: Season 2 poster

The premise may seem really familiar by now: a group of genetically-enhanced misfits are brought together under the guidance of an idealistic doctor/psychiatrist/scientist to fight the super-powered and morally-ambiguous.  Alphas (don’t call them mutants) are under pressure from government regulation and misguided terrorist organizations to blend in or fight the power, all except for a gifted few that iterate in the gray area between the poles of intolerance.

It’s tread territory (X-Men, Heroes), particularly lately as we lump vampires into the mix of misunderstood entities of abjection (True Blood). The dynamic between Red Flag and Dr Rosen’s team of misfit toys is terribly familiar (though we don’t have a Magneto or Sylar — yet). The stakes involving government’s tenuous peace with the “good” Alphas are just as high as in the Marvel universe. The analogy to marginalized minorities is equally palpable.

That being said, Alphas (second season starting tonight) is worth your time. And I’ve got five good reasons for you to watch. None if them have anything to do with a dude with metal claws and a bad haircut.

Abilities you can believe in Not that anyone has trouble suspending their disbelief when watching characters shoot lasers out of their eyes or flying into space willy nilly, but there’s something more compelling about supernatural abilities with more grounded roots. All of the alphas’ abilities are extensions of things people do well (or are at least explained to us in those terms):

  • Bill: able to control his fight or flight response (and adrenaline production)
  • Rachel: hyper-synesthesia (heightened senses)
  • Nina: what the vampires would call “glamor” (supernatural ability of persuasion)
  • Hicks: intense coordination, precise aim, preternatural understanding of cause and effect
  • Gary: able to detect and read the entire electromagnetic spectrum (with a form of synesthesia that allows him to “see” it).

Alphas also adheres to the Marvel doctrine of superheroes, which is to say that with great power comes comorbid (and some not so comorbid) pitfalls. Bill can push cars and run fast when he’s hulked out but can’t do it for long since his body can’t handle the abuse. Rachel can only use her hyper senses one at a time so, if she’s using super sight, she can’t hear. Nina can only “push” if she makes eye contact (otherwise, she’s just another pretty face). Hicks is burdened by his ability being inconsistent which has led to a life of frustration (pitching two consecutive no-hitters in the minors then having mortal pitching ability when it counted) and boozing to deal with it. Gary is autistic, which, in this day and age, is enough.

The whining is kept to minimum The last thing you want to hear from superheroes is the “woe is me” line. Television is rife with supernatural figures that are constantly dealing with their juvenile feelings. It’s like listening to crosstalk between two high-schoolers and people bitten by a radioactive spider. They don’t mix well sometimes. Personal problems occur for alphas but they’re not the kind that can be solved with a note passed during study hall. Rachel, for instance, has trouble even being around men she likes because her synesthesia makes her feel too much even from some first-base action. Hicks’s history of alcoholism (from his aforementioned life of frustration) has led to a present of divorce, custody battles, and confidence issues. For a show that’s set around a psychiatrist-cum-alpha-sympathizer (Dr Lee Rosen) building an unlikely team of misfits, there isn’t a whole lot of on-the-couch time however. The problems are there though not a lot of time is dedicated to the characters meditating on them out loud. Particularly when Gary’s around to put everything into perspective. Speaking of which —

There’s an autistic character and he’s awesome An interesting trope that’s been occurring in television recently is the rise of the autistic character that quickly become fan favorites. Think Abed (from Community), Max (from Parenthood), or Bones (from Bones). Gary is of the same class, a character with no emotional attachment to tact and no shame in the truth. While he can be overwhelmed by the world more easily (he’s more Max than Abed), he has an understanding of the universe that helps put perspective on the trivial problems in the characters’ lives. It’s also really fun to watch Ryan Cartwright (“Moneypenny” from Mad Men) play Gary. He has so many asides and tags onto his lines that punches up what could just be a soapbox character. Total transformation of an actor, fun character to watch. Even if you have trouble suspending your disbelief that he can manipulate the electromagnetic spectrum like he’s in Minority Report, you’ll be able to put that aside so you can watch Gary team up with the other characters to make them better.

The show pulls no punches Over the course of the first season, I’ve seen a dude get beaten dead by a chair, another dude get strung up by metal cable, multiple gun shot victims, cremated bodies, and what is essentially a small-scale genocide. While shows tend to have any number of odd and shocking plots, you don’t see most of the gruesome details. Here, you do. Things are shown as much as they can be on basic cable. People can die. Not only does it raise the stakes for a show to be so cavalier with recurring or supporting characters but it also sets it apart from its more sedated brethren. It could be argued that this is a backlash to television being too safe for kids but I can also see justification in a show about body mutations and the stuff on the inside setting us apart being so visceral.

The balance of episodic plots and intrigue will keep you coming back The beginning of the first season annoyed me to no end with its style, something akin to an epileptic test being given on a boat in choppy water. But I stuck around for it to settle down because the plot is orchestrated well enough to be interesting on a per-episode basis while also keeping some mysteries out there for the long-term viewer. Essentially, what I’m saying is that you could jump into any episode (jump in tonight, for instance, Syfy at 10pm/9pm Central) and you’d understand what is happening even if you aren’t up-to-date on the story arcs from last season (Binghamton is a facility where “bad” alphas go, by the way). Even if the arcs you do catch on to aren’t basically original, they are interesting. I’m a firm believer that a story is good if you know it already but are still entertained. What they do with the “magic in a world of muggles” tale is compelling enough for you to tune in.

To say all these positive things about the show doesn’t mean it’s not still a little rough. It is. But it’s good enough for you dip into now. You don’t want to miss another Eureka, do you?

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