Alphas Ep. 2.1, “Wake Up Call”: A prison break pulls the gang back together

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Alphas Review, Season 2, Episode 1, “Wake Up Call”
Written by Robert Hewitt Wolfe
Directed by Matt Hastings
Airs Mondays at 10 pm (ET) on SyFy

When Alphas premiered last July, it drew comparisons to Heroes with its characters learning to cope with extraordinary abilities. While it lacked the grand ambitions of the fallen NBC series, it compensated with more heart and an excellent lead performance. Veteran character actor David Strathairn (Limbo, Good Night and Good Luck) brings a surprising weight to Dr. Lee Rosen that enhances the drama. The world-weary guy doesn’t have powers, but the neurologist/psychologist has worked for years to help these “Alphas” handle their skills. His team includes strong man Bill (Malik Yoba), ultimate sharp shooter Cameron (Warren Christie), mental influencer Nina (Laura Mennell), sense-heightener Rachel (Azita Ghanizada), and the autistic but hyperkinetic Gary (Ryan Cartwright). They’re an oddly matched team of heroes but work together to battle the forces of destruction.

The first season concluded with Rosen revealing the existence of Alphas to the world and quickly being silenced by the government. Eight months later, he’s confined to the Binghamton prison and being treated for mental illness. They aren’t sure what to do with him, so Rosen waits for the next big event to occur that requires his expertise. His former team has splintered, and each person is struggling to stay afloat. Rachel refuses to leave her room, Nina wastes time picking up helpless guys, and Gary is in Binghamton’s Building 7 where the nastiest enemies reside. Bill and Cameron are working for the military and battle a tough gang of baddies at a grocery store. This inspired scene includes a girl who controls the electricity and a guy with a voice that takes out an entire group of soldiers. Now that’s power! While she is captured, it’s actually a set-up for the main plan to break a horde of foes out of Building 7.

The action moves fast in this premiere and piles on the plot at a relentless pace. There’s some heavy lifting required to get the team back together and set up the band of villains for the upcoming season. This opener might have worked better as a two-part story with more time to meet the new characters. Even so, there’s still plenty to like in this episode. Strathairn continues to deliver a fascinating performance and makes Rosen intriguing in every scene. Even when he’s facing a standard hostage situation, the threat feels real because he sells it. The enemies don’t match this level of interest, though they’re really just the muscle behind mastermind Stanton Parish (John Pyper-Ferguson). It is chilling to watch just a few words from Kimi Milard (Sarah Slywchuk) convince the prison administrator to shoot himself. She’s the flip side of the coin from Nina and uses that skill for the ugliest objectives. Kimi’s approach is more interesting than the bluster of Ted Asher (Dylan Scott Smith). His ability to spot physical weaknesses is the key to their plan, but Smith portrays him as a one-note villain.

Alphas appears headed for a similar arc to the “Villains” story of Heroes, though I doubt it will make the same mistakes. The team has an interesting dynamic, and that’s the draw more than the weekly enemies. Ryan Cartwright has limited screen time as Gary this week, but his fine work in a tricky role is excellent. He brings humanity to the autistic character while conveying the dangers of pushing him outside the daily routine. The image of Gary sitting motionless in Building 7 has a striking effect on his friends and the audience. The main cast is solid across the board, but Cartwright stands apart as the most engaging character beyond Rosen. Laura Mennell does a nice job when she gets the chance to reveal the cracks in Nina’s confident exterior. The show repeatedly use the same effect for her ability (and Bill’s fast-beating heart), but it clearly reveals her power to influence others. The romance between Nina and Cameron is less-interesting, though it’s an understandable plot necessity to have at least one romance in the group.

The prison break includes one impressive trick where it appears that Rosen has been burned to a crisp by Cornell Scipio (Elias Toufexis). While it’s pretty obvious that the lead character isn’t going to die, there is a brief moment when the danger feels real. The action works better than the typical genre show because of the investment in the characters. The familiar device works because Strathairn has made Rosen an appealing guy. That connection is what lifts Alphas above the standard fare and makes it worth a regular viewing. The action and skills are interesting but wouldn’t hold up over the long run without interest in the main cast. Numerous show runners have made that mistake and focused too much on the plot gimmicks. That approach might work for a season but starts getting old once the hook becomes familiar. “Wake Up Call” doesn’t blast out of the gate but offers an interesting set-up for a promising second season.

Dan Heaton

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