Lately there has been a lot of talk about diversity in the sf community. Not just ethnic and racial diversity but also about representing people who are not neurotypical in fiction. There has of course also been a lot of talk about better representation of gender and sexuality. But what I want to talk about today is the representation of non-neurotypical individuals in the tv-series Alphas on the Syfy channel. I want to talk about a series that I think is doing it right. Because I think it is more important to talk about those who are moving in the right direction, that to only focus on the ones that are still going the wrong way.
I have just discovered the series this week on Netflix. We have just finished watching the first season. Long live Hola so I can watch the american selection on Netflix instead of just the meager selection on the danish version.
The show is quite good in general, in fact my boyfriend and I have been pretty much glued to the screen over the last two night watching all of season one. Which is always fun.
Here is the imdb pitch for the show:
Dr. Lee Rosen leads a team of “Alphas”, (human beings with enhanced abilities) who investigate the death of a witness in a court case. They soon uncover more than they had bargained for.
So other than recommending this series, why am I blogging about it? Well the show is about humans with superhuman abilities. And the explanation of their abilities is two fold… evolution and neurodiversity. Which is both pretty interesting. Superpowers are always fun to play with. And it is nice to see that radiation and crazy Spiderman-like mutations in adults are on retreat as explanations for superpowers. I definitely think the current trend in superhero/human fiction is way more interesting.
But what sets the Alphas apart in my book is the makeup of the team and the choice of adversaries for team (don’t worry I will use spoiler tags). The team is made up of: Dr. Lee Rosen, a male doctor, a psychiatrist, who is a normal human who is the team leader. Rachel Pirzad a female second generation immigrant and superhuman with super senses. Nina Theroux a superhuman female with the ability to push people to do what she want them to (yes that is a nasty power). Cameron Hicks our male working class ex-addict, ex-marine, ex-husband, ex-a lot of things really and he has super-human balance, reflexes and aim. Bill Harken a black male ex-FBI special agent who has super-human strength (which I find a bit predictable). And the last team member, who is the reason I write this post… Gary Bell who is not only a superhuman with the power to intercept electromagnetic waves from the air but also a high-functioning autistic. The portrayal of Gary is so wonderful. Gary is capable within his field of expertise, brave, sweet, very loyal, funny and very very honest. Gary is also portrayed as having special needs and flaws, just like all the other characters. It is so rare to see someone who is not neurotypical in a lead role. Not as a burden for the people around him, but as someone with something valuable to contribute. Gary is not a plot device, or a get out of jail free card. He is not someone to be pitied. He is a fully fleshed human being with needs, wants and flaws just like everybody else. And I find the acting really convincing. Mind you I do not personally know anyone with ASD so it might of course be totally wrong, but it seems very believable.
In fact all of the cast are extremely human and extremely vulnerable people. They all experience growth throughout the series. Rachel starts out as a very vulnerable woman, living with her parents but though the series she shows that she is in fact also a very capable woman. Most of the characters seems a bit flat and one-dimensional at first but during the first season they all get to show that they are more than the stereotypes they start out as.
The series keep reminding me of the roleplaying game by White Wolf called Aberrant. Me and my group has played Aberrant and greatly enjoyed it. It is not the best system in the world (it is pretty dicey at times), but the setting is interesting for the same reasons that Alpha is. How would humanity react if it discovered that there really were people with superpowers, and that those people were your co-workers, brothers, neighbours etc. I don’t know if it is an inspiration, but the series deals with a lot of the same issues as the Aberrant game does. Alphas is not about superheroes unlike Aberrant, but about super humans, which I personally find way more interesting.
The series is very much about how we as a species, community and government deals with people who are not “normal”, psychically or psychologically. How we deal with people who are different. How we deal with the fear of the Other. Having Gary in there makes these issues even more pointed – it forces the viewer to reevaluate our perceptions of “normalcy” because he is so clearly a wonderful and capable man and so very clearly also not neurotypical, not “normal”. Oh and giving him superpowers, how awesome is that! And not just making him a math genius – which is a rather tired trope isn’t it?
I hope you will give the series a chance.
In the next paragraphs I talk about what happens in the show. Feel free to read on or skip depending on how you feel about spoilers.