Thursday, January 17, 2013


As some of you probably know by now, ALPHAS, the terrific television series that blended science fiction and superheroes, has been cancelled. This is very sad news indeed as I was a huge fan of the series. For those who didn’t watch the show, Alphas was about a group of individuals with superhuman abilities who were led by a Doctor who not only helped them understand their abilities, but also helped them to cope with the psychological damage that these abilities sometimes caused as well as making them understand that they had a responsibility to use their powers for good.

Sounds like a comic book, right?  Heroic people with powers fighting bad guys.  However, there were no costumes or capes in Alphas and even the word “superhero” was not really part of the shows lexicon. From the first episode, Alphas developed it's own identity.  Some have compared the show to Marvel Comics “X-Men” and that’s certainly a fair comparison if a simplistic one. A team of humans who, due to a mutation in their genetics, are granted extraordinary abilities and are led by a father figure who promotes peaceful use of those abilities. Sounds a lot like X-Men.  It also had a lot in common with the DC Comics series “Doom Patrol”. Doom Patrol was about individuals who gained their abilities through some tragic accident that ruined their lives and made them very bitter. The leader of Doom Patrol was a scientific genius who wasn’t quite as kindly as X-Men leader Charles Xavier. Doom Patrol leader Niles Caulder often had to manipulate his contentious team into doing the right thing and sometimes into doing things that suited Caulder’s own agenda. Alphas team leader Lee Rosen was much like Charles Xavier and, for better or worse, not entirely dissimilar to Niles Caulder. 

David Strathairn as Dr. Lee Rosen
As played by the terrific David Strathairn, Dr. Lee Rosen was dedicated to his team of Alphas. But these gifted people weren’t just agents doing good for some anonymous government agency. They were also Rosen’s patients. The Alphas (a term that Rosen coins to describe these genetically gifted humans) were flawed, damaged people and they needed help just dealing with their lives as well as their abilities and Dr. Rosen gave them that help. He was kind, sensitive, compassionate and legitimately cared for them as though they were his family. But Dr. Rosen was human and he had flaws of his own. He was estranged from his daughter Danielle whom he experimented on as a child in order to understand the Alpha phenomena. This caused a huge rift in their relationship and Danielle ended up a runaway drug addict. Out of guilt, Rosen is motivated to find and help other Alphas. Rosen was driven almost to the point of obsession to stop the megalomaniacal leader of Red Flag (a terrorist organization also made up of people with abilities, often criminals) named Stanton Parish(John Pyper-Ferguson), an Alpha whose ability was immortality and the founder and head of Red Flag. Dr. Rosen’s obsession with Red Flag caused him to do morally questionable things. He would lie to his team, manipulate them and in one instance, he pressured certain members of his team into torturing a Red Flag terrorist to get information. Strathairn played this role with amazing complexity and sensitivity. Strathairn made Dr. Rosen his own and if you watch his performance over the two seasons of Alphas, you will see that he wasn’t just a composite or copy of X-Men leader Charles Xavier and Niles Caulder and to think so would be to do a disservice to the formidable acting skills of Strathairn.

Warren Christie as Hicks
And then you had Dr. Rosen’s patients/team members. Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie) was a former Marine, divorced, an alcoholic, estranged from the son he loved and working in a supermarket. He had the ability of hyperkinesis which allowed him to have uncanny aim, a heightened sense of timing and incredible athletic skill. In the pilot episode, Hicks is brainwashed into assassinating a witness for the CIA. He is recruited by Dr. Rosen into joining the team who convinces him that he can help Hicks get his life back on track by helping him to understand his ability and with therapy.

Azita Ghanizada as Rachel
Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada) has the ability to heighten her five senses, one at a time. She can see objects on a microscopic level, identify someone by their distinctive pheromones and hear sound from incredible distances. These abilities cause Rachel to have a very difficult time interacting socially. She’s shy, withdrawn, neurotic and often feels the need to withdraw socially in an attempt to shut down her hyper senses. Over the course of the series, I think it’s Rachel that comes the farthest thanks to Dr. Rosen. By the end of the first season she has overcome an almost crippling lack of confidence and by the second season she even musters up the courage to start a romantic relationship. One of the more entertaining aspects of Rachel is the difficult relationship with her parents. Her parents are loving and supporting but also criticize the fact that she is single, not understanding that her abilities make intimacy incredibly difficult. Over the course of the series, Rachel gains the strength to face her parents criticism and intimidation to get her to date so she can marry. Rachel’s “gifts” often lead to some humorous moments as she is often required to smell and taste some rather unsavory things in the cause of catching bad guys.

Malik Yoba as Bill Harken
Bill Harken (Malik Yoba) is a former agent with the FBI who has super strength triggered by the adrenalin caused by his “fight or flight” response. He also has the ability to run at great speeds. Unfortunately, the side affect of this is that Bill has anger issues due to the stress of his ability and is at risk of causing his heart severe injury if he accesses his ability for long periods of time. Problems dealing with is ability led to his being suspended from the FBI and to being a patient of Dr. Rosen. Bill is effectively Rosen’s second in command and the liaison to the various law enforcement agencies that Rosen’s team often has to deal with as well as being the teams tactical leader. Throughout the course of the show, Rosen and Bill are often at odds when it comes to leadership roles. In the second season, Bill is forced to take over as team leader when Rosen’s obsession with Red Flag and his contentious relationship with government handlers leads him to do morally and legally questionable things.

Ryan Cartwright as Gary Bell
Gary Bell is the youngest member of the team and is an autistic savant. He has the ability to see electromagnetic wavelengths and various kinds of radiation and heat signatures. This gives him the ability to see all information sent through the airwaves as well as the ability to access wireless video surveillance cameras. Gary(played by the wonderful Ryan Cartwright) is the heart of the team. Gary’s autism makes it difficult for him to understand social nuance and has difficulty with social interaction but this also causes him to be the teams moral center. Gary doesn’t see subtle motivation or agenda, just what he perceives to be clearly right or wrong. When the series begins, Gary lives with his loving but overprotective mother who isn’t aware that her son uses his ability to help out the government and help solve crimes. Gary becomes more independent as the show progresses and eventually moves into the teams HQ. Gary is partial to superstrong Bill Harken who he considers his best friend. Oh, one more thing about Gary; he loves pudding. A LOT!

Laura Mennell as Nina Theroux
Last but not least is Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell). Nina and Rosen probably have the most complex relationship, more so than any other team members. Rosen has known Nina the longest and Nina’s particular ability, that of mind control, makes her more susceptible to corruption. Nina has severe guilt issues over how she has used her power over the years and who she’s used it on. Out of all the abilities we see over the course of the show, Nina’s proves to be the most addictive and this makes it all the more difficult for her to get control of her power and has trouble with the emotional instability that that addiction causes. Nina seems to love Dr. Rosen for helping her come back from the brink many times but at the same time she’s know him long enough to understand his flaws and this causes her to be the most distrustful of Rosen. Rosen also has strong feelings for Nina that go beyond Doctor/patient or even daughter/father figure but the two have never acted on these feelings. In spite of knowing the most about each other, Nina and Rosen know that it’s important to keep their relationship more professional for their own sake. The one person that Nina’s mind control powers do not work on is Gary, whose autism makes him invulnerable to Nina’s abilities. Nina is extremely protective of the autistic Gary with whom she has a sort of older sister/little brother relationship.

Mahershala Ali as Agent Clay(left) and Strathairn

One of the best things about Alphas was it’s diversity. This was probably one of the more gender and racially diverse shows not just in the genre but on television(at least based on my television viewing). Malik Yoba who plays team member Bill is African American as is the team handler and government agent Nathan Clay (Mahershala Ali). Azita Ghanizada who plays Rachel is Afghan American. There are also some strong, complex female characters in Nina, Rachel, newest team member Kat (Erin Way), Dr. Rosen’s daughter Danielle (Kathleen Munroe), the tech savvy Skylar Adams (played by Firefly’s Summer Glau) and liaison agent Kathy Sullivan (Valerie Cruz). You also have characters with diagnosed mental conditions represented in Gary as well as in the character of Anna Levy (Liane Balaban). Anna was one of the most fascinating characters to be seen in the shows very short run.

Liane Balaban as autistic mastermind Anna

John Pyper-Ferguson as Stanton Parish
Anna was introduced early in season one in an episode called “Rosetta”. In this episode, Dr. Rosen and his team raid a Red Flag safe house where they find the barely functioning autistic Anna. Because of her condition, Anna is unable to speak or even  acknowledge the presence of others. Considering Anna to be a dead end, the team focuses on other things, leaving Gary to go through the computers that the other terrorists left behind. Over the course of the show, Gary discovers that Anna is more than she seems when he brilliantly discovers the random noises she makes on various innocuous items (such as a hairbrush) is actually her own form of language. Not only that, but Anna is also able to understand and translate all forms of language and codes. It seems the Red Flag terrorists were forcing her to use her gifts to code information for them. Gary falls hard for Anna over the course of the show and the two work together to prevent a Red Flag terrorist operation. However, at the end, in an amazing twist, Gary discovers that Anna wasn’t being used by the terrorists, but was the mastermind of the terrorist group! It’s extremely rare to see autistic characters on television (off the top of my head I can only think of the character “Max” on Parenthood who isn't autistic but is diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome) let alone one who is a high profile antagonist.  Anna wasn’t just another villain on the show. She proved to be far more complex and gave us and the characters a different perspective on the Red Flag terrorist organization. As it turned out, Red Flag was attacking various subsidiaries of a pharmaceutical company that was making a drug to give to pregnant women that would prevent children being born with abilities, effectively making Alphas extinct. This information would give Rosen’s team pause as some started to sympathize with Anna and Red Flag. At the end of Rosetta, Gary and Anna have a wildly entertaining battle of wits that leaves Gary only partially the victor as Anna escapes capture to fight another day. In spite of their many differences, Anna and Gary secretly maintain a relationship that, sadly, ends in tragedy.
Pint sized Kat(Erin Way) teaches Bill a few tricks
Episodes like Rosetta, that highlighted characters with disabilities along with interesting, racially diverse men and women, was one of the great things about Alphas. It was a great strength of the show not just for the obvious benefits of seeing the point of view of people of different gender and ethnicity but for narrative ones as well. The show also taught valuable lessons about teamwork, responsibility, lessons about right and wrong, lessons about loss, forgiveness and overcoming obstacles of the body and mind and heart and, most importantly, lessons about trusting others(a running theme of the show). Alphas seemed to find that perfect balance of comic book heroics, science fiction and just good old fashioned adventure. The writing was smart, witty and the stories were always tense, exciting, suspenseful, humorous and often poignant.  I could go on and on about why Alphas was far superior to a show like Heroes but Corrina Lawson over at Wired has already done a terrific job of that.   I will miss Alphas very, very much. I hope that somehow we’ll be given some closure with a two hour movie finale to wrap up the storyline ala Farscape (another show that was criminally cut short in it’s prime) but I have low expectations that this will happen.
Cheers to the talented cast of Alphas!
So let me just give my heartfelt thanks to Alphas creators Zak Penn and Michael Karnow, as well as cast members David Strathairn, Ryan Cartwright, Azita Ghanizada, Malik Yoba, Laura Mennell, Warren Christie, and all of the other amazing cast and crew members, guest stars, writers and producers for making such a wonderfully entertaining show that countless fans will be sorry to see go.  We'll miss you, Alphas.

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