While I didn’t have much time to write about TV in the last few months of the year, I did keep watching it. Here’s what I ended up thinking was the best of a very good year for TV.
19) Children’s Hospital
18) Spartacus: Vengeance
17) Happy Endings
16) Gravity Falls
15) Parks & Recreation
14) Game of Thrones
12) Bob’s Burgers
11) New Girl
Xavier always dies. It’s kind of the point of The X-Men. A man who wishes for a better world, who trains and educates those who might fall to the dark to hope for what he hopes for, sacrifices all in the pursuit of his beliefs. Professor X represents an ideal; he’s a pacifist, a dreamer, an idealist, a man who staunchly believes in doing unto others better than they would do unto you. Professor X sees the world we all want to live in and proves time and time again that he’s willing to die for that world. It’s the reason why he always comes back to life, so that he can die once more to prove that there’s a better world worth dying for. A dream means nothing if you’re not willing to fight for it, if you’re not willing to sacrifice for it, if you’re not willing to stand up and say that this is truly what you believe in, despite all the pain and suffering, that you believe in this thing that’s greater than yourself.
I’m not really sure why this week’s episode of Alphas needed to exist. “Need to Know” isn’t inessential to the overall plot of the second season of this show, the hour snaps into place the specifics of Stanton Parish’s master plan and the ways he’s accomplishing it, but while it does push the plot forward some it doesn’t bring any new character revelations, and in some instances actually undermines some of the complexities that the series has built so well over the course of this run of episodes.
The main thrust of this episode is Rosen and Parish doing bad things in service of their efforts, Parish callously using Alphas like Mitchell or Skyler for his own ends and Rosen torturing one of Parish’s minions cruelly in a desperate attempt to get information on Parish. The problem with this approach to the material is that this doesn’t reveal anything new to the viewer. It’s a shock for Rachel and Bill to find out just how far off the deep end Rosen has gone but that’s information the audience has received over the course of the prior eleven episodes, culminating in Rosen’s hugely unhinged decision making last week as he burnt Parish’s cherished memories to the ground. That disconnect robs this episode of any real sense of forward momentum as it dutifully chugs through its paces, setting up the dastardly plan of Parish’s, hidden photic stimulators all around the world that enhance Alphas while killing regular human, that the team must stop next week.
Now that all the pieces are in place Alphas looks like it’s going to rush into its end game headlong; throwing itself fully into telling the story of Rosen’s climactic confrontation with Stanton Parish. Smartly, this week’s episode throws the very nature of that conflict into question as Parish himself barely appears. Instead Rosen’s the focus as his drive and menace is amplified into something truly terrifying by episode’s end. He’s a man lost, detached from what centered him for so long, intent solely on revenge against Parish, less because he believes it’s right and more because Parish killed his daughter. What I’ve liked so much about Alphas this season, even as it’s had some missteps, has been its willingness to make Rosen deeply unlikable. The conflict between Parish and Rosen is infinitely more compelling when it’s between two deeply wounded men on opposite sides of a philosophical divide rather than a simple clash between good and evil.
For a second, I actually thought Alphas was going to do it. Stanton Parish’s threat against the entirety of Manhattan that is. Just for a moment or two “The Devil Will Drag You Under” had managed to build to such a point that it seemed the only course of action for the episode was to do the unthinkable and eliminate millions of lives. It would have been a moment on par with last season’s finale, except it would have come before the end of the season and would have propelled the series into its end game for the year in shocking, and surprising fashion. And yet, that the show didn’t only came as a minor let down thanks to the fact that the conclusion to “The Devil Will Drag You Under” was similarly devastating even as it only ended in one life being lost.
There are about three or four episodes swirling around “Falling” all fighting to get out, and writers Nina Fiore and John Herrera never quite figure out the balance between them. Indeed, around the halfway point of the episode I found myself thinking that it was interesting that there wasn’t any real case of the week in the episode, only to find myself confronted with Kat’s re-emerging plotline, which featured a drug that imbued regular people with Alpha-like invulnerability. There’s just a lot going on this week, and pretty much every story has some really compelling beats, the only outright failure is Rachel’s aborted attempt to have John meet her parents, but none of those stories have enough room to breathe, and the lack of interconnectedness in either their plots or thematic concerns makes this episode feel like quite a bit of a mess.
The deeper we get into this second season of Alphas the more its central theme seems to be that Lee Rosen is fucking up. Well, that’s a little harsh, he’s arguably the hero of this episode, at least in its final moments, but it still seems like every decision Rosen’s making this season has had just as many negative consequences as positive. And it’s a little harsh to claim that it’s just Rosen who’s messing up here, as I’ve noted before, the real crux of this season, and Alphas as a whole, is the difficulty that comes with existing apart from the bulk of humanity when gifted with extraordinary powers. These characters have trouble existing within society, and that’s why even a loosely plotted episode like this one still crackles with energy and excitement even as it could be significantly more effective if it cohered just a bit better.
Alphas isn’t necessarily a show I’d put in the top tier of quality television. It’s not breaking down doors and announcing its greatness nor is it reinventing the form. It’s a largely procedural drama that’s mostly content breaking out a few familiar stories and warping them just enough to fit inside the Alphas mode. And while I can recognize that familiarity in the show, what always strikes me about Alphas is just how damn well executed the series is week in and week out. It’s never content with just putting out a standard case or freak of the week for the team to engage with and it almost always goes that extra mile to make the proceedings pop even as it cycles through some fairly familiar tropes.
If there’s one thing that makes Alphas work as well as it does is that it never forgets that the extraordinary powers the heroes of the show have always come with drawbacks. For some of the characters those drawbacks are obvious, Rachel has to deal with her overpowered senses nearly debilitating her constantly, but for others those drawbacks aren’t as obvious. Gary’s skills isolate him from the outside world just as effectively as his autism does, he quite literally sees the world differently than anyone else both thanks to his power and his disorder, while Nina may never know for sure whether any of her interactions with another human are real. It circles back to the fact that while Alphas themselves are a type of human, a society unto themselves in some ways, they’re still all different from one another. Their powers make them special, but the also completely remove them from everyone else. And to some extent, that’s true of us all. We all live our own lives, experience our own trials and grief, and in our darkest hours it always seems as if no one could ever comprehend our own particular form of pain, of isolation. We all feel apart at times, and Alphas makes that separation literal, even while it’s having fun with things like Hicks’ ability to jump off the side of a building and save Nina with an incomprehensibly perfect series of events. It’s the pain that makes Alphas work, even as it offsets that pain with the joys of day-to-day life.
I can’t say I was overly excited about this week’s episode of Alphas once I found out it would be featuring an underground Alpha fight club. Just about whenever a series attempts to pull off a fight club episode it’s an underwhelming experience. The episodes usually crop up around the later parts of a season when writers are coming up against deadlines and they need a quick, simple idea to pitch. Fight club episodes always feel like they’re being trotted out because the writing staff just didn’t have time to think of something more interesting and fell back on the easy story structure the fight club storyline provides. It goes roughly, “our heroes find a fight club, they investigate, one gets drawn into it and is forced to fight until they or their friends manage to bust the ring leaders, case closed.” It’s simple, it has built in conflict and is an easy way to showcase a few flashy fights, and it’s generally a bland, uninteresting affair filled with lunkhead guest characters whose main purpose is to punch really hard. Which is all to say that “Alpha Dogs” may be the first time I’ve ever seen the fight club episode of a TV series done right. This was a solid hour of television that may not stand with the very best episodes of Alphas, but is still a whole lot of fun all the same.