A lifelong Marvel comics fan, Zak Penn has become one of the most frequent contributors to its on-screen incarnations, writing the feature for The Incredible Hulk and working on the second and third installments of the critically acclaimed X-Men franchise.
He’s now bringing his vast knowledge of the genre to TV with his original SyFy Channel series Alphas, which tells the story of five ordinary people who are brought together to form an extraordinary team of Alphas – people with the unique power to stretch the capabilities of the human mind, giving them superhuman physical and mental abilities. The group is led by the preeminent neurologist and psychiatrist Dr Lee Rosen (David Strathairn), as they investigate cases that point to others with Alpha abilities.
Zak Penn spoke with us about the series at the NBC press day.
Television has had some issues with doing the superhero genre of late. Do you feel it seems to do better on cable, like Syfy, than a mainstream network?
Actually, I think superheroes have a lot of trouble on TV in general. From its very conception for this show our mantra was we’re not doing a superhero show. It’s not people dressing up in costumes and fighting crime.
One of our executives suggested it’s really more about super humans, about people who have extraordinary abilities. I do think we’re firmly in the science fiction universe in terms of where we’re coming from.
It’s not a comic book movie. It’s not about a group of heroes who band together to fight crime. So I do think that since the show was conceived in that way no one will mistake this show when watching it. I don’t think you will confuse it with any of the movies I’ve written. It’s coming at it from a completely different angle.
Since you come from doing two of the X-Men franchise, and they all have powers, was there a lot of this show based on that?
In terms of coming from the X-Men world, one of the things I can tell you is I have worked on a lot of the comic book properties, and when you start to talk about [them] it’s like, what’s it like before the X-Men get on the plane?
How do they go to the bathroom in those outfits? Really, they are running a school there? Who are the teachers?
Those questions are not really up for discussion when you do an X-Men movie, and believe it or not, that was very important to me going into this show that when these guys go to the crime scene they need to find change for the parking meter.
That’s always a pet peeve of mine on TV; everyone always has a parking spot. Not on this show. They work in an office, but they can’t agree who gets which office.
Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright) has to be home by 6 pm He’s an autistic kid, and he’s played very realistically, and if he’s not home by 6:00 Rosen’s got to start calling and making excuses, et cetera.
The world that exits around the superhero world oftentimes interested me more than what bridge can I have Magneto rip out of the ground now? And even though that’s fun, after a while you do enough of them.
As No Ordinary Family has been cancelled, do you feel that this series is replacing it?
I’m not that familiar with No Ordinary Family, but my sense is it was much more in the vein of Fantastic Four or some of those other comic book properties in that they have these really outsized powers and they become superheroes.
In most comic books when they talk about this character has a weakness, the weakness is usually he’s allergic to kryptonite. There’s no magic rock that weakens me.
I think one of the things about the characters on this show is their down side are that Gary can see signals in the air, but he’s also autistic as a result of it, or Rachel has synesthesia and all her senses are intermingled and she can smell and see things that the rest of us can’t, but she’s also incredibly sensitive to those so she’s got a lot of problems.
I don’t want to give anything away, but in the pilot even the villains, whatever their ability is, it comes at some sort of serious price.
What is the dynamic between the five Alphas?
It was very important to all of us that it’s not the five least likely people to be put together. We purposely didn’t want to do that. Some of the characters have a more natural affinity for others, and some of them get along really well.
Nina and Gary get along very fabulously most of the time because the nature of his brain makes him resistant to her ability. So he’s the one person who pretty much is honest with her at all times.
To us getting the idea that these are real people who don’t get along in exactly the same way all of us don’t get along, that your family doesn’t get a long, it’s of a similar circumstance.
What’s the tone of the show?
There is humor in it. I don’t want to underestimate this. I love the X-Men, but they are not comedies. Let’s face it, they are not tremendously funny. I think it’s fair to say that most science fiction is not that funny.
Those two things don’t normally go together, but I really wanted to create a show where the humor is coming out of the characters, and it comes from these conflicts.
I do think people watching the show, watching Malik Yoba (who plays Bill Harken) and Ryan Cartwright (Gary Bell) interact with each other, where here’s this guy who’s an FBI agent trying to do his job and there’s a kid who’s chattering endlessly about, ‘Don’t touch my lunch,’ it’s good stuff, and we’ve really tried to give the actors room to breathe in those characters.