Where did Alphas go wrong?

Alphas won’t be back for a third season.

On the 16th, the news broke that Alphas, one of the most clever and engaging shows on television, would not be returning for a third season. The word first came down on the twitter feeds of a couple of the show’s stars, Ryan Cartwright and Azita Ghanizada, then Syfy, the cable network which paid for and aired the original show, made an official comment over the weekend.

We’ve been proud to present this entertaining, high-quality series for two seasons and to work with an incredible ensemble of talented actors, producers and creatives as well as our partners at BermanBraun Television. We’d like to thank the show’s dedicated regular viewers for their tremendous support.

As the second season has already been produced and aired, the show will end with the unresolved cliffhanger. So, what happened? The easy answer is: The same thing that always happens. The show was not generating enough viewership to pay the bills, and so had to be taken off.

Alphas debuted to great ratings for the pilot. Over 2.5 million viewers is very good for a cable network show, especially a fantasy serial. The show was likened to the popular superhero drama HEROES, which ran for a successful four seasons on NBC last decade, and spawned several cross-media spin-off projects. The appeal was not enduring however. Ratings continued to decline throughout the season, with no episode after the fifth ever hitting the coveted 2 million viewers mark that most cable shows need to survive, and barely holding around 1.5 million.

There was word that the show would be cancelled after the performance of the second half of the first season, but, seeing the devoted fanbase, and not having anything in the pipeline to replace it with, Syfy renewed the show for a seconds season. That season started on a high note, but quickly faded, hitting a peak when Summer Glau guest starred for an episode, but otherwise failing dismally. Not only did the season just keep losing viewers, but now Syfy has several projects to replace it with, like the new Defiance and Helix fantasy action serials.

When Syfy exec. Craig Engler was asked on Sunday, by a twitter user, which other original Syfy shows might be on the chopping block, he seemed to take issue with the question, turning the fault back on the fans:

“Although it may not seem like it, we never want or plan to cancel any show.” He said via twitter, needing multiple tweets to answer. “By the time you see a show on air it means we’ve invested months of work and millions of dollars to produce it. We want all our shows to succeed. However, TV works one way: Once a show is on the air, it’s largely up to viewers whether it succeeds or not. If they like it, they watch more. If not, they don’t. Yes, scheduling, promo and other things can help bring viewers to a show, but it’s up to them to decide if they stay with it. If it were up to us we’d never cancel any show we make. After all, that’s why we make them. But sooner or later it comes down to viewers.”

Other users then brought up the issue of the accuracy of Nielson ratings, a common complaint when shows are canceled which seem to have a high geek ratio in the audience, as Nielson is not as good at tracking Fringe viewers. He dismissed this concern, saying, “The [Nielsons] has been evolving as we go along with many changes to account for new technologies.” He also discounted the possibility of producing any show for an online only audience, saying it would not be “economically feasible” for the network.

So, the root cause of the loss of the show is that not enough people were watching it, but why not?

The show was cleverly written and full of interesting characters. The powers the characters had were rooted in realism. No one could fly, no one was telepathic or pyromantic, none of the powers were magic. In that way it was more sci-fi than fantasy, and here was where it failed. As much as I liked it, and as strong as the fan base was, no genre show succeeds without a mainstream hook.

HEROES had that hook. The character’s powers and thus their dramatic confrontations were full of cool special effects and fantastic flying around. Alphas had none of that. Not only did the characters on Alphas all have ‘realistic’ powers, but the show went out of its way to make sure that each power had a scientific explanation behind it. This sort of attention to detail is part of what made the show so good, but it’s also what turned away the mainstream viewers, and – despite the comparisons – made it impossible for fans of HEROES to find themselves in front of the television when the show was on.

The first season found more viewers mostly because it was presenting itself as a police procedural more than a super hero drama, and the fans of television detectives were able to tune in without regret, but when the second season stopped taking on new cases, and devoted all of its time to a single plotline, a single villain, these viewers were lost, and no one came to replace them.

In today’s world, filled with thousands of channels of media, a serialized sci-fi story has to be more than just good to be kept around. It needs more than just its small cadre of devoted fans, it needs, somehow, the ongoing support of those who find little value in sci-fi. This is the unpleasant crux of modern genre television.

If you still want to catch up on Alphas’ despite knowing it doesn’t end satisfactorily, you can find the whole thing on Amazon Instant.