By Ian Grey
Press Play Contributor
X-Men, shmecks-men. Alphas is good. Really, really good. It's way better than Buffy and Alias were at this juncture in their TV lives, and these are shows with which Alphas shares stray strands of DNA. (But not enough to have a cow over.)
Watching the first season of this show, I get the sense that, after crafting scripts for X-2 and X-Men: The Last Stand, Alphas main man Zak Penn experienced an explosive learning curve which translated and morphed into a list of things to do the next time he creates a subtext-packed mutant narrative. With co-creator Michael Karnow and showrunner Ira Steven Behr, Penn has given us everything in the mutant group narrative that matters — the generalized outsider advocacy, the open-source alternative families, the (not-so) subtextual political commentary — and has trashed everything that doesn’t — self-important melodrama, whiny emo teens, effects that eat up millions of bucks when twenty will do. (Seriously, the effects budget for this show must equal how much it costs to develop two 30-second CG shots. Oh, and a blurry lens.)
Penn, Karnow and Behr — sounds like a midtown law firm — start us off in decidedly-Earthbound Queens, New York. We meet a clutch of nebbishy mutants whose super skills are positively small-scale. It’s their job to fight other alphas who’ve gone rogue, freaked out or become political liabilities. (I’ll return to this point later. And by the way, you should just download the whole season before continuing this column, as it's all one big SPOILER ALERT.)
The team meets in low-rent offices under the scatter-minded guidance of Dr. Leigh Rosen, a neatly dressed neuropsychologist with a passion for '70s glam rock. (An early Dr. Rosen montage is scored to David Bowie’s “The Jean Genie.” Bite that, Magneto!) Episode story-lines typically follow a fucked-up alpha-of-the-week structure. It's an idea that’s already deconstructing/auto-critiquing itself because the show as a whole balances it’s political elements (really, we will get back to this!) with a Gaga-era "Monsters vs. Them" pluck, but wrapped in the warm jammies of alternative family reformation positivism. So far, that optimism has outplayed the serious darkness constantly nipping at the show’s edges; then again, I haven’t seen the finale. I would not be surprised at all by how hard of a game Alphas plays with its audience. Optimism doesn’t mean you’re blind sighted.
The show makes a virtue of smallness and poverty; empathic character writing is free and Alphas has scads of it. It experienced a long gestation period — both NBC and ABC showed interest in it way back in 2006 when it was called Section 8 — which perhaps explains the remarkably rich backstory and mythology.
Written by Penn and Karnow and directed by Jack Bender (Ally McBeal, Alias, The Sopranos), the pilot episode already owned the combination of indie-ish overlapping dialogue, tight thriller construction and psychological quandaries that end in questions, moral or otherwise. All of these elements just became more unsettling as the season progressed. As a master class in zero-dollar genre multi-task writing, the pilot gave us a classic closed-room mystery. We see a prisoner in a jail cell is somehow shot in the head, and that scenario morphs into a ticking bomb actioner where the skills of all alphas come into play and all backstory flashbacks are relevant.
We meet Gary (Ryan Cartwright), an endearing autistic teen who can hack into any location in the wireless world, and Rachel (Azita Ghanizada), a girl with heightened senses, ones so potent she can pinpoint how many hearts are beating down the street. There's Bill (Malik Yoba), who is super-humanly strong and there's the svelte mind-controller Nina (Laura Mennell). We also meet this hunky recovering alcoholic named Cameron (Warren Christie), who finds himself hallucinating the words “TIME TO KILL” all over Times Square — on taxi cabs, buses and other signs. And so he does. Kill, I mean — the deed performed with a typically out-there alpha-skill, the ability to locate objects in space. He is an insanely great assassin. (As to how this assassination works, the show offers an entertaining bit of Rube-Goldberg-for-the-Noughties.)
Before Cameron can do it again, the alphas stop him and Dr. Rosen (David Strathairn) offers him the choice to either go to jail or join up with his group. Since his killing urge came only as a result of being brainwashed, Cameron chooses the Group. (Looking back, we see that Dr. Rosen was saving him from much, much more than a measly death sentence.)
Okay. Now, stay with me here: the creep who made Cameron hallucinate the whole "TIME TO KILL" thing is called Ghost. Ghost belongs to Red Flag, this show’s Big Bad, a radical terrorist group who believes that Big Pharma has a new drug that will cure autism by stopping the birth of autistic alpha babies. (Sort of like Jenny McCarthy, but with science and Sarah Palin’s fan base.)
In the “Blind Spot” episode, a captured blind Red Flag alpha (Brent Spiner) claims that the terrorist Red Flaggers who bomb pharmaceutical offices and such are simply outliers, part of an extremist wing of the group and out of touch with mainstream Red Flag thinking. Then again, how can you trust this guy? He's a mutant also, what with his usage of sonar to see like a dolphin. (May I add that one of the joys of Alphas is the moment [of which there are many] when you stop short and think, Am I dreaming? Am I actually seeing this?)
In an earlier column, I noted the ever-expanding, heart-breaking love Dr. Rosen has developed for his surrogates — such affection literally saved Rachel’s life in one episode. I also carped a bit that the show had a ways to go before attaining alt-family cohesion.
Consider my carping gone. The past.
Hacker Gary now identifies as an alpha. He works as a full member of Dr. Rosen’s team and he is not the useless autistic victim his mom used to take care of. Brawny Bill is married but he is coming home late more often. Rachel has moved in with Nina and both women are stronger, better people for it, not merging in some mutant codependency, but enhanced interdependency. This loose collection of gifted young people has become a true TV family — one that rivals the group portrayed in Buffy, Season Five, a.k.a. That By Which All Others Must Be Gauged. In Episode 10, "The Unusual Suspects," an alpha shows up — of course! — with the ability destroy that closeness, in particular, by mimicking anyone s/he wants, making an abomination of intimacy. The story presents us with two Dr. Rosen’s — one of them real, the other betraying the group. (Since Russell T. Davis didn’t write the episode, nobody is killed for the hell of it, and the group survives, stronger for what terrors it did endure.) What matters is there really is an Alpha Group now. The show has conjured up the romance and illusion of the fantastic family with its unbearable fragility and coming loss. (As the past usually predicates future behavior, I expect many more episodes in season two to play on this fragility.) With this episode, the show reached a new level of confidence in its story-line and captivating characters, so much that the writers felt free to enter a dark place seldom revealed in genre television. Even I was surprised by how much dread I felt — how much I was at the edge of my sofa yelling at the screen, “No! Not that!” With "The Unusual Suspects," I said, “Show, you just became great.”
Hanging over everyone, or every alpha, is the Compound, a place of near-mythological dimensions for alphas, a “research facility and prison” in southern New York state. Just the name elicits shudders of ceaseless, neo-Mengele horrors. The Compound simply puts in boldface, 24-point neon italics what I can’t myself overstate enough, which is that there is no way to even imagine Alphas without the context of Cheneyism, of waterboarding denialism, of the grotesque endless War on Whatever by Any Means. Since 9/11, TV and film have enjoyed a bumper crop of evil or ethically dubious corporations or governmental agencies — Lost's Dharma Initiative, Firefly's Alliance and Blue Sun, Michael Clayton's U-North, Resident Evil's Umbrella Corporation, and so on, almost endlessly. Those films and shows just find new black hats for faceless bad guys. Alphas is very specific: it’s civil liberties sci-fi-horror. Anyone inclined to say, “Politics, schmopoltics” can, like, say it, but it won't make that very real part of the show go away, just as Gary’s autism can’t just go away.
Alphas just wouldn’t even make instant sense, to say nothing of being believable, for, say, 1997 audiences the way it does for us. Audiences 14 years ago wouldn’t recognize the ominous cars spilling out as black op killers — would they even know what “black op killers” were? — mow down our heroes in a fusillade of tranq darts. It’s a humiliating, truly terrifying scene as Gary, Dr. Rosen, Nina, Rachel and Bill are shot down like dogs. Not knowing that these aren't live bullets, they scramble and fall, cry, run and fight for their lives, but all go down under their attacker's superior firepower. It’s just awful.
They wake, are assumed guilty for “treason” by unseen faces and are left in an empty warehouse lit by overhead lights of a sickly acid-yellow-green that made me think of other real captives, real dogs, another war, other profits. And I think the showrunners were of a like intention: the generally sickening Abu Ghraib vibe. I mean, they certainly didn’t choose this lighting scheme because it flatters skin tones.
Alphas has no time for cool science fiction-y Massive-Dynamics-style orgs. The bad guy here is a part of the U.S. Department of Defense that's grown bored with alphas that can walk and talk when Compound lobotomies work just fine to fix that — and gunshots to the head even better. That part of the DoD finally decides to just murder our heroes; they survive not because of their cool skills, but because a government operative (Mahershala Ali) realizes that if he follows orders, he’ll become a full-blown monster. When he tells his shooter to stand down, there’s disappointment in the would-be killer’s voice, like a dog deprived of a particularly tasty bone.
Aside from characters I uniformly like to the point of missing in that instant-nerd, show-fan kind of way, Alphas is basically about battling extremism. It’s a post-partisan sanity joint about acceptance, where the only radical extremism is the one that says it don’t cost nothin’ but brains, skill and heart to make great TV. Hurry, Season Two.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. His column "Grey Matters" runs every week at Press Play. To read another piece about Drive, with analysis of common themes and images in all of Refn's films, click here.
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