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August 11, 2011

‘Alphas’: Misfits of science find the sweet spot

Posted in: TV

The most promising new sci-fi series on television? Our vote goes to “Alphas” on SyFy, which lives somewhere between “The Office” and “The X-Men.” The show gives us a “misfits of science” team of special-ability civilians (along with one grouchy FBI agent) who would fascinate Fox Mulder — they could use his help, too, to sort out the slow-reveal conspiracies that are taking the Monday night show toward its two-part season finale. The series has some intriguing guest stars in the mix (Lindsay Wagner, Summer Glau and Brett Spiner among them) and our Geoff Boucher recently sat down with the show’s head writer, Ira Steven Behr (executive producer on both “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “The 4400”) to talk about the sh0w’s ambitions.

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Ira Steven Behr (SyFy)

GB: One of the key things for any show in its early life is to pinpoint the tone that will be its signature. What can you tell us about “Alphas” at this point?

ISB: One of the reasons I joined this little parade was for the chance to do a show that exists in the sci-fi universe but was clearly meant to be a character-driven show and was clearly meant to have humor as a major element — character humor as opposed to slapstick or farce. I think the tone of the show is interesting. It’s very fast-paced at times. One of the things we decided to do after the pilot was speed up the look of the show with lots of hand-held camera and a lot of energy in the scenes to make it as real as possible. OK, so people don’t necessarily have this level of ability in the real world — at least not yet although some seem to on YouTube — but we can keep it real and keep it natural as well as that sense that these are kind of the odd ducks doing a job that they are not meant to do.

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A scene from “Alphas.” (Russ Martin/Syfy)

GB: Sometimes for a show it’s important to know what needs to be avoided. What does this show need to avoid to succeed?

ISB: Speaking only for myself, I’m not attracted to more procedural elements of the show. There are a ton of procedurals on the air; do we need another one on the Syfy network? It gives us a nice framework for the show but I don’t think we should get caught up into scenes or episodes that could be played on another series out there. One of the things that we’ve done so far [in the completed episodes that have not yet aired], we’ve managed to make every episode different than the one that came before. It’s definitely not cookie-cutter. That’s what really interests me in terms of being on this show; you’re giving the audience a wide range of storytelling. We’ve done an episode that is, in my view, a procedural show and then we’ve followed it with a very strong  character-driven episode where we put the humor in the foreground. We’ve had spooky, intense episodes and then something with a different feel completely. I’ve done this kind of [show] before when I did “The 4400” where originally it was going to be “We’re going to do 4,400 episodes because you meet one of those people every week” but then the thing was, no, you really don’t want to do that. We played with the franchise literally every season. I’m not sure we’re going to have that kind of freedom here but I think that Season Two — if there is a Season Two — will definitely build on Season One in lots of ways but it won’t repeat Season One.

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A scene from "Alphas." (Russ Martin/Syfy)

GB: The emphasis on improvisation and dialogue overlap, giving the show a nice crackle. You’ve had the cast to do it — people like David Straithairn, Ryan Cartwright and Malik Yoba  — but I’m wondering how their performances come back to you and tilt the characters that you write on the page the next time around. 

ISB: I spent eight years in the “Star Trek” universe where actors could not change a word. I’m not exaggerating. They could not change a word without a call to the offices. It was a lot easier, we were on the same lot [at Paramount], we could go down and talk. They were all pretty good about it; because of the whole 24th century thing, if they just on-the-spot changed a line it can make it slangy or too current. So what I’m saying is they knew that and it wasn’t a problem. But in that setting there wasn’t an opportunity to do what we’re doing with “Alphas.” And you’re right, it does require people that can do it and actually achieve it. If you can’t do it, stick with what’s written or else it will go sideways. Again, the naturalistic quality, the reality of an on-the-spot, living, breathing moment and the reaction to it is kind of cool. And you know we’re talking about two different things, too, when we’re talking about improv and the ad lib. The extra line that someone throws in at the end of a scene or to punctuate a moment, that creates that crackle and it’s a great button — that’s one thing. Then there’s the ad-libbing  within the written dialogue where people go “off book,” as we say. That’s the stuff you have to listen more closely to [at rehearsals] and hopefully work that stuff out before they hit the set because you want to make sure the intent and the information is still there even if it’s dirtied up and changed to come more comfortably out of the actor’s mouth. These guys are pretty great and we talk it over with them and we have writers on the set.

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A scene from "Alphas." (Russ Martin/Syfy)

GB: I really enjoy the fact that the characters are conflicted about their abilities and uneasy about their place in the world — no one on this team would ever wear a cape and deliver a speech during a fight.

ISB: These people — with the exception of Bill Harkin, who is FBI [and portrayed by Yoba] — none of them really have a right to be doing what they’re doing.  And if [Straithairn’s character] Dr. Rosen or anyone else was putting together a TV team of investigators and cops and muscle to work on cases and go after these powerful, dangerous people, this would not be the team you would pick. You’d be looking through the Alphas catalog and you would pick different people. They aren’t what you expect. And that’s the sweet spot for the show.

— Geoff Boucher


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