What does it take to make a halfway-decent superhero show?
Alphas (Syfy, Mondays at 10 p.m. ET) stars David Strathairn as one Dr. Lee Rosen, who, in any fair ranking of the directors of leagues of extraordinary ladies and gentlemen, would fall below Professor X but well above most schoolmarms attending to gifted and talented classes. Though Dr. Rosen lacks any uncanny abilities himself, the show takes care to note that his charges are also not precisely supercharged. Rather, they are individuals who've "learned to stretch the capabilities of the human mind." While you are sitting around watching television with some measly percentage of your neurons, they are harnessing the unused portion to keep you moderately entertained.
Considering that the five persons battling evil and bureaucracy—and, in all likelihood, evil bureaucracy—are fantastic enough to build an hour-long fantasy show around, the distinction between us and them is perhaps meaninglessly fine. But the point stands that these superheroes are just like us. Significantly, a couple demonstrations of some of the superpowers (telekinesis, ridiculous strength) involve office vending machines, indicating the mundane quality of otherworldly abilities. And the show's group dynamics tend less toward Hall-of-Justice camaraderie than office-comedy squabbling, rendering the problem of keeping the world safe on par with assembling a quarterly report.
Rosen—underplayed by Strathairn, a way of grounding the series in realism, surely, and also an indication that he is reserving some strength and some dignity—is a neurologist working with patients who have extremely disorderly disorders and coaching them to world-saving greatness. For instance, Nina (Laura Mennell) exerts influence over lesser mortals by way of making eye contact, apparently. This is, in itself, unremarkable. Babes have been pulling stunts along these lines from the time eye contact was first discovered, circa 1970 and the invention of ladies' night. But Nina raises it to the level of a Jedi mind trick. Where other people cry their way out of traffic tickets, she suggests, persuasively, that the cop should literally eat the ticket.
Meanwhile, Rachel (Azita Ghanizada) boats some kind of high-wattage synesthesia that enables her to amp up one of her senses at the expense of the other four. Thus, she experiences her power as a blessing/affliction much along the same lines as Bill (Malik Yoba), who can summon adrenaline rushes that grant him abilities to superfight and superflee but leave him feeling superduperbushed afterward. Then we have Gary (Ryan Cartwright), who is "autistic" unto the point of intercepting communications signals, and Cameron (Warren Christie), the resident hypernetic. Cameron comes into the fold after finding himself programmed, via cellphone, to commit a murder. One pleasant morning, every electronic billboard and passing bus ad tells him that it is "time to kill"—not a marketing blitz for a Grisham adaptation, unfortunately, but a brainwashing order. But the good doctor ministers to him and his peers, dressing psychic wounds, putting the crew through self-actualizing paces, and giving the misfits a place to fit in.
We have previously been down this road, with its dappled shade cast by shadowy organization and occasional bursts of excitement thrown from good special effects. Alphas at leasthas the grace to tread wryly and lightly—or least not to stomp with the heavy slam-bam insistence of NBC's Heroes or a dozen other shows that, trying to weave some sort of "mythology," tie themselves in knots of willful obscurity. Built to appeal to discerning comic-book guys and casual daytripping daydreamers, Alphas proceeds with a relative sobriety that will prove attractive to some and simply unintoxicating to others. If there are any grown-up fanboys left in America—people who can bring themselves to admit that this summer's blockbusters-in-tights are meager gruel—then Alphas may have enough beta charm to see them through the season.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photograph of Malik Yoba as Bill Harken, Azita Ghanizada as Rachel, David Strathairn as Dr. Lee Rosen in Alphas © NBCUniversal Inc. All rights reserved.