MONDAY ON SYFY: “ALPHAS”
Zak Penn has a confession: The screenwriter whose name has appeared in the credits of two “X-Men” films, “Elektra” and “The Incredible Hulk” has a real problem with this whole superhero thing that has been dominating Hollywood’s attention for the last decade.
“I loved comics growing up, but even then I was always skeptical of straight-ahead superhero stories — I never liked Spider-Man and Batman,” the 43-year-old said. “The idea of superheroes always struck me as odd. Why are they putting on costumes to fight crime? Why are these people doing this?”
These sort of questions eventually led Penn (who also wrote an early script for “The Avengers” project coming next year from Marvel Studios) and collaborator Michael Karnow to “Alphas,” the new Syfy project that premieres Monday with tales of superpowered humans who do amazing things but never while wearing spandex. And instead of taking oaths to fight crime and evil, they use their powers to get a paycheck.
“They’re super but they’re not heroic — they want to know, ‘What’s in this for me?’” Penn said, adding that the main characters are drafted by a secret government operation that offers “a paycheck and a good dental plan.”
“Alphas” stars David Strathairn as Dr. Lee Rosen, a preeminent neurologist with a fatherly devotion to his team of operatives, all of whom (unlike Rosen himself) possess Alpha Skills. He needs all of his wisdom and patience just to defuse the conflicts within his team, which includes the super-strong Bill Harken (Malik Yoba), the will-bending Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell) and powerfully perceptive Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright).
The genesis for the show was Karnow’s interest in MK-ULTRA, the real-life covert project that sought to unlock secrets of the human brain for military uses. Those programs inspired the loopy film “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” but in this new venture they have also led to an adventure-team concept that Penn says “is closer in its DNA to procedural shows like ‘The X-Files‘ or ‘Fringe.’” It’s a relief to have a story of people who can do amazing things but aren’t bogged down by the tropes of the caped crusader crowd, Penn said with a chuckle: “I didn’t really want to do something about a radioactive fragment from outer space and I don’t want to sit there this time around and puzzle out the reason why, you know, the Beast in ‘X-Men’ is covered in blue fur and how that relates to the X-gene of whatever.”
Penn has long been fascinated by the work of Oliver Sacks, the British neurologist whose 1973 book “Awakenings” eventually led to the Hollywood film of the same title. “Alphas” is a hybrid of that mental-ward world — and its strange possibilities — put together with a comic-book flair for the fantastic. That will inspire some observers to compare it to “Heroes,” but, to Penn, that show was a superhero construct and this one, with an emphasis on wry dialogue in a cynical world, has more in common with the Scranton offices of Dunder Mifflin Sabre.
“There are no big sci-fi ideas. It’s really based in reality,” Penn said. “Michael and I are also really amused by the banality of everyday life, the sort of things that ‘The Office’ and other shows deal with so well. They don’t have fancy code names and they don’t wear uniforms. They work in an office and they argue. That’s more interesting than capes.”
— Geoff Boucher
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