SyFy's “Alphas”: Superpowers, But No Superheroes

Super-powered beings have been all over the big screen lately, but they’ve yet to find a long-term cape-hold in television (see: the recently-canceled, um, "The Cape"). SyFy’s “Alphas” might just change all that – just don’t call them superheroes.

The new series, which premieres tonight, five diverse, otherwise ordinary people who have extraordinary abilities – known as “Alphas” – are gathered together by the Department of Defense to help investigate cases that appear to involve other emerging Alphas. The powers are there, but don’t expect anything like previous short-lived TV superhero fare like “Heroes” or “No Ordinary Family,” says says co-creator Zak Penn.

“Actually, I think superheroes have a lot of trouble on TV in general,” says Penn, who previously penned the screenplays for films including “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “The Incredible Hulk” and the upcoming “The Avengers.” “From its very conception our mantra was we're not doing a superhero show. It's not people dressing up in costumes and fighting crime. It's really more about super humans, about people who have extraordinary abilities, and we're firmly in the science fiction universe in terms of where we're coming from. Since the show was conceived in that way, I don't think you will confuse it with any of the movies I've written certainly. It's coming at it from a completely different angle.”

Penn tried to emphasize character development while instituting elements of the crime procedural format that, clearly, works well on TV.

"The show is probably closer to 'The Mentalist' or 'The X-Files' in its pitch – that's where we started from,” explains Penn. “And then I kind of got in some of the stuff I always wanted to do in superhero genre: I managed to find the real-world equivalent of it. So as opposed to 'Heroes,' which is completely serialized and a lot like 'X-Men,' we purposely started from the totally other direction in terms of what the show is actually like, in the same way that 'Law & Order' is nothing like 'Heat'. They're two opposite ends of the genre.”

The characters’ powers, he reveals, are all rooted in real-life phenomena as well, inspired by actual incidents of extra-normal abilities. “These are all based on real people,” says Penn. “They're all based on actual research. I mean, they're a little bit heightened, obviously, but one or two of them are pretty close to reality, actually. No flying. No laser beams coming out of eyes. No capes. That's kind of the rule.”

Among the Alphas are Bill Harken (Malik Yorba), an FBI agent who can activate his fight-or-flight instinct for enhanced strength; Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada), who can access enhanced senses one at the time, though her others then then shut down; Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie), whose perfectly synchronized mind and body give him uncanny aim and coordination; Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright), an autistic man who can perceive and interpret electromagnetic wavelengths; and Nina (Laura Mennell), whose power of instant induction allows her to override the willpower of others. Overseeing them all is the non-powered Alpha expert Dr. Rosen (David Straithairn).

“I have big Alpha-envy, yeah,” chuckles Straithairn, the Emmy winning and Oscar nominated actor who was intrigued enough by the premise to sign onto the series. “Those people in their day-to-day lives are being put into a heightened and extreme and potentially life threatening situations – It has great potential, and that's why I thought to throw my hat in the circle."

“It's five people who are in many ways inept in their relationships because they have been compromised by their particular skills and gifts,” says Straithairn. “You bring these people together, and they are a family because of their particular similarities, but they have problems.”

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