Alphas – Pilot
David Strathairn is known in the industry as something of a stalwart, he is a consistently compelling actor who has made a career out of appearing in often dark and gritty American dramas – most notably the films of aforementioned auteur John Sayles and George Clooney’s truly great Good Night and Good Luck. The name Strathairn has this air of prestige about it because the man is not less a character actor than an actor with character, with class, and so it came as something of a surprise to learn that his latest project would be the lead role in a pulpy genre pilot from low-budget laughing stock SyFy (Admit it, people do laugh at them).
Even more of a surprise is that he really works well here. As an actor he approaches the role without that ‘dumbed down for television’ look that a lot of other class-A actors sometimes bring to their small-screen performances; where their big, broad strokes can seem overly obvious. There is also something very natural about Strathairn playing this particular role, so much so that in many of his scenes it feels as if this may well be the way in which the man himself would handle things; I’m not sure if this is a sign of good acting or questionable/good writing but either way it works. Despite the shows superhero setting Strathairn speaks constantly of Beckett, seventies LP’s and other such stuff as if he were still in some art-house Indie and this really worked for me as a solid counterweight to the other, obviously lighter fare in the episode.
Though perhaps I’ve gotten ahead of myself, the role which I speak of Strathairn playing so admirably is that of an alternative-minded government scientist who heads up a small contingent of semi-super powered beings called Alphas who solve crimes. Though he is not an Alpha himself David is their leader, much like how in the real world you may have boss who is less qualified than yourself; and he really is a ‘boss’, leading as he does with team-building exercises and conflict resolution theories right out of some bad managerial seminar and not the usual gusto, charisma and monologue based method common to the role. Though of course the man is no Michael Scott, he knows what he’s doing and he does it in such a warm way that we can’t help but to like him.
The rest of the group is similarly written, merging the expected tropes of the genre with some clever new twists. All of the powers in play – These being super strength, mind control, super agility etc. – have been used before in other shows, some of them near to death, but their execution here is entirely unlike anything else you would have seen on your screen. There is something startlingly natural about the approach they take to their powers, to the point that the word ‘power’ seems too overly strong a term to use; there are no extended origins sequences, no techno-babble explanations or setting out of objective rules, instead we are simply given a group of people who just happen to be remarkable and are as blase about it as we are our own talents and this is really refreshing. No doubt there will be more depth added to their backstories later, but for now I found this approach very successful .
The other big success is that these people exist from the get-go as a group, with the dynamics between characters already as fleshed out as the characters themselves. They banter well, their powers combine seamlessly without overlap and they care for each other; this is a family and not simply a squad. Most shows take seasons to get their cast to gel like this and that is if they are lucky enough to achieve it at all. I only hope that they can both keep up and bolster this tact going forward.
And they will have to because in terms of writing the characters are the thing that make this show worth watching, the plot-lines on the other hand are much more pat. There is that easy excuse of this only being the pilot and thus it is only reasonable to expect one element or the other, but there are innumerable examples of pilots that have proven such an assumption invalid and shown that bringing both in the beginning is absolutely possible, especially given the extended run-time of the episode.
Really though I didn’t care at all about what was going on with ‘The Ghost’ or the murder investigation that he was central too – still don’t in fact – and this really isn’t good enough. It was very much like watching a season one episode of Fringe or an X-Files stand-alone, an enjoyable enough experience but one lacking that extra kick of context. This is where it only being a pilot does come in as a valid excuse, especially given the shows obvious intentions towards instantly broadening the scope of its plots with some over-arching conflict.
Overall I think I can see why Strathairn would have signed up for this; sure it’s light fare but it’s also rather fun. This show seems to be what I wanted from Falling Skies, a sleek, slight summer series that I could relax into as an escape. As to whether it can hold out on its current character based charm or pull-off its future plot expansions? I have no idea and I don’t plan to ponder it much more, but I will be back next week to find out.