What makes a good superhero TV show? There are many elements that need to be taken into account. Some have done better than others, but the one that tends to stick out in people’s minds is ‘Heroes.’
It was a huge hit that depicted otherwise normal people with superpowers. Now, with SyFy’s new show, ‘Alphas,’ of course the inevitable comparisons are beginning to crop up. So let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of these two shows.
Number Of Characters And Storylines
‘Heroes’ began with several unrelated characters who had unexplained abilities. These characters all had their own storylines in the first season that eventually intersected into one confrontation. This runs the risk of having storylines that are stronger and more interesting than others, which can in turn create frustration in the audience as the show tries to give equal screen time to the less interesting storylines and characters. For instance, audience favorite Hiro Nakamura was always brightening the screen with his storyline, while Mohinder Suresh tended to bring the pace of episodes crashing to a halt.
The other problem with so many characters and storylines is that it becomes difficult for the audience to keep track of them all, especially when new characters and stories are added throughout the course of the series. ‘Heroes’ suffered greatly from this in its latter three season.
‘Alphas’ has a much smaller cast of characters who are all contained within the same team. This allows them to follow just one storyline and give that level of attention that it would need. While only the first season has aired thus far, the greater storyline is starting to shape up. And, since all of the characters know each other and are part of the same team, it is much easier to develop them. At this early stage, some are more interesting than others, but we can still hope that all the characters will get their moment to shine.
The “Gateway” Character
In most sci-fi shows, there is typically one character who serves as the “gateway” for the audience. This character is the one who comes into the established situations for the first time, thus creating a reason for things that are well known to most characters to be explained to the audience. When done well, this character is very relatable to the audience, and they tend to at least begin the journey with them, if not stick with them throughout the entire course of the show.
‘Heroes’ had Hiro Nakamura, a geeky Japanese man who is obsessed with gaining superpowers, only to one day realize that he does, in fact, have them. Hiro was a very relatable character, because he showed the kind of childlike elation that most of us would have if we woke up one day with superpowers. With his best friend, Ando, we the audience were able to follow them into the world of burgeoning superheroes with their empathetic geeky joy. Part of what made ‘Heroes’ work so well in its first season was how the audience, who were probably pretty geeky in their own right…at least at the start, could live vicariously through Hiro and experience his unbridled happiness at being a superhero.
The “gateway” character in ‘Alphas’ is not nearly as relatable. Cameron Hicks is an ex-military sharpshooter, cut in a way that takes years to build and daily routines to maintain, and suffering from a pretty severe case of “lone wolf syndrome.” He starts off very cold and isolated, and only warms up to the team after a few episodes. Once he does, however, his own role as the “gateway” falls aside as he becomes fully entrenched in the events and conspiracies to come.
The truth is that the ‘Alphas’ character who is more akin to Hiro is Gary. While Hiro is primarily an overgrown child who never quite stopped believing in the superhero ideal, Gary is an autistic teenager who is so engrossed in his work, and yet so socially awkward, that he is essentially the adopted child of the team. This gives him the same kind of endearing and accessible quality that Hiro had, albeit in a very different sort of way.
One of the qualities of shows about people with super abilities is that the extraordinary is always tempered by somebody who is ordinary, yet just as involved in the story. ‘Heroes’ began this with Dr. Suresh, the son of a doctor who had been exploring the genetics of supers for some time. Taking over his father’s work, Suresh finds himself in the middle of a worldwide conspiracy. His role as the “control” is broken when he actually gives himself powers through a special syringe. After that, the “control” role is handed to Noah Bennett, adopted father of Claire Bennett. Working as an agent for a company that keeps tabs on the supers, he becomes much more emotionally invested in it when it is revealed that one of the supers is his daughter.
In ‘Alphas,’ we have Dr. Rosen. He is the head of the team at the heart of the show. While he has no powers of his own, he is very well educated in the Alphas phenomenon, and his insight and experience is the guiding light for the team. He is a man with a kind heart and strong ideals that is constantly tested by the activity of the Department of Defense. While Rosen has emotional investment just like Bennett, it is not limited to only one character. Rosen cares for his team like family, and is just as fiercely protective of them.
‘Heroes’ has certainly had its share of different villains over the course of its four seasons, but when you think of the bad guy in ‘Heroes’ your mind almost immediately goes to Sylar. Sylar is a rogue super who is introduced to us as a man who carves open people’s heads to take their abilities for himself. He is cold, brutal, and evil in every sense of the word. Through the course of the series, his role got more and more muddled, as his relationship to the Petrelli family became more apparent, and as he began to doubt himself and question his motives. He would shift between being a good guy and a bad guy.
‘Alphas’ has no one singular villain. For the majority of its first season, the only enemy that the team truly had was a mysterious organization known as Red Flag. It is a group of Alphas who are fighting a government conspiracy to suppress the gene that creates Alphas in the first place. Toward the end of the first season, we meet a few of the higher-level operatives: Anna, a girl who communicates only through an intricate pattern of pounding and scratching solid surfaces, and Dr. Kern, an obstetrician who is systematically giving pregnant mothers a vitamin that counters the effects of the drug that the government is giving them to suppress the Alpha gene. Neither of them are as straightforward evil as Sylar was in the beginning. They are people who believe that their cause is righteous, and this makes them even more compelling villains in my book. Being evil for evil’s sake is not nearly as interesting as fighting for what one believes is a just cause, even if it seems in direct opposition to the purpose of the good guys. In the season finale, we meet Stanton Parrish, the true head of Red Flag. He is an immortal Alpha who manipulated Rosen and his team to wipe out the heads of Red Flag to keep them from going public. This is a much more sinister character, since he has his own agenda which has yet to be revealed.
Both ‘Heroes’ and ‘Alphas’ have that moment where the people with abilities finally come out of the shadows and announce themselves to the world.
In ‘Heroes,’ Nathan Petrelli made the big announcement in a campaign speech, leading to a government agency being formed that did essentially what the Company had been doing independently up to that point: hunting down and suppressing supers. While it made for a somewhat interesting storyline, it never really felt like a true consequence of going public. There was no real public referendum on the subject, and there was very little in the way of government officials enacting public policy to keep the supers in check.
Season One of ‘Alphas’ ended with Rosen and his team hacking telecommunication satellites to announce their presence to the world. This was done more as a tactic to thwart Stanton Parrish, and since it was the last scene of the season finale, we have yet to see what consequences will arise from this act of defiance – aside from Rosen sitting in a prison cell, of course. This scene felt much stronger to me than it did in ‘Heroes,’ because there was a much more palpable sense of what a big risk it was. Rosen was doing the exact thing that both sides of the bigger fight didn’t want him to do.
While I always felt that ‘Heroes’ had an exceptionally strong first season, it quickly devolved into something that was a mere shadow of itself and never quite recovered, ending its fourth season with a whimper rather than a bang. Mired in its own mythology and complexity, ‘Heroes’ became an upsetting example of having a great idea and not knowing where to go with it.
‘Alphas’ has a much simpler premise. Rather than have epic battles between good and evil, with characters regularly switching sides, we have a much tighter story about a team of Alphas that believe they are doing good work for the government only to discover that there is another side to the story, and that they all might be on the wrong side of it. ‘Alphas’ also has a much smaller and more manageable number of characters who are all part of the same story, which removes the constant perspective shift that was a major part of the undoing of ‘Heroes.’
Yes, we only have one season of ‘Alphas’ thus far, but I feel that it has a much stronger potential for staying on course and keeping with one central story. It is certainly darker than ‘Heroes,’ but I feel that works in its favor. There is a stronger sense of realism in this than in ‘Heroes,’ which makes it more compelling and engrossing. It also ended its first season with a fantastic hook for a second season, while ‘Heroes’ ended its first season with a climax and a clear sense of confusion as to where to go from there. Next year will be the real test to see if ‘Alphas’ can pull off a stronger second season than ‘Heroes’ did, but I have a stronger sense that ‘Alphas’ will be able to remain more consistent as it continues.