Bands of gifted individuals are hardly a screen novelty, from “X-Men” to “Heroes.” Yet writers Zak Penn and Michael Karnow bring a few fresh wrinkles to “Alphas,” largely by making this latest elite team extraordinary, but also quite vulnerable. “All Alpha skills come with a down side,” explains David Strathairn — whose own gifts as an actor are surely welcome here — as the neurophysiologist charged with wrangling them, in what could easily become a low-octane hit for Syfy almost as a counterweight to more ostentatious, high-powered heroes.
The 90-minute pilot briskly goes about introducing the unit Strathairn’s Dr. Lee Rosen has assembled under the cranky stewardship of his FBI contact (“Battlestar Galactica’s” Callum Keith Rennie). They include a woman who can bend people’s wills (Laura Mennell); a cop who possesses enormous strength, but only in fleeting bursts of adrenaline (Malik Yoba); a high-functioning autistic who can visually perceive electromagnetic waves (Ryan Cartwright); and a young woman who can temporarily enhance one of her senses, at the expense of the others (Azita Ghanizada).
Clearly, it’s not a group built for action, as Yoba’s cop complains to Rosen. Marshaled properly, though, their combined talents can be formidable, as they pursue a shadowy figure who is commandeering the minds of innocent folk — including another Alpha (Warren Christie) — to perpetrate killings for him.
At first, “Alphas” feels like there won’t be enough excitement or action to sustain the pilot, much less inspire an ongoing episodic relationship. After all, where’s the fun in watching “powers” whose portrayal require nothing more than eerie music, sound effects or harsh camera angles?
Those very limitations, however, are what make the team intriguing, along with the twists the writers and “Lost” director Jack Bender produce to keep the audience off-balance, even about the specific nature of their do-gooder enterprise. The mystery is also abetted by Strathairn’s hard-to-read scientist, who manages to be professorial and squirrelly all at once.
Penn certainly ought to know the super-group drill, having worked on not only “X-Men: The Last Stand” but the upcoming “The Avengers.” The real trick will be in coming up with interesting cases for the “Alphas” to tackle while teasing out some of the darker corners hinted at in the pilot.
At first blush, though, give “Alphas” high marks for effort and ingenuity, demonstrating a TV show needn’t provide major pyrotechnics or a reinvented wheel to lay the groundwork for solid summer entertainment where the characters, somewhat refreshingly, are only sort-of super.