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Terri Mauro

SyFy's Alphas Makes Good Use of Character With Autism

By September 9, 2011

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Ryan CartwrightI was happy to see earlier this week that the SyFy series Alphas is going to get a second season. I've enjoyed the show's run this summer not so much for the humans-with-extraordinary-abilities superhero-ish stuff but for the character of Gary Bell, who according to the show's website is "a human antennae" with "the ability to 'read' a wide range of frequencies including television, radio, and cell phone signals in the same way people typically hear the everyday sounds around them." He's also autistic, and if you've ever wondered what your child was doing staring into space and twitching his hands, it's fun to imagine that maybe he's monitoring traffic cameras and listening in on somebody's cell phone.

In addition to giving the Alphas team a handy way to spy on suspects, Gary provides the show's comic relief -- and although that sounds bad, it's really not. Gary is a fully realized character, terrifically played by Ryan Cartwright (who you may have seen in very different roles on Bones and Mad Men). The fun comes in seeing the way that the routines and repetitions so familiar to those of us who parent kids with neurological differences bump up against crime-fighting conventions, as if Parenthood's Max was suddenly a Spy Kid. At the start of the pilot, I worried that Gary's autism might just make him a constant grating nuisance, but that hasn't happened at all; the character has built a rapport with his co-workers, all of whom have their share of issues over and above their particular talents. We could all certainly wish for such a workplace for our kids, though perhaps one without the bullets and occasional homicidal riots.

Speaking of that, I've also appreciated the very small glimpses we've had of Gary's mother, a briefly recurring character who packs his lunches, makes sure his tooth-brushing water is the perfect temperatures, and worries about him going off with Dr. Rosen (David Strathairn) every day to do who knows what for the government. In a recent episode (one of the two that's available right now online, "Catch and Release"), Gary's mom had had enough of his dangerous work, and was determined to set him up with a safe job with his uncle. In terms of the show's plot, she was a foil and an obstacle, and you rooted to get Gary back on the team. But as a mom, if my son was being kept out all night on a job, arrested twice, pushed out of the way of a bullet, would I deduce that his employers did not know how to keep him safe and this was an inappropriate placement? You bet. I'm glad she lost, but I felt for her.

Alphas will have new episodes on Monday nights through September 26, and then will be back sometime in 2012 for its second season. These last episodes promise to be heavy on the show's mythology, which interestingly involves a terrorist group that champions neurodiversity. The episode that introduced that plot thread, "Rosetta," [SPOILER ALERT] featured a character who seemed at first to be on the low-functioning end of the autism spectrum but turned out to have a complex system of communication and indeed be the mastermind of the organization. If SyFy makes more episodes available over the summer, after the season's first run is done, that's one worth seeking out.

Have you been watching Alphas this summer? What do you think of it? Share your thoughts in the comments, or write a review of this or another special-needs TV show. I'm adding Gary to my list of characters with autism and characters with special needs.

Photo of Ryan Cartwright by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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