Welcome to the first installment of Alphas Tuesday!
If you follow me on Twitter, you might be aware that I consider Gary Bell, as portrayed by non-autistic actor Ryan Cartwright, to be the best example of a canon autistic character on TV.
Bell is a character in the SyFy Original Series, Alphas, which aired for two seasons beginning in 2011. The show’s premise is similar to that of NBC’s Heroes and Marvel’s X-Men; a group of ordinary people have biologically-based superpowers and must learn to cope with and use them.
I say “cope with” because Alphas treats these abilities in an interesting way—by examining them in a pseudo-medical context. The Alphas’ leader/mentor is Dr. Lee Rosen, a psychiatrist who is not, himself, an Alpha. Rosen provides psychiatric care for the team members, whose abilities are also disabilities.
To me, that makes this show worth a second (or third or fourth) look. The Alphas are all people who, like disabled people everywhere, need some kind of support or accommodation.
There’s Rachel Pirzad, whose exponentially heightened senses make her both a human forensics lab and someone who, like many people with Sensory Processing Disorder, can become easily overwhelmed by stimuli.
Team member Bill Harken, whose enhanced strength is triggered by adrenaline, struggles with self-control and anger management which, at the show’s beginning, has got him suspended from the FBI. Nina Theroux and Cameron Hicks aren’t immune to difficulties related to their abilities, either. Nina’s power to manipulate (or “push”) others into obeying her commands leads to havoc in her personal life and can damage the brains of the people she pushes. Hicks is “hyperkinetic,” and can perform extraordinary athletic feats, but self-doubt often inhibits his abilities.
And then there’s Gary. In some ways, Gary is the classic “Hollywood Autistic”. He’s white, male, and good with computers. His Alpha skill, after all, is reading electronic signals as they’re being transmitted. He’s not good at making eye contact, he’s often tactless, and he’s meticulous about his routines. He appears to stim, although his stims are actually manipulating the data streams only he can see.
In other ways, though, Gary is the most real autistic character I’ve ever seen on television. His relationship with his mother is complex. He’s friendly with his coworkers. He cares about his friends. He advocates for himself. He has sensory sensitivities. He develops, as a person, throughout the series. And, refreshingly, being autistic is not the source of his superpower.
It is important to state again that actor Ryan Cartwright is not autistic, and, as a disabled person, I would prefer to have seen an autistic actor portray Gary. That said, Cartwright did the research. He talked to parents and caregivers of autistic people, but he also read the things autistic people wrote. He used the things autistic people wrote about being ourselves and he paid attention. And it shows.
Alphas is not a perfect show. Gary Bell is not a perfect autistic character. But there’s a lot about the show to love, and I hope we can find some of those things together.
The first episode is not my favorite, but, as the song says, the beginning is “a very good place to start,” so that’s what I’ll be doing next week. I plan to livetweet Episode 1 (available for streaming on Netflix) next Monday, October 12, and I’ll post a recap with thoughts on Tuesday. You’re welcome to join me on Twitter or leave a comment here!