Early in Syfy’s new series Alphas, ringleader Lee Rosen (played by David Strathairn) explains that one of his crime-fighters can hypnotize strangers on the spot by altering neural connections in others’ brains. When a sci-fi show’s characters carpet-bomb the dialog with $50 technical terms, it’s a sure sign the showrunners will reference some actual science amid the shoot’em-up plot twists.
Co-created by Zak Penn, who wrote X-Men: The Last Stand, Alphas draws from the familiar “exceptional misfits” formula mastered by Marvel Comics mutants and NBC’s dysfunctional crew of canceled Heroes.
The appealing difference: These so-called alphas can’t fly, burst into flames or turn themselves into ice. Instead, they stretch the normalcy bell curve by only a few fairly credible increments. Like Fringe, the show looks like it will use weird science as a jumping-off point for its crime-busting adventurers.
Here’s how Alphas’s not-so-super heroes roll:
So-called synesthete Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada) does not actually blend sensory signals, by for example, hearing sounds in response to visual motion, as ascribed to those who experience synethesia. Instead, Rachel possesses heightened senses that enable her to see evidence with near-microscopic clarity or hear conversations in distant rooms.
It could happen. As documented in HBO’s Bobby Fischer Against the World, the chess genius became so focused on his game that he claimed to hear the tiny motors whirring in TV cameras and demanded that they be shut off so he could concentrate.
Influencer Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell) bends people to her will by altering the chemistry in their brains. Granted, Theroux works her magic in record time, and with the enhancement of echo-coated thought waves, but her monomaniacal focus serves as the basic modus operandus used through the ages by con artists, cult leaders, car salesman and other charismatic types.
Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie) is described as hyperkinetic, although that condition is conventionally defined as an acute state of restlessness. More to the point, Hicks possesses exceptional visual acuity and muscle control harnessed by the motor-skill portion of his brain. Hollywood stuntmen and Cirque du Soleil performers boast a similar degree of coordination.
The Alphas storyline kicks into action when Hicks suffers from a lethal variation of aphasia, a neurological disorder characterized by difficulty in processing language. Implanted with a lesion that throws his brain chemistry out of whack, Hicks misinterprets every piece of spoken or written input as telling him it’s “time to kill.”
Hyperadrenal powerhouse Bill Harken (Malik Yoba) can trigger his fight-or-flight response at will. Showrunners introduce his ability to turn on the adrenalin when Harkin moves a car with his bare hands because someone’s blocking his parking space. Urban legends, buttressed by news reports, suggest that sometimes freaked-out parents lift cars to save trapped children. In Alphas, there’s no baby trapped beneath the vehicle, as described in urban legend, but the he-man gets enough of a surge to lift the vehicle out of his way.
The big exception to Alphas‘ this-could-almost-happen rule is Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright). He’s an autistic “transducer” who can read electromagnetic wavelengths with mind power alone. Hacking into cellphone signals and Wi-Fi frequencies without any hardware, he’s an invaluable member of the Defense Department’s secret unit. But believable? Nope
For all the neurological citations, Alphas remains cable TV, not brain surgery. The pilot episode storyline, directed by Lost producer Jack Bender, adheres in the end to third-act conventions: chase scene/gun fight/damsel in distress. Still, the series sports enough actual science and decent acting to merit further viewing.
Think of Alphas as the prime time equivalent of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the way it explores the thin line separating gift from illness.
Alphas premieres Monday at 10 p.m./9 p.m. Central on Syfy.
- Alphas’ Heroes Score With Slightly Above-Average Skills (wired.com)
- Television Review: Mind Over Crime for a Superpowered Team (tv.nytimes.com)
- ‘Alphas’ creator Zak Penn: ‘They’re super but they’re not heroic’ (herocomplex.latimes.com)
- Zak Penn Exclusive Interview ALPHAS (collider.com)
- ‘Alphas’ review: Crime fighters with super powers (sfgate.com)
- Syfy’s ‘Alphas’: Check out first full trailer here (insidetv.ew.com)