Zak Penn's latest unmasks the well-worn genre

By James Hibberd
June 10, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

What it’s about X-Men meets The Wire — that’s what writer/exec producer Zak Penn is going for in Syfy’s new drama centering on five ordinary people with extra-ordinary abilities who are recruited to fight bad guys.

What to expect A hard-nosed crime procedural spiced up with superhuman talents — but nobody wears tights or masks. Though Penn has worked on plenty of stylized comic-book-based movies (X-Men: The Last Stand, The Incredible Hulk), for Alphas — premiering July 11 — he and co-creator Michael Karnow sought a naturalistic tone. ”Most sci-fi feels like you’re in this heightened universe rather than something real,” says Penn. ”These people are not superheroes. They don’t fight crime for the sake of saving humanity. They’re doing a job; they have health benefits.” The premise is actually rooted in fact, combining the CIA’s failed psychic programs and Dr. Oliver Sacks’ case studies of neurological abnormalities. ”All of the abilities on the show have some sort of basis in neurology,” explains Penn. ”We jokingly said, ‘Nobody will fly; nobody will have laser beams coming out of their eyes; no capes.”’