The pilot episode of Alphas opens with a tense, tautly edited set piece, taking us from the interior of a dingy grocery store to the top of a metropolitan high-rise, where a man, Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie), one of the titular Alphas who possess physical or mental characteristics that often involve the extreme heightening of humanistic abilities, methodically locates a .30 cal rifle, rapidly sets up, quickly takes aim, and pulls the trigger at the precise instant his watch turns a new minute.
What’s interesting about this first scene in the latest attempt at a sustainable superhero series is that Cameron’s superhuman trait, the possession of ultra-sensitive hand-eye coordination dubbed “hyperkinesis,” is being controlled by an outside source. Earlier, an elderly woman in the produce department in the store downstairs where he works asks him to direct her to the ice cream aisle seconds before awkwardly mouthing, “Time to kill.” The phrase is repeated by Cameron’s seemingly mind-melded employer as well as strewn across the front pages of newspapers within dispensers along a busy New York sidewalk. At first glance, “Time to kill” could also be a slogan of sorts for Alphas itself, a sporadically entertaining summer show that means well, but rarely delivers anything we haven’t already seen from its predecessors.
Following this intriguing cold open, answers as to what we’ve just witnessed surface at a generally decent pace, which is fortunate, as shows of this nature often opt to leave viewers in the dark too early and for too long. During a run-of-the-mill character-introduction sequence complete with names and special techniques graphically plastered on the screen, we meet the Alphas along with Lee Rosen (David Strathairn, inexplicably underplaying a role calling for his signature chutzpah), an eccentric but overall straight-shooting doctor who specializes in the study of the Alphas, ultimately becoming a surrogate psychiatrist to the lot of them. Indeed, the Alphas may be remarkably special, but they all possess serious issues aside from just coming to terms with their gifts.
What differentiates Alphas from some of its kin is just how quickly it establishes the struggles of its central characters. Within the first 15 minutes of the first episode, we understand quite thoroughly who these people are and why they make the choices they make. For example, one of the most engaging of the lead Alphas, Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright), is an autistic young man who’s able to visualize any and all electronic streams in the vicinity (TVs, computers, cellphones, security cameras); he’s essentially the world’s sole owner of a cerebral iPad. His constant jaunty hand motions, sliding his brain’s projections in the air to and fro a la Minority Report’s PreCrime monitors, is a clever way to mask his ability from the public. He’s forever in his own enclosed yet limitless world, and while he possesses a one-of-a-kind mind, he ostensibly lacks the insight to perceive how his immediate actions affect those around him. In a unique way, Gary’s antics (pulling up his teammates’ cellphone texts whenever he pleases) are a kind of comic relief that doesn’t feel forced, which is a rarity for science fiction/fantasy serials set in the modern day.
Aside from the close-quarters interactions of the chief Alphas, however, there’s not much here that would keep followers of a superior show like the U.K.’s Misfits locked in for an entire season. Alphas’s core storyline is straight out of the X-Men mythology, which comes as no surprise, since Zak Penn, who worked on scripts for both X2: X-Men United and X-Men: The Last Stand, is co-creator of the series. Plain and simple, the Alphas are pawns in a much larger game. Dr. Rosen and the cooperating government, using the Alphas for societal advancement, scientific purposes, and safekeeping, are on one side of the table while a number of opponents who wish to do various breeds of harm for largely clichéd reasons occupy the other.
Even as tropes arrive in full force, exceptions to boilerplate good-versus-evil scenarios make occasional appearances. In the cold open of the mostly misguided second installment, “Cause & Effect,” a rogue Alpha named Marcus Ayers (Will McCormack), who desires to be free of the higher authority’s grasp, takes out an entire security escort squad with nothing but the flick of a coin while handcuffed in the back of an ambulance (he can manipulate outcomes by evaluating his environment to an incredibly acute degree). Neither Marcus nor his would-be captors are “the good guys.” Later in the episode, it’s revealed via flashbacks that Marcus was a patient of Dr. Rosen’s prior to the establishment of the Alphas corps. He clearly exhibits signs of psychopathic behavior and blames only others for his dangerous decisions. Rosen, who began to believe he could truly make Marcus comprehend his negative worldview but fails repeatedly, subsequently sent him to a subdivision of the government in conjuncture with Alpha research to be closely monitored. Seven years later, Marcus returns to shake things up with a few message-sending murders, claiming Rosen, like the Alphas, are simply chess pieces in a devious game.
If there’s a flash of redemption in “Cause & Effect,” and the first round of episodes as a whole, it’s when Dr. Rosen responds to the frustrations of Bill Harken, the hard-shelled, self-appointed lead Alpha who’s basically a toned down version of the Hulk. “Maybe [Marcus] was born broken,” Bill suggests, “Nobody is born broken. Life just conspires.” It’s a wonderfully grounded moment, one that hints at the levels of growth Alphas could aspire to if it’s able to focus thoroughly on the humanity of its characters and less on the far too familiar situations they operate within.