Aug 30, 2012

Alphas is the Show Heroes Should Have Been

I remember the first time I ever heard about the show Heroes coming out.  I was in a theater in Asheville, North Carolina waiting to see Talladega Nights (don't judge me).  There were posters for this television show all over the movie theater.  They had Heroes printed on the popcorn and drink cups.  There were promotional flyers in the theater.  In the pre-movie time killer, they had a little trailer for it.  It looked awesome.  I started hearing more and more about the show and saw more commercials.  I couldn't believe this was actually happening.  There was going to be a weekly, live-action tv show about superheroes!  I couldn't wait. And it seemed like I wasn't alone.

Heroes was, in some ways, going to be a small screen version of X-Men.  It was the tale of what Marvel Comics has always classified as mutants - people who, through a mysterious benevolent mutation, have developed skills and abilities greater than the average human.  As any comic book fan worth his salt knows, X-Men is one of the biggest comic franchises out there.  It has spawned three good movies (and two lousy movies).  The animated X-Men tv show from the 1990s was incredibly popular and well done.  The X-Men arcade game was and is a classic.  So the chance to see something resembling that on primetime television was about all this geek could handle.

When Heroes premiered, it was great.  The whole concept was mysterious.  There was this eclipse that caused all these people to suddenly develop crazy powers.  They could fly or absorb powers or heal themselves or freeze time.  There was an evil government agency that was tracking these people.  There were secrets and twists and turns.  I remember actually writing this at one point early on in the season: "Heroes has officially surpassed Lost as the best show on television."  And I believed it.  It was one of our go-to shows.  Can't miss television.

Then something went wrong.  Maybe it was the crazy inconsistency of plots.  Maybe it was the fact that there were just too many secrets and cover-ups.  Maybe it was the inexplicable network necessity to turn popular bad-guy characters (Sylar, Horn Rimmed Glasses Man) into tragic heroes.  The season started to drag.  It wasn't fun any more.  It became extremely violent.  Characters didn't act in ways consistent with how they were created.  Massive story arcs panned out to be pointless.  Too much attention was paid to Sylar.  But I stuck with it, hoping what every fan of the show hoped for.  The finale was going to be epic.

The whole season was building to massive showdown.  Sylar was accumulating so much power that he had to be stopped.  I remember the last scene in the penultimate episode - Sylar got the radioactive powers and stood there looking at the city.  He just said, "Boom!"  It was evil and set the stage.  It was apparent that the good heroes were going to have to have a massive throwdown with Sylar.  The Petrelli brothers, Hiro, everyone came together for the big battle.  And then when the massive fight happened...  Well, it never happened.  It was the least satisfying climactic battle scene I can remember.  I looked at my wife and she looked at me.  "What?!?"  That was it?  It was the exact opposite of how Lost handled their seasons.  Sure, they may meander and have some clunkers.  But they always delivered the goods in the season finales.  Heroes just flopped.

We watched the first couple of the new season and they were horrible.  A couple of times I considered going back to the show, but everything I was reading was so negative.  I didn't even realize that the show had a third season until I started reading about the upcoming series finale.  I didn't even bother.  How did a show with so much promise, that started off so well, end up fizzling out?  NBC obviously took a big risk on the show and dumped a lot of money into it.  But it just couldn't stand up for the whole season.  Such a disappointment.

Fast forward a few years.  SyFy Channel has been started putting out original series.  They are fun and entertaining.  Eureka was a solid comic, action, sci-fi entry for several years.  Warehouse 13 upped the mystery and at-times creepiness factor, while keeping the humor and homages to sci-fi classics (especially in their guest star casting).  Last year they introduced a new show, Alphas.  I am a pretty loyal viewer and will give networks, movie studios a shot on their new products if they have been consistently reliable.  I'll see every Pixar movie that comes out.  I'll at least try every new USA Network offering (an usually like them).  So I went ahead and watched Alphas.  The synopsis sounded familiar.  A group of people have started to be discovered that have powers greater than normal humans.  There is a government agency involved.  Mystery surrounds the "alphas" and how they came to be.

From the very outset, it became apparent to me that this could be the best entry yet in the "benevolent mutation" genre.  Yes, even, perhaps, better than X-Men.  We are greeted with a person who isn't in control of his actions.  But he knows he is supposed to kill someone.  With his enhanced skills, he is able to use a sniper rifle to shoot a man in a closed off interrogation room through an air vent.  The whole scene was crazy and compelling.  We are then introduced to Dr Rosen - a psychiatrist with sympathies for "alphas" and his special team of "alphas."  They investigate crimes that appear to be caused by other "alphas."  Each member of the team has a power - what would usually be called a superpower.  But, it comes with a twist.

One of the things about Heroes and even X-Men that is hard to deal with is that these supers have these awesome powers that have no explainable origin.  That is something that always bugged me about Superman.  I can understand the yellow sun giving him enhanced strength, super speed, and maybe even the laser eyes.  But how does it give him x-ray vision or super freezing breath.  And how can he fly?  That isn't something that is a natural progression.  A flying person is a cool concept.  But HOW can they do that?  What allows them to completely ignore laws of physics?  Their bodies are not more streamlined than other people.  They don't have wings.  So how can they manipulate air currents when an average person can't?  Like with the Hulk, he can jump insane distances to where you might think he was flying.  But that isn't what Superman does.  He doesn't push off of the ground so hard he breaks gravity's power (or the concrete would crack).  He doesn't jump off a building and catch a current.  Heroes had the same problem with Nathan.  How did he fly?  If someone is going to have a mutation, it should take the form of an enhancement of a normal ability.  Claws shooting out of your hand?  Doesn't qualify.  Neither does turning your skin into diamonds or metal, teleporting, or growing wings.

With Alphas, though, that is exactly what happens.  They take a normal human function and ramp it up.  Bill, one of the leaders of the good guys, has his normal "fight or flight"reflex on supercharge.  Whereas a normal person may be able to run faster in a threatening situation, Bill is able to run faster and hit harder.  But, it doesn't last long.  And he, along with all the others, has a negative side effect.  His heart is wearing out from the pressure of overusing it.  It is a brilliant and "more realistic concept.  Rachel has super senses - she can amplify her hearing, smell, sight to identify things far beyond a normal person.  But that ability brings with it a crushing fear of social settings.  Even a whiff of cologne can give her a headache.  She can see bacteria and germs, so she hates eating out.  Nina can "push" people by staring them in the eye and making them do what she wants through suggestions.  But she has used it so much that she never knows if someone really wants to be with her or if she is making them feel that way.  One of the most interesting team members is Gary - an autistic young man who has the ability to "see" electronic communications.  So he has the ability for unusual communication, but is almost unable to communicate with others.

Every "alpha" we meet fits into this pattern.  Their abilities are amplified versions of normal human functions.  One guy can rub his hands together with the resulting friction causing sparks.  Another's metabolism runs so fast that he can move super fast - only he ages at a ridiculous rate.  One guy can use acid reflux to spit acid at people.  Another can learn virtually anything in a short period of time at the expense of her long term memory.  One of the more fascinating character is played by Summer Glau.  She can see the patterns of how objects piece together, giving her mastery of machinery.  But she has no order in her life.  She keeps moving around, has trouble working with others, seems to be destined to chaos.

The regular people are at first oblivious of the existence of these enhanced individuals.  The government is well aware and are terrified.  They usually banish them to a shady mental institution and try to keep them under control.  Last season ended with Dr. Rosen going public with the existence of these "alphas."  He ended up in trouble for it and the government kicked into overdrive with controlling the "alphas."  A new big bad has arisen, Stanton Parish - someone with enhanced healing abilities.  He sees the rise of the "alphas" as inevitable and is trying to bring it about.  Rosen is trying to get them to live in harmony with the humans and has struck an uneasy peace with the government to keep the peace.  What?  You say that sounds familiar?  You're right.  Parish=Magneto. Rosen=Professor Xavier.  It is almost like we have that realistic version of the X-Men that Heroes was supposed to be.  Some of that could be attributed to the fact that Alphas was created by Zak Penn, writer of Avengers, X-Men 2, and X-Men 3 (maybe that isn't the best example).  Like with X-Men, you can tell a war is coming.  This time, though, there is a slow burn.  But it isn't accelerated like in the first season of Heroes.  There is a story of the week format, with them all fitting into the larger Stanton Parish problem.

I also feel the characters in Alphas are better developed.  We don't just care about their abilities; we care about them.  They are extremely well written and have multiple layers.  Cameron - the assassin from the pilot episode - is now on the team.  He had been under the control of a mind controlling "alpha," so he was released to serve on the team.  He has such a tragic back story.  He used to be a pitcher and had thrown two perfect games, thanks to his ability to see angles and trajectories.  But he was a drunk.  He lost his career, lost his family, was working in a grocery store.  In addition, he had become such a mess that he couldn't even use his abilities.  Now he seems to be getting his life in order, but not in that "everything is better after one season" manner that other shows resort to.  He still makes bad choices and gets waylaid by strong influences.

Overall, I have been very pleased with Alphas.  I like the creativity of the different characters and how they keep coming up with different powers.  I am invested in the recurring characters and their story.  I also want to see where the show goes with everything.  It looks like a war is coming soon.  And I can't wait to see how that looks.  The actions sequences are very good in the show.  Will they be able to come up with the action necessary to reflect a big war?  We'll see.  How do you stop a person who can't be killed?  Also, how can the "good guys" battle Parish's recruitment campaign?  The government has already proven they can't be trusted.  It will be a big challenge to get people to side with them.  It makes for compelling television.

Alphas airs on Monday nights, at 8:00pm, on SyFy.

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