In 10 Words or Less
X-Men meets Fringe
Loves: Superhero teams, team-up stories
Likes: David Strathairn, Syfy, Fringe, X-Men
Dislikes: Serial dramas
Hates: Slow-building mythology, Heroes (at the end)
When Alphas first hit Syfy, I quickly added it to my DVR, for two main reasons. First, is my love of stories involving the teaming of disparate elements (there's a reason why Disney's 1986 The B.R.A.T. Patrol sticks with me to this day), while I'm also willing to watch anything with David Strathairn on board (which is why Sneakers, which combines a team movie with D-Straith, is one of my favorite movies.) But after a few episodes, something happened to my DVR and the show stopped recording, but I never made an effort to fix it, so I stopped watching. Now having check out the entire first season, I realize why I never tried to solve my DVR problem, and I don' regret my lack of action.
The concept is a solid one, as psychologist Lee Rosen (Strathairn) leads a team of people born with special skills (known as alphas) as they investigate similarly-abled individuals as part of a quasi-governmental task force. If this sounds like something you may have heard before, imagine if the crew from CSI were mutants like the X-Men, and they were investigating the cases from Fringe, and you've got a good handle on what Alphas is all about. It would be a stretch to say the show is a rip-off of those franchises, but one villain basically shares his powers with Fringe baddie Milo Stanfield and the show's serial plot hews severely close to Fringe's ZFT storyline.
For the most part, Alphas keeps things simpler though, focusing on the case in each episode, as they track down questionable alphas, with the personal relationships of the team powering the story forward when they aren't tracking their kind. A burgeoning romance between Nina (Laura Mennell), who can place suggestions into people's heads, and Cameron (Warren Christie), who has complete control of his body, sits as an opposite to the growing friendship between autistic Gary (Ryan Cartwright), whose ability allows him to read alectromagnetic signal, and Bill (Malik Yoba), an FBI veteran whose fear gives him enhanced strength. Meanwhile Rachel (Azita Ghanizada), with her hypersensitive senses, struggles to express herself and keep her Middle Eastern parents at a proper distance. Leading the team, Rosen is very fatherly to them, while also quite analytical, both aspects that come back to haunt him and the squad in later episodes.
The on-going story of the alphas, which involves dealing with governmental overseers who keep tabs on their movements, a plot to control alphas via a sketchy upstate New York facility and a clash with a pro-alpha terrorist organization known as Red Flag, takes up more of the show later in the season, which makes it feel a lot like Fringe and its terrorism sub-plots. Considering the show was created by Zak Penn, writer of X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand, it's hard to miss the similarities with those films as well, as Red Flag pushes to defend the birth of new mutants (or alphas) and the Alphas are forced to make ethical decisions about where they stand. Perhaps because these similarities make it seem like a less original concept, they rob the show of some of its appeal, as you get a "been there, done that" feel, which makes the season's final three-episode arc less of a cliffhanger than it might otherwise have been. If it pays off in a good second season, fine, but the standalone episodes in season one are far more interesting.
On the plus side, there's no arguing that the cast is talented, and they do nice work in sculpting the characters, whose moderately outlandish abilities keep the show as grounded as superheroes get. Strathairn's somewhat-detached therapist is naturally excellent, but Cartwright is outstanding in walking the line as a man with autism, mostly avoiding the Rain Man stereotypes, but still injecting humor via his naivety and brutal honesty, while Yoba's experience as a law-man is a fine counterpoint to his rookie teammates, especially Ghanizada, who has a lot of responsibilities as one of the youngest on the team, dealing not only with inexperience but a lack of self-esteem, cultural issues and family concerns.
The 11 episodes of the first season of Alphas arrives on three DVDs, packaged in a standard-width keepcase with a dual-hubbed tray, wrapped in a foil-embossed slipcover. The discs feature static anamorphic widescreen menus, with options to watch all the episodes, select shows, adjust languages and check out the extras. There are no audio options, but subtitles are included in English SDH.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer is surprisingly soft and lacking in fine detail, especially in darker scenes. Though black levels are fine, and colors are nicely appropriate, the overall presentation just feels less than impressive. There were no obvious issues with compression artifacts but some pixelation was noticeable along the edges of hair and clothes. The special effects looked good though, with only some rather elaborate CGI looking particularly obvious.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is pretty good, offering some musical support in the side and rear speakers, along with some solid atmospheric sound, like cars and chatter during street scenes, though don't expect to hear anything dynamic in the mix. The dialogue is kept clear and clear in the center channel.
First up is an extended version of the first episode, clocking in at a nearly feature-length 82 minutes. The additions don't really make it better than the actually kick-off, but different, enhancing the personal interactions of the characters a bit and extending the way the first case unfolds. You're probably better off watching this cut instead of the premiere that aired on TV, as you get more story as you dive into the series.
There are three sets of deleted scenes, one per disc, from the episodes "Cause and Effect," "Anger Management" and "Original Sin." Totalling a touch over 18 minutes, these excised (and in some cases extended) moments serve mostly the same purpose as the the extended first episode, showing more of the Alphas' personalities and backgrounds.
The 35-minute dais portion of the Alphas panel at the 2011 ComicCon International is presented on Disc Three, with the L.A. Times' Geoff Boucher moderating a chat with Strathairn, Penn and executive producer Ira Steven Behr. The conversation goes deeper than the usual convention-panel fluff, with Strathairn and Behr setting a fun, quirky tone to the proceedings. Unfortunately, the audience Q&A that followed is not included.
That's not to say there aren't answers available, as a four-part sit-down (viewable all together or in pieces) features Strathairn, Christie, Yoba and Penn and Behr responding to questions submitted via Facebook. There's a mix of questions about the show and story and questions for the actors, making it a solid approximation of what you get at a comicon panel.
The Bottom Line
Alphas is the kind of show that's worth watching, because it's well-made, but you're not likely to search it out, because you've seen stuff like it before. That said, a marathon viewing on DVD isn't a bad way to check it out, as you get a quality presentation and some nice extras on top of a decent genre series that makes for fine summer viewing.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.