Sunday, August 12, 2012

TV: The Continuation

Alphas is a Syfy original series airing Mondays and the premise is that certain individuals are more 'gifted and talented' than others.  This series, created by Zak Penn and Micahel Karnow, is a blend of Mutant X, The Bionic Woman and X-Men.  In fact, The Bionic Woman herself, Lindsay Wagner, appeared in episode five of the first season playing her Warehouse 13 recurring character Dr. Vanessa Calder.


Dr. Rosen (David Strathairn) oversees a team of Alphas.  There's Gary (Ryan Cartwright) who is autistic and who can see communication signals traveling through the air, Bill (Malik Yoba) who can have superhuman strength and speed, Rachel (Azila Ghanizada) whose senses of taste, touch, hearing, smell and sight are so strong she can be overwhelmed just sitting in a room alone, Cameron (Warren Christie) who basically has perfect aim (except when nervous) and Nina (Laura Mennell) who can "push" people -- she stares at you and tells you what to do and you do it.

They are not the only Alphas, they are the five working with the government and, as season one ended, why they were working with the government was becoming a serious question.  Season two (episode four of which airs Monday) finds Nina brought back into the team.  Throughout season one, she questioned the team's actions and why, if they were supposed to be helping, they kept killing or aiding in the killing of Alphas.  By episode seven, when her Alpha friend Skylar (Summer Glau) returned, Nina was obviously estranged.  After they aided in a Pentagon assault on Alphas in the season finale, Nina was out of the group.

The fact that Gary was missing was enough to bring her back in.  But, after Gary was saved, she tried to get back with Cameron only to find out he was sleeping with Dr. Rosen's daughter Danielle (Kathleen Munroe) and Nina realized she couldn't go back.  She's left the group and some fear she's gone rogue (watch Monday night's episode -- no spoilers).

In the meantime Kat (Erin Way) is with the team and has managed to release the stress that had built up in Bill.  A common theme in season one episodes was that Bill was not listening.  Kat teaches him how to relax and it not only allows him to relax, it allows him to access his super strength and speed without needing to become so enraged that sweat pours down him and his heart is in danger.  While things are going better for Bill, they're not for Gary.

Gary fell for Anna (Liane Balaban) in season one.  She appeared to be unable to understand what was going on around her but, in fact, she can understand any language and she speaks in a series of knocks and thumps that can be decoded by Gary or by a machine the size of Kindle.  She is a leader of a Red Flag unit.  They are Alphas who want to destroy.  Despite this, she cares for Gary and he cares for her.  In the first season finale, she was one of the many Alphas the Pentagon killed.  In season two, Gary ended up working with the NSA until they put him into a prison/torture center for Alphas and put a chip in his head.  Though rescued by his team, Gary now feels the need to yell every morning to express his grief over what's happened, primarily that the government murdered Anna.

If you've followed all of that recap, good for you and we won't push more off on to you (though there is plenty more) except to note that the bad guy of season two was introduced in season one: Stanton Parish (John Pyper-Ferguson) whose abilities include that he does not die.  He served in the Civil War and was shot in the head and 'killed' but came back gasping for air.  He has killed repeatedly over the centuries to keep Alphas underground and he has a working relationship with Danielle that is not clear to the viewers yet (and is unknown to Dr. Rosen and his team).

Early on in season one, there was a killer in a small town.  People would die and no one could figure out what was going on.  They were going into detox but of what?  As Lindsay's Wagner's character Dr. Calder watched a high school senior struggle on his apparent death bed, she reached for his hand clawing the air and held it.  Dr. Rosen noted how the young man immediately improved.  It was the touch.  And from there they were able to solve the case.

That episode is Alphas.  They want to be part of the world around them but they are scared -- for good reasons in some cases -- of that world.  Even Bill, the most normal, is scared if he's honest.  If you talk to fans of the show, many will draw a comparison between Nina and Wagner's Jaime Sommers.  They're right to do that.

Like Jamie on The Bionic Woman, these Alphas are not just battling bad guys, they're asking deeper questions about who they are and how they fit into the world.  Nina's departure from the team is not unlike the moves Jamie makes in the final season of The Bionic Woman.  It's why the second season is even deeper than the first (the first season is available for online streaming at Netflix).  Currently, it's Scfy's most compelling series and one you'll want to start catching if you aren't already because the way season two's finale all fits together is going to be a very satisfying shock.  In fact, we don't think there's been such a satisfying finale since season two's "Becoming" of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

That two-part episode of Buffy not only was the finest moment of that show, it was also one of the finest moments of nineties television.  So Alphas is really hitting some strong notes this season.  And watching it, we had to wonder what sort of Alpha the world of entertainment needed the most?

We decided it was an Alpha with super TV executive powers.

Among the super skills this Alpha would possess would be common sense.

If that doesn't seem like a super power to you, it might not have seemed like one to us either until last week.  That's when NBC decided to 'honor' the women athletes competing in the Summer Olympics with a video.  As Erin Gloria Ryan (Jezebel) explained:

 Unfortunately, to NBC, showcasing the "Bodies in Motion" of the XXX Olympiad means taking footage of conventionally attractive female athletes competing in sports that require them to be scantily clad, slowing it way down as the camera lovingly caresses their butts, breasts, and bouncing ponytails, and playing some soft core porn music over it. Apparently NBC is too busy focusing on jiggling ladies' asses to notice ladies kicking ass.

NBC paid $1.1 billion for the rights to air these Olympics and they turn it into smut without any warning signals or bells and whistles going off internally?  Is production assistant Paige Westin the highest ranking woman behind the scenes?   We know David Michaels is the senior producer of the event for NBC and we wonder exactly what sort of 'senior' experience he brought to the proceedings that allowed the smut-fest.  NBC would pull the video but there was no apology, not even a weak-ass explanation offered.  That's how a responsible broadcaster behaves?

This was a historic Olympics for women and NBC had to belittle it and them?  Last month,   Emily Alpert (Los Angeles Times) reported, "For the first time in Olympic history, every country will have a woman competing on its team, including longtime holdout Saudi Arabia, the International Olympic Committee announced Thursday. Brunei and Qatar will also send female athletes to the London Games for the first time."And they did amazing well.  Belinda Goldsmith (Reuters) observes, "The London Olympics have been hailed as the Women's Games, with female athletes competing in all 204 national teams and in all 26 sports for the first time as women boxers made their debut." Last week, Kathryn Olson of the Women's Sports Foundation explained to Jeffrey Brown (PBS' NewsHour):

Well, there's no question that the passage of Title IX 40 years ago has -- we have seen the fruition of that and that come today in what we're seeing in the games, particularly as you look at the strength of the team sports, you know, soccer winning today, water polo winning for the first time.
We have had such success in the gymnastics all-around, as well as other teams as well. And, so, 40 years ago, it was really not -- there were not that many women playing sport. There were one in 27 playing sport. And we have advanced to two in five today.
So I think what you're seeing today, 40 years after Title IX, is the strength of women athletics and the interest in the skill that they have in these games.

 And along comes NBC serving up a T&A reel passed off as a tribute to the Olympic champions.  They should be ashamed.

 On the plus side, NBC found out last week what Aaron Sorkin's also discovering, objectifying women is not something you can get away with forever.  And, indeed, audiences are far smarter than the suits at NBC.

One reason we're smarter is TV.  Last May, US Vice President Joe Biden appeared on the Sunday chat and chews and demonstrated why speaking your truth matters.  When we covered it, we stayed with the big picture aspect of his statements (on marriage equality).  But we also agreed with a comment he made that led to some ridicule.  Joe Biden credited the sitcom Will & Grace with helping improve America's attitude towards gays and lesbians.  Jon Stewart especially enjoyed mocking it.  We like Jon, but, as we've long told you, he's just not that smart.

Prior to Will &  Grace, Ellen had pretty much been run off TV.  First, her ABC series got stuck with a warning label for all the episodes -- and some of those episodes were beyond mild.  Then people from GLAAD went all over the media insisting the show was "too gay for TV."  Never underestimate GLAAD's ability to undercut the LGBT movement.  CBS was willing to star Ellen in another sitcom and she could even be gay but, hey, no dating, okay?  So we were back to the days of 'progress' when the NYPD Blue male receptionist was out sexually but forever in a social closet.

TV and film did more than anything in the last 100 years to stigmatize gays and lesbians.  Well, comedians may have done more to stigmatize the LGBT community.  Is Jon Stewart aware of that?

We're aware of homophobic jokes Jon did in the 90s.  Maybe that'll give him a moment of zen.

Into that environment where gays either didn't exist or they had no lives came Will &  Grace.  Chop off the series finale and you've got the best sitcom of the second half of the 20th century.  It delivered ratings and it delivered the funny.  And for eight years, audiences saw Will and Jack, two gay men, and ambi-sexual Karen.  They saw Jack pursue sex and sometimes love.  They saw Will long for someone to replace Michael.  And finally find someone who could.  They saw Grace, Will, Jack and Karen fight, laugh, love and carry on in their lives in ways that they could relate to in terms that went beyond sexuality.

Hopefully, the show helped young gays and lesbians form a positive self-identity.  But what it surely did was expand the views of many people who otherwise wouldn't be talking or thinking about the subject.

And we bring that up because  Gary on Alphas can change the way people are seen as well. He can be a face of autism for many viewers.  There are a lot of cheap and mean-spirited jokes made about people who are challenged or disabled.  As with homophobia, that kind of hatred/fear usually exists the most in people who don't know the disabled or challenged.  

Last year, Landon Bryce (The Autcast: A Blogazine for the Aspergers and Autism Community) noted how he didn't enjoy the show but "I love the way the Syfy show Alphas depicts Gary Bell, an adult with autism. He's likable and, with the realm of this farfetched science fiction show, realistic."   That realistic portrait didn't come about by accident.  The Autistic Journalist explains:

Much detail and care was included in the science portion of the science fiction show. Dr. Susan Bookheimer, a faculty member of UCLA’s neuroscience program, is a consultant for Alphas who reviewed each script for the show’s inaugural season while offering on advice on aspects of Gary’s presentation and symptoms. Cartwright’s research included consulting with people who work with autistic individuals, reading books by autistic authors Temple Grandin and Daniel Tammet along with blog sites created by autistic people (I wonder if he came across this one :-p) and watching documentaries on the subject. Cartwright credits this research for helping him understand the reasoning behind the attributes and difficulties of autistic people to create and not imitate the physicality of Gary. Cartwright’s biggest goal? Playing the person and not the disorder.

And that same level of care has gone into all the characters -- in the writing and the acting -- which is why, as all the pieces come together this season, Alphas is even more satisfying TV program.

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