‘Alphas’ creator Zak Penn: ‘They’re super but they’re not heroic’

July 08, 2011 | 4:01 p.m.

MONDAY ON SYFY: “ALPHAS”

"Alphas" assemble: Ryan Cartwright as Gary Bell, Laura Mennell as Nina Theroux, Malik Yoba as Bill Harken, David Strathairn as Dr. Lee Rosen, Warren Christie as Cameron Hicks, Azita Ghanizada as Rachel (Justin Stephens / Syfy)

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.

"Alphas" (Russ Martin / Syfy)

“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.”

David Strathairn (Ken Woroner / Syfy)

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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Comments


4 Responses to ‘Alphas’ creator Zak Penn: ‘They’re super but they’re not heroic’

  1. whatever says:

    I'm all excited. I liked the way "Dark Angel' took place in multiple venues-the typical blue-collar workplace, the rarified strata of the rare rich, and the dark corners where the outcasts and misfits ruled. But whether you were 'normal' or 'supernormal' people had 3 dimensions, freaks had feelings, and that totally got my attention. This 'Alpha' sounds like it has the potential to do that in an even more familiar setting. So I can play their games in my head, too!

  2. whatever says:

    Hm. I guess I'd better get busy watching. Just realized how old this article is. And how few comments it got. Not a good sign.

    • Caroline says:

      The show is amazing, if you haven't already found that out for yourself. You should watch it if you haven't already.

  3. Caroline says:

    This is ridiculous! I love Alphas, my whole family sits down and watches it together. I just finished the last episode of season 2 today. I think you should continue the show for one last season. You've already killed Stanton Parish (I think(sorry, spoiler alert)), so I think one more season should go on. I don't know what it would be about, but Zak Penn and Michael Karnow are geniuses! The next season could be about anything! It could be about how Gary is the last one, and he spends his life trying wake the rest of the team up, or he could find out that the "light blast" cured his mother. Maybe he rushes to the hospital and finds his mother alive, and everyone else didn't even realize what had happened. Maybe the rest of the season could be about finding Gary. Have you ever seen the show Charmed? It's a really good show. The last episode has them growing old and how they lived the rest of their lives! In season 3 if you change your minds, and make it, the last episode of that could be how they all live their lives. Gary takes care of his mother, and finds another girl with an ability similar to his; Dr. Rosen dies, but is with Dani; Nina and Cameron get married and grow old together, along with Rachel and John! Kat somehow finds a way to get back all her memories, and finds her mother, and Bill and his wife could finally have a child of their own! My ideas go on and on. I looked for Zak Penn and Michael Karnow's email addresses, but I couldn't find them :( PLEASE EMAIL ME.

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