Jul 28 2011

Why So Serious, Alphas? A Preliminary Writers’ Review

Alphas is a TV show about a team of superheroes people with unusual talents working to solve apparently uncrackable cases.  Overall, it’s a decent timewaster, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it.   So far, it’s condescending towards previous superhero works (and superhero fans) and isn’t fun or stylish enough.


What Worked:

  • How the powers are depicted, especially mind control.  Seeing and hearing the controller’s objective everywhere around you was vastly more interesting than a voice in the head.  In particular, the way it distorted the character’s perspective was memorable, like the way a little old lady in a grocery store asks the protagonist where the ice cream is and then says in the most cheerful voice possible, “It’s time to kill.”   (Superhero writers, even a stock power can get a lot more interesting if you play around with how it manifests and works.)
  • I know some people with autism, and I felt that Ryan Cartwright acted well enough that he was believable as an autistic technopath.  From his slightly awkward speech pattern to the repetitive gestures, he was on the mark.
  • A few of the characters are interesting. In addition to the autistic technopath, the superstrong guy had a really solid scene with his wife.


What Could Have Been More Effective:

  • The characters were bland.  They are introduced with their names and powers on screen, which is the only way I can keep most of them apart.  For the love of any deity you believe in (and/or the Flying Spaghetti Monster), please make us actually care about your characters.  Also, Alphas’ Rachel (Azita Ghanizada) bears an uncanny resemblance to Glee’s Rachel (Lea Michele).
  • The stock plot could have been more lively.  There’s a mysterious murder, one of the heroes is the prime suspect and the real perpetrator gets away.  There’s not much more than that, certainly not any humor or feeling.  Even if your story is the grimmest of grim, you can still use dead baby comedy.  Just because it’s “edgy” doesn’t mean it has to be emotionless.
  • The plot twists are predictable.  (It’s too obvious that the mind-controlling villain zapped the bellhop into acting as a decoy, for example). This was also a problem with Playing for Keeps.
  • It talks down to the audience.  I know that it’s probably unintentional and they’re trying to pitch the show to a wider audience, but going to any lengths to keep the show from being *shudder* a superhero show and what the fans expect it will be? Either way, I still don’t like it. (Writers, don’t hate on your genre for no good reason. Audience members that are fans of the genre may feel patronized).
  • It wants to be more realistic than other superhero stories, which is fine, but it didn’t even get the research right.  (For example, synesthesia? Yeah, it doesn’t work that way).

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “Why So Serious, Alphas? A Preliminary Writers’ Review”

  1. Crystalon 28 Jul 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Oh, I saw an advertisement for this in a magazine and wanted to watch it. I was wondering if it was any good.
    Kinda random, but how were they portraying synesthesia in the show?

  2. Wingson 28 Jul 2011 at 5:21 pm

    The show said that it was the power to super-intensify one sense while negating the other four – super hearing, super scent-tracking, super eyesight, and so on.

    Let’s do a quick Google search…

    “…a neurologically based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.”

    I’m pretty sure that means that usage of one sense creates involuntarily reactions from another one. Anyway, it took me about a minute to figure it out – yet the writers for Alphas couldn’t just be true to their roots and say “super-senses”.

    – Wings

  3. Chris Newtonon 28 Jul 2011 at 7:00 pm

    I notice that in a lot of “mainstreamed” genre fare. It’s okay to be a show about superheroes, guys. Really. Have you checked the box office revenues lately? Superheroes are actually mainstream now. You don’t have to hide your comics stash from your parents anymore; just write a superhero show if you want. The trick is to make sure it’s a good show…

  4. Wingson 28 Jul 2011 at 7:11 pm

    The sad thing is is that it could have been a really good show, if they shook up the plot and replaced the writer with someone who was actually witty. Really, I think a lot of us would tolerate a “cliched” show if it was pulled off right.

    Top comments on iTunes for this show:

    “they will just cancel it anyways. why bother?” [sic]

    “…I think the series shows some promise, but I sure wouldn’t want to get into it only for it to be canceled prematurely.”

    “SGU was the last straw SyFy. No more new series with you for me.”

    “If it makes 3 or more seasons I’ll start buying it. I’m never getting burned by one of their series again. You like it they pull it.”

    When only a small group of fans like the show, it gets pulled since it’s not “mainstream” enough. So when a new show comes around, some people from that group don’t watch it because they don’t want to be let down. Since Show #2 nets even less of an audience, it gets dropped, angering the people who were watching it, and so on. Firefly Effect in action.

    – Wings

  5. B. Macon 28 Jul 2011 at 9:39 pm

    “I notice that in a lot of ‘mainstreamed’ genre fare. It’s okay to be a show about superheroes, guys. Really. Have you checked the box office revenues lately?Superheroes are actually mainstream now.” I’m not sure they’re mainstream on TV. Definitely not superhero action (in live-action, at least). I think there are some differences between movies and TV that encourage these sort-of-superhero shows instead of the purer fare in superhero movies.

    –Action is expensive! Movies have much larger budgets than live-action TV shows, so they can afford to pull out the stops on special effects.

    –While both movies and TV shows do about 55% of their business with women, when you factor out sports audiences, women make up the large majority of adult viewers for scripted TV.

    –I don’t have any hard numbers, but my intuition is that men tend to be more receptive to action and less receptive to drama and romance than women are. (On average–obviously there are many exceptions). If so, I can imagine why live-action superhero shows would tend to look more like Smallville (teen drama/romance with incidental action) than a typical summer blockbuster (action with incidental romance). If there are more women in the sea of potential viewers, I would infer that it is monetarily sound to focus on products that appeal more to women. (Also, drama/romance fits the budget constraints better).

    –I suspect that going to the movies is more of a social event than watching TV. For example, I’d imagine that most of the guys that went to Twilight went because their dates and/or lady-friends asked them to come. My intuition is that that superhero movies benefit the other way (from men asking women to come). I doubt TV shows would get as much group help, though. Is TV viewing a group activity? (According to Bowling Alone, not usually).

    PS: Fun factoid: 48% of Dark Knight’s viewers in the opening weekend were women. So, umm, there’s always hope that well-written works can succeed with a variety of people regardless of demographic stereotyping. 🙂

  6. _Tarik92on 11 Aug 2011 at 8:12 am

    I like it… I skipped the first two episodes

  7. Anonymouson 21 Dec 2011 at 6:35 pm

    How is Alphas “condescending towards previous superhero works (and superhero fans)”? And how does it talk down to the audience?

  8. B. McKenzieon 21 Dec 2011 at 8:17 pm

    There’s this phenomenon that TV Tropes calls “Don’t Use the Z Word” where stories deliberately avoid using a word that comes to mind for most readers. For example, if you were writing a story about characters that turned into wolves when the moon was full and you wanted to call them Lycos, readers might ask “umm, why not just call them werewolves?”

    Some superhero stories do the same thing with superhero-specific words (e.g. “superpower” and “superhero”). Sometimes it’s hard to notice. For example, The Dark Knight refers to Batman’s vehicle as “the car” but never “the Batmobile,” because “Batmobile” is sort of goofy. Characters in Heroes have “abilities,” not “superpowers.” However, at least in Heroes, there were a few characters influenced by superhero fiction that did use superhero-themed terms (namely Hiro Nakamura). The Alphas–or at least the episodes I’ve seen so far–has totally eschewed superhero terms and I can see why some superhero fans would be annoyed by that. I can understand why Nolan might be embarrassed by “Batmobile”–it’s frankly embarrassing. But if you’re implying to people that core aspects of stories they really like are embarrassing, it might not go over well.

    That said, my own story (The Taxman Must Die) refers to the protagonists as federal agents far more often than “superheroes” and the villains as criminals, terrorists or Georgians far more often than “supervillains.” The media might give criminals a moniker along the lines of “the Boston Strangler” because journalists really do that to sell papers or characters might use code-names for reasons of security or, umm, badassery, but few of my characters would ever do something mainly because “that’s just how superheroes/villains roll.” In contrast, if a character chose to put on a cape, he’s almost assuredly doing it because it’s a convention of how superheroes act and not because it actually makes any sense.

  9. Anonymouson 22 Dec 2011 at 6:42 am

    That being said, is Alphas actually intended to be a superhero show? I always saw it more as what would actually happen if people were to develop unusual abilities, a kind of cop show with a twist. If modern crime shows can include elements of computer hacking (eg NCIS, Criminal Minds) without becoming a computer hacking show, why can crime shows not include elements of superheroes without becoming a superhero show?

  10. B. Macon 22 Dec 2011 at 12:31 pm

    “If modern crime shows can include elements of computer hacking (eg NCIS, Criminal Minds) without becoming a computer hacking show, why can crime shows not include elements of superheroes without becoming a superhero show?”

    1) Supernatural elements (even in relatively small doses) tend to have a pretty major effect on where a story gets classified. If you took something like Tom Clancy wrote and gave one character sorcerous powers, it’d feel really different and probably wouldn’t be classified in military fiction.

    2) I’m not familiar with NCIS, but on Criminal Minds hacking comes up at most one time an episode and is a pretty minor part of the episode. In contrast, in the Alphas episodes I’ve seen, the superpowers are a rather-significant part of the story.

    3) Most importantly, I think, it doesn’t work very well as a cop show. The characters don’t spend as much time solving crimes as, say, the characters on Law and Order. In contrast, I noticed quite a lot of time spent on things that feel more like a superhero story (e.g. chase scenes, fights, the villain’s origin, etc). Also, the crime-solving elements aren’t remotely as interesting as a good episode on an actual cop show.

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