You needn’t “inform” Alphas cocreator Zak Penn that he is treading on well-covered ground with his new Syfy series (premiering Monday at 10/9c) about individuals with – cue Mohinder narration — “hyperdeveloped neurological abeeeeelities.” No, the scribe whose credits include X-Men 2 and X-Men: The Last Stand knows full well that he’s putting a new sheen on an old chestnut.
“I have worked in the business of people with extraordinary abilities, so I’m pretty familiar with it,” he admits. “[But] that idea that a regular person could have abilities that fulfill some sort of fantasy or wish fulfillment … is just so powerful that it endures.”
Alphas stars Academy Award nominee David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) as Dr. Lee Rosen, a neuroscientist/quasi-therapist who oversees a collection of “alphas” with unique abilities. Among them: Malik Yoba (New York Undercover) plays strongman Bill; Laura Mennell (Watchmen) is Nina, a beauty wielding the power of suggestion; Ryan Cartwright (Bones) is Gary, young man living with autism who can “see” airborne data streams; and Azita Ghanizada (Castle) plays Rachel, a gal who can super-amplify one of her senses – though at the same time instant forfeiting all others.
During their premiere episode assignment – tracking down a sniper with exceptionally fine aim – they come across another possible recruit, Cameron, played by Warren Christie (October Road).
So, how does Alphas stack up against other similar X-Men and Heroes? Here’s a look.
These Unreal Folks Have Real Problems | “We really tried to keep both the upside and the downside of their problems close to human,” says Penn. So in addition to the alphas working around distinct limitations – Bill, for example, gets twitchy after five minutes of clobbering time – they’ve also got normal life matters to navigate. “It’s pretty hard to write a story about Wolverine paying his rent and working in a grocery store,” says Penn, “whereas [here] those are real issues.”
The Enemy May Lie Within | Though not a constant, weekly threat, a group known as Red Flag will attempt to undermine Dr. Rosen’s team by making the Alphas question their allegiances. “Red Flag is not your average group of antagonists, in that they are some very unusual people with a very political and specific point of view — and the debate over whether or not they’re right or wrong is an extremely cogent one,” says Penn. The first Alpha to fall prey to their propaganda may be Cameron. As a newbie, “He’s the one who is really kind of saying, ‘Wait a second. They kind of seem to have a point’ — and to me that’s what makes a good antagonist.”
The Doctor Is In… the Middle of It All | Penn is quick to dismiss any suggestion that Strathairn’s considerable talents won’t be on full display in this sci-fi series. “We wouldn’t get him if the part was just every week, ‘You’re going to deliver a case.’ He’s not just this benign guy who is there to help,” he maintains. Rather, Rosen “has got his own agenda, and some stuff in his back story. A number of things are going to come out that are pretty big, and they will change — and change again — your opinion of him.”
Some of the Powers May Be Superfluous | … at least when it comes to Nina and her ability to compel (most anyone) with but a spoken word. Says Christie, whose Cameron seems bounds for a bit of intra-Alphas romance, “It’s a bit tricky because Laura Mennell is so gorgeous that I feel if she asked somebody to do something they would do it anyway! So that’s the twist with her whole ability.”
Alphas Itself Has the Power of Durability | Despite having been shopped around for five years and endured an overall zig-zaggy road to development – originally called Section 8, it was eyed by NBC and picked up by ABC, but ultimately torpedoed by the WGA strike – Alphas is very much the show it always was. “If you go back to the original documents we wrote up, it’s pretty amazing how similar it is,” Penn marvels. “Sometimes it seems like we’ve had two years of arguments with 25 different people about what exactly the show should be … and it is kind of almost like a weird dream that I keep expecting to wake up, where I’ll turn on Alphas and suddenly it will be a wacky comedy. But so far that has not happened, which is good news!”