Superhero shows haven’t fared well on network television lately. This past fall saw the debut of ABC’s No Ordinary Family, a dramedy about a family who gains superpowers after a plane accident. It started out promisingly – in fact, its pilot was one of the best I’d ever seen – but within six or seven episodes, it had crashed and burned. I didn’t make it past Christmas. Next came NBC’s The Cape at midseason. It was never a good show. I made it through four episodes (and was holding back vomit for most of the fourth). Both shows have been cancelled by their respective networks.

So naturally, viewers might have felt apprehensive about SyFy’s Alphas, which debuted last night. The history of superhero shows doesn’t bode well for Alphas. Plus, it’s on cable, so it wouldn’t be able to afford the cool special effects that made No Ordinary Family watchable while the rest of the show became increasingly ludicrous. Luckily, even if the pilot is a bit clunky, Alphas shows a lot of potential right off the bat, and it looks surprisingly good for a cable show.1 More thoughts on the pilot after the jump.

There are a number of things that the pilot does well. It introduces the show’s premise quickly and effectively: a group of people with superpowers (the titular Alphas) work together with a doctor to solve crimes. There are no capes and tights, and no overly emotional background stories.2 Within the first ten minutes or so, the case has already begun. The show sets up what I hope will be a good mix of procedural and serialized storytelling: a nifty case that ties into a larger mythology. Sniping at a federal witness through an air vent using “hyperkinetic” abilities? Score one in the cool points column.

The Alphas themselves aren’t the most interesting characters on the planet, but I like their abilities, and I like the fact that their powers have limitations. Malik Yoba3 plays Bill Harken, who has the ability to activate super-strength, but only for a short period of time. Laura Mennell plays Nina Theroux, who has the power to manipulate people to do what she wants, but it doesn’t work on everyone. Ryan Cartwright4 plays Gary Bell, a young autistic man who has the ability to sense most (but not all) kinds of electromagnetic radiation. Azita Ghanizada plays Rachel Pirzad, who has the ability to heighten one of her senses at a time, at the expense of shutting out the others. Finally, Warren Christie plays Cameron Hicks, the aforementioned sniper with hyperkinetic abilities, who joins the team after it is revealed that he was brainwashed into killing the witness.

The various abilities would be fun enough on their own – and the show does a good job of integrating them all into a team effort – but what really makes them a joy to watch is the acting. The actors who play the Alphas do a surprisingly excellent job. Mennell and Ghanizada are especially good, as is Cartwright. (In fact, he may be too good, but I’ll get to that in a second.) David Strathairn, who plays team leader and doctor Lee Rosen, gives a fine performance, and I’m not just saying that because he was an Oscar nominee. Strathairn infuses Rosen with a winsome mixture of wit and wisdom, but also gives him a dark, serious streak (which he uses to great effect in the scene where Rosen blackmails Cameron into joining the team). In fact, he’s kind of what I imagine Dumbledore would be like if Michael Gambon could actually act.5

The mixture of fun cases and cool abilities would work really well in an hour-long format, especially with a cast as good as this one. Unfortunately, the pilot episode was overlong and dragged in parts. It also featured quite a bit of clunky, expository dialogue (as pilots are wont to feature). The explanation of each Alpha’s ability and its limitations was a bit too on-the-nose, for example. I can understand why it was done – it obviates the need to make up contrived limitations to fit the plot down the road – but I wish that those explanations had been brought about more naturally. However, those problems should disappear now that the premise has been set and the show is switching to a one-hour running time.

There are, unfortunately, a few other problems that may not disappear. I wasn’t too fond of the idea of a burgeoning romance between Nina and Cameron. The pilot episode dropped too many anvils about it, and I think it’s a little too soon for the show to be going that route. Secondly, Gary and Bill need to be toned down. By the end of the episode, their shticks had gotten annoying. Part of the problem is that Cartwright is doing such a good job as Gary that his quirks become uncomfortable to watch. The writers need to make Gary a more functional human being, and they need to reduce Bill’s arrogance and sarcasm so that he’s actually a likable character. Finally, though this might be wishful thinking, seeing as Alphas is on a cable channel, I wish that the show would feature a bit more action. However, I don’t think the budget will allow it, so hopefully, the cases still manage to be interesting.

Overall, Alphas promises to be a pretty enjoyable summer series. I reserve the right to be skeptical until the show establishes itself, but I like what I’ve seen so far and I hope that the show can improve from here.

1 Of course, the pilot was shot on a pilot budget, which is typically larger than the budget will be on a week-to-week basis. But the show has at least made an effort to look nice, which is a good sign.

2 Capes and tights aren’t bad in principle. They certainly weren’t one of the The Cape’s many problems. That show suffered from massive tonal inconsistencies and piss-poor plotting. Also, Summer Glau’s acting was atrocious.

3 The last thing I saw him in was Arrested Development as Ice the Bounty Hunter. (In my mind, Defying Gravity never happened.)

4 RIP Vincent Nigel-Murray.

5 RIP Richard Harris.