Post-hiatus musings: Syfy Edition (Warehouse 13 and Alphas)

After nearly a month, my fairly substantial hiatus here at TVS is over. I am happy to be back providing content for you folks on a regular basis. In my time off, I’ve missed all sorts of television, both viewing- and writing-wise. To combat that, I’ll be whipping up a number of random posts with thoughts on countless summer programming over the next few days. I hope you consider these posts fair payment for the weeks I took off so that I could work on my thesis and spend time with my significant other. 

Although Breaking Bad received its own post, it’s mother-f*ing Breaking Bad. The rest of my post-hiatus pieces will be organized by network. This will make it easier for me to combine my shorter thoughts on some of these series that don’t quite require 2,100-word explorations of their plots and character development. I’m sorry, Suits. You’re just not there yet. Anyway, I wanted to start with Syfy’s Warehouse 13 and Alphas since they air new episodes tonight that I most likely won’t get to immediately.

Warehouse 13 is a series I really love. Or at least really want to love. I’ve made much of my admiration for the series’ second season and it’s been so wonderful watching the series completely destroy all the goodwill it built up just a year ago. I hate to be this harsh, but this season, Warehouse 13 has been terrible. Awful. Horrible. Not very good whatsoever. It’s like the creative team saw all the things that make the second season good and decided to keep them as far away from this season’s episodes as possible. Last season had a clear narrative path and some legitimate stakes and growth for the main characters. By the end, it actually made some sense as to why Myka would want to leave the Warehouse, even though we in the audience knew that she would come back relatively quickly. Season one was about growing accustomed to the Warehouse and season two was about how the Warehouse impacts the lives of those who grow accustomed to it. Season three? It’s about hijinks and stuff.

I understand that Syfy wants to brand itself with lightweight, quirky, fun programming, but there’s a way to balance those overarching brand initiatives with some quality storytelling and substantive character development (see again: season two of this very series). I didn’t expect the series to be too interested in what it meant for Myka to come back, but the writers have surprised me with their clear disinterest in that story after she returned in rapid fashion in the premiere. Even then, that’s really the best the season has had to offer. I love Aaron Ashmore, but he’s been severely misused as the new guy, Steve Jinks. His “lie detector” power was, is and will forever be dumb and even though it might play a major part in the season’s endgame, I can’t bring myself to care. In fact, that points out the major flaws in this season to begin with.

In place of substance, W13 has punched out a series of generally unconnected episodes with dumb gimmicks. Time travel/steampunk fun! Trapped in a video game! When you combine the flaws in the procedural stories with the problematic new character, it feels like either the network, the studio or the showrunners didn’t feel confident in the strength of the ensemble* — which of course has been the biggest and most obvious strength of Warehouse 13 from the jump. The primary reason season two was so good was due to the exploration of the tension between Pete, Myka and H.G. and the bonds between them and Artie and Claudia (Leena has and always will suck). But that’s all gone now.

*This season’s ratings are basically on par with last season’s, which were down a bit from season one. I’m not sure if the powers that be saw season two’s ratings and decided to avoid much serialization in plot or character development in season three, but it’s pretty clear that if they did, the creative reaction isn’t paying off. The ratings haven’t gone down, but they certainly haven’t gone up either. 

To distill my issues, it’s as if the series’ characters mean nothing now. Warehouse 13 is an inherently goofy series, but it works when the characters take the goofiness around them somewhat seriously. Pete’s always going to screw around and Claudia’s always going to talk like a Chloe Sullivan/Veronica Mars knock-off, but when it comes down to it, they take their jobs seriously. This season, the writers aren’t really putting the characters into a position to appear to care. The stakes of a video game the nerd from Eureka created aren’t too high. There’s a way to make sure a series with this universe and these plots still has some heft to it but W13‘s writers just don’t seem to be interested in that this season. It’s unfortunate.

Alphas, on the other hand, is a much more interesting program at this point. I have to be honest in saying that I didn’t really care for Alphas in the first few episodes. I thought the pilot episode was entertaining enough but the second episode really bored me into not watching another episode for four weeks. This weekend I caught up on episodes three through six and found myself enjoying them much more than the initial offerings. I repeatedly preach about the difficulty of second episodes so it’s no surprise that Alphas‘ second effort was full of exposition about the series’ mythology and overarching plots. Although it’s more interesting than what Warehouse 13 is trying to do this season, I can’t say I care about Red Flag, but the series has figured out how to keep it part of the weekly plot without overdoing it.

However, what I like best about Alphas is when the series lets the characters just hang with one another. I made jokes to myself* about the dingy nature of their offices when I was watching the first two episodes, but I’ve grown to love them because the series embraces the sort of clocking-in-superheroes that we haven’t really seen on television before. As of right now, this is a job for most of these people and like most jobs (especially government jobs), this one kind of sucks. They do a lot of sitting around, hoping for crazy people with accelerated, manipulated DNA to do weird things so that they can stop them. Because of all this downtime (even though we don’t see all of it, presumably), the characters are forced to interact with one another, even when one or more of them doesn’t really want to. Gary wants the cell tower across the street turned off and won’t shut up until he gets what he wants. Everyone wants to know about Rachel’s dates and whether or not Bill can get reinstated. Nina and Cameron have some smoldering sexual tension going on that most everyone notices. I don’t want to go as far as to say that Alphas is a workplace series, but it is very strong when it embraces that setting and simply lets the characters bounce off one another, hang-ups and all.

*THEY WERE ALL FUNNY, TOO.

Another strength of the series is how it’s nicely progressed into an episodic structure that focuses on one, maybe two of the major teammates. Like I said, there was a lot of information to take in early on and it was somewhat difficult to get a handle on who these people were outside of their abilities. That’s changed in recent episodes. The series seems to always find time for Gary, who is both supremely funny and interesting, but I particularly enjoyed how quality running time has been dedicated to Rachel and Bill’s personal issues. Nina and Cameron have spent most of their time with one another thus far and although I’m not entirely invested in their relationship, it’s solid, albeit obvious plot-point at this point.

Oddly, I’ve spent three paragraphs talking about the series without mentioning David Strathairn. Because of the series’ premise and his character’s role in the group dynamic, it was apparent that people were going to compare him to Professor Xavier. However, I like how Alphas has quickly hardened up Doctor Rosen without making him remotely unlikable. He’s clearly at the center of this ragtag group of heroes, but he’s also not some sort of major cheerleader either. I loved how he basically blackmailed Cameron into sticking with the group and how he’s OK with the fact that members of the team sometimes use their abilities to get things they want, but don’t necessarily need (Or at least I’m going to assume he is somewhat aware of how Nina uses her powers to get free stuff). I expected more overdone speeches about being special and fitting in, but thankfully the series has strayed away from that enough.

Overall, I like Alphas, even if I wonder why it’s on Syfy Mondays. It’s much slicker and serious than Warehouse 13 or Eureka, yet definitely doesn’t fit in with Haven on Fridays either. I understand the business reason for putting it on Mondays with two series that don’t quite match up tonally, but I’m a bit curious as to what it means for the Syfy brand as a whole. After the nonsense with Eureka, that series is on its way out. However, the network’s most “serious” offerings since the rebranding, Alphas and Being Human, were both relatively well received by audiences and critics alike. There’s another BSG series coming soon, which will surely be more like this and less like Eureka. I’m not sure what, if anything, this means for the direction of Syfy, but I kind of hope the network builds off Alphas instead of Warehouse 13.

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