Alphas

David Strathairn and Azita Ghanizada in "Alphas." (Ken Woroner, Syfy / July 11, 2011)

I don't know about anyone else, but they had me at David Strathairn.

"Alphas," Syfy's new drama about ordinary people with extraordinary powers who come together to fight crime, is a fresh take on an old premise, a sit-up-and-take-notice show that, while not the fanboy catnip "Battlestar Galactica" once was, should bring many more eyeballs to the struggling network.

It was no slam-dunk, especially in the wake of the failure of "Heroes" and last season's dud "No Ordinary Family." Created by Zak Penn ("X-Men: The Last Stand," "The Incredible Hulk") and Michael Karnow, it got bounced out of ABC during the writers strike while the script included a character whose superpower was the ability to shatter glass with a whisper.

It landed at Syfy, where it wisely lost the whisperer and gained a terrific cast, headed by Strathairn, who plays the deceptively paternal leader of a group of "alphas," whose abilities come with refreshingly believable downsides. The super-strength of former FBI agent Bill Harken (Malik Yoba) comes only in short bursts followed by exhaustion, Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada) can heighten her senses but only one at a time and at the expense of the other four, Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright) can process digital information out of thin air but is autistic, and Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell) can bend people's will to her own but … well, it's not clear what the downside to that is but no doubt it has something to do with failed relationships.

The pilot's opening scene, directed by "Lost's" Jack Bender, is a bit clunky — a mild-mannered and super-handsome grocery clerk is turned into an automaton assassin by a cellphone signal (how many times have we seen that before?). But eventually Strathairn swims on screen as Dr. Lee Rosen, talking herbal and looking all Ghandi-esque in specs and a Speedo, and it gets interesting. The government wants Rosen and his team to solve a seemingly impossible murder — a suspect is shot in a closed interrogation room with no sign of shooter or weapon.

Watching Strathairn anchor scene after scene that could easily devolve into sci-fi camp, one is reminded once again of the importance of a good casting director. The Emmy winner and Oscar nominee is one of those solid and nuanced performers who can do just about anything and raises all boats as he does it. In "Alphas" he is buoyed by strong writing and surrounded by a sturdy fleet.

This being unapologetic genre, there are more than a few stereotypes — Mennell's Nina is in-your-face hot as only a sci-fi heroine can be, and Cartwright, last seen as the beloved Mr. Nigel-Murray on "Bones," may have watched "Rain Man" once too often (he too longs to drive the car), but his maestro-like hand movements as he manipulates the screens he sees in the air more than compensate. He is also witty, as are all of the characters, each of whom bristles with an intriguing assortment of human tics and foibles — a brief scene in which former agent Harken is trying to find his keys is a lesson in how to capture marriage in a few well-chosen strokes.

As any fan of sci fi or fantasy or horror knows, nothing is more important than quickly establishing the essential humanity of your characters before launching them into the stratosphere of implausibility. Have we seen shows about elite teams and shadow organizations before? Is the crime that kicks off the pilot of "Alphas" literally impossible and too quickly figured out? Are these characters essentially watered down X-Men? Yes, yes and yes.

But "Alphas" deftly balances all the building blocks of great genre — nonhuman abilities, twisty plot, cool special effects, smart dialogue and characters you want to spend more time with. And that's the most impressive superpower of all.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com
'Alphas'

Where: Syfy

When: 10 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under age 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)