Super-hero science fiction isn’t as common on television as the big screen, and I’m not sure why. The genre lends itself to serial writing…after all, that’s what comic books are: serial story arcs. I haven’t seen a good super-hero story on television, though, since Heroes, a program that began near perfection but didn’t survive the writer’s strike. So, when I saw the first trailer for Alphas, I was excited, because I was hoping for a positive and deep re-visiting of the genre for the small screen.
And, overall, the Alphas kept me watching (I borrowed a play from Karen’s book, and binged on an entire season in a couple of days). The story centers around the discovery of individuals all over the world developing super-human abilities, and how the world’s governments deal with this phenomenon. The super-humans, called Alphas, are feared and hated by the general public, and factions from both sides are convinced that normal humans and Alphas can never co-exist and that war between the two is inevitable, while others remain passionate about co-existence between the two. This latter position is led by Dr. Rosen, who has formed a secret team of Alphas who use their abilities to search out and help new Alphas who are discovering their abilities and are uncertain in what to do with them.
Sound familiar? It should. Stan Lee pioneered this concept a long time ago with a fictional team that you may have heard of called the X-Men. I was struck within the first episode that Alphas is essentially a re-imagining of the X-Men mythology with some notable changes. Dr. Rosen is a Professor X character, but is not an Alpha himself (although his daughter, we discover, is). The team comes complete with a Jean Grey equivalent, as well, in the character of Rachel. The notable twist on the concept in the Alphas is that this team is not a team of outlaws or vigilantes, but rather an official (if secret) investigative arm of the U.S. government. The team learns to live together in their diversity (again, this should sound familiar) as they learn to became secret, super-powered law enforcement agents.
That major twist is just enough to keep the viewer returning to the Alphas, because they use it to raise and explore very interesting issues. Evil Alphas, for example, are whisked off by the government to a secret hospital where they are warehoused and treated as less than human in order to protect society. Dr. Rosen wrestles daily with the moral and ethical implications of this. How much can our government be trusted to protect us? Who watches the watchmen? These are all the sorts of questions explored by the Alphas.
The explorations, though, don’t go nearly as deep as one would like in any given episode, and I would expect a better treatment of them, as thorough as I would expect in a comic book. The pacing feels strange at times, and occasional breaks in continuity between episodes (a character has a heart attack at the end of one episode and is up and running at the beginning of the next) make a suspension of disbelief challenging at times. The character ideas are more realistic than the X-Men, but the writing feels clumsy and awkward at times.
That said, this was the first season, and many programs don’t come into their own until the second. The cliffhanger certainly kept me anticipating season 2, which I suppose is a good marker for success. If you’re a fan of the super-hero genre, Alphas is a worthwhile program to explore. Don’t compare it to Heroes, because anything set up against the first season of Heroes will fall short. Accept it as what it is, and I think you’ll appreciate it. Not the best I’ve seen in the genre, but certainly a show that holds its own.