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Edward Norton and Why Laura Mennell is the 'Alphas' MVP

August 24th, 2012 11:30am EDT

The Bourne Legacy Brittany's Blog: This is my viewpoint, from the far end of the couch...and this week, I want to single out two truly talented individuals: The Bourne Legacy co-star and multiple Oscar nominee Edward Norton, and Alphas actress Laura Mennell, who's become that show's Most Valuable Player.

Just because I'm an entertainment journalist doesn't mean I'm always up on everything; sometimes I miss things. So, better late than never to say this: Edward Norton is freaking brilliant.

I went into The Bourne Legacy two weeks ago convinced I wasn't going to like his character, as the guy was trying to have Jeremy Renner's Aaron Cross killed, and Renner happens to be one of my favorite actors. And I did, in fact, want to slap Ric Byer like he so richly deserved. Yet having seen the flick twice now, I've also got to admit that Byer is pretty compelling, for an antagonist.

(MILD SPOILER ALERT.)

For example, there's the fact that I really, sincerely loathed the guy...even though, factually speaking, he doesn't physically do that much worthy of my disdain. He's the government's man in charge, and he's giving the orders, as morally questionable as they are. He's not doing his own dirty work. Yet, I hated him like he was pulling the trigger himself.

I've avoided using the word "villain" here, and that's because of the second point that impressed me about Norton's performance: Byer isn't, by our typical expectation, a villain. He's not necessarily a horrible person. In another movie, one set several years earlier, he could've been the hero.

That's partly because of the above and partly because of what makes him tick. He's a man who's making the decision he believes is best for the greater good. Even though I disagreed with it, I understood his point of view. And I started to want to know more about him, and what had driven him to the point where I met him.

(END SPOILER ALERT.)

Those aren't thoughts one normally has when it comes to bad guys in flicks. They don't usually have as much depth, because unlike the good guys, they're usually not around for more than one movie. We want to see the good guys win and the bad guys lose.

But on that second viewing, able to step back from the experience of Bourne Legacy and able to examine it a bit more closely, I understood what Norton said in a recent Empire piece about Byer not being a villain. I saw the humanity in the character, which is an accomplishment considering that, again, we don't get too much time to be acquainted with him. For my money, Norton created one of the more memorable antagonists I've seen in years.

With this in mind, I was motivated to start taking a serious look at his resume. Over the last week, I've taken advantage of my insomnia to make up for lost time; I've marathoned a good dozen of Norton's films, from Primal Fear and Fight Club to The Painted Veil and even Death to Smoochy. I've watched him create a credible, serious bad guy and also entertain kids in a giant purple rhino costume. There's so much variety in Norton's choice of roles that it's ridiculous, and I have yet to watch him give a bad performance. I have, however, seen him play his own twin brother.

Here, too, is another actor who is also just interesting to listen to off-screen. I watched Keeping the Faith with the commentary track, and I enjoyed just listening to Norton and writer-producer Stuart Blumberg talk about the process of making the movie, which was Norton's directorial debut. Having heard that and Norton's recent interview with Charlie Rose for Bourne Legacy, he seems to be a very cerebral person, and I love actors who wonder what makes a script or a character tick as much as I do, who aren't just settling for what's on the page.

I'm still trying to figure out just how Norton does what he does, where the versatility and depth comes from, but I do know I'm vastly impressed by it. Given that he's been nominated for two Oscars, I know I should've been watching him a long time ago.

I'm aware the odds of him reading this are slim to none, but just in case, I feel like I ought to offer a public apology to Mr. Norton: I'm sorry I didn't take notice of you sooner, but trust me, I've learned my lesson. You've got a new fan in me. Although, I still have to take Renner's side in Bourne Legacy...

Now, for something I wasn't late to, click over.

Alphas has been a pleasant surprise for me, a great show on a network that's become sadly more known for wrestling and ridiculously titled B-movies than quality science fiction. I named it one of my 10 Great Shows You're Not Watching back in July, because it's the right balance of amazing and realistic, a show about superpowered people who aren't superheroes.

The entire cast is great to watch, but it's Laura Mennell who was the highlight of season one, and now in season two she's outright stolen the show. When we rejoined her character, Nina Theroux, at the beginning of season two, Nina was losing the plot. She was mentally manipulating (or "pushing," as the show calls it) people for her own gain again, and had to be coaxed back onto the right track by team leader Dr. Lee Rosen (David Strathairn, who coincidentally has a cameo in The Bourne Legacy).

Her return didn't last long. Finding out that her ex-lover and teammate Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie) had hooked up with Dr. Rosen's daughter threw Nina, and she left the team again, this time determined not to come back. The episode "When Push Comes To Shove" showed us a ruthless Nina, reunited with her first boyfriend Tommy, and without remorse for a number of questionable actions. Everyone initially blamed Tommy, until they (and we) realized Nina had "pushed" him too, separating him from the wife and child that he had been perfectly happy with. She was the real villain of the piece.

Nina was always an intriguing character as she allowed us to explore thorny issues of consent and coercion every time she "pushed" someone. Yet watching her turn to the proverbial "dark side" and be confronted with the end results of that choice has been some of her best material to date, as it's also exposed some of her deepest vulnerabilities. Essentially, by turning the character inside out, the writers broke her down for us, too. I'm looking forward to seeing how she builds herself back up again.

The juicy material has also been great for Mennell, who's been wonderful as she's played everything from arrogance to guilt and fear. While Nina's crossed those lines, it's to Mennell's credit that we haven't lost our compassion for her. If anything, she's only made us more sympathic toward her, because we can identify with her now more than ever. What person doesn't want to be loved? How many of us come from homes that were imperfect? We've only deepened our understanding of Nina over season two.

I'm particularly pleased to write these words, because it's always a great thing when good people get the credit they deserve. I've had the chance to interview Laura twice now (here's our season two interview), and she's such a joy to spend time with - sweet, funny and thoughtful. She's not like Nina at all, which makes how much she's been able to bring to Nina even more remarkable. I hope more people discover her and get to see how talented she is.

Alphas moved time slots last week, and continues its season Mondays at 8 PM ET/PT on SyFy.

Until next week...

For more from Brittany Frederick, visit my Starpulse writer page and follow me on Twitter (@tvbrittanyf).

(c)2012 Brittany Frederick/Digital Airwaves. Appears at Starpulse with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted.

Related: Alphas, Edward Norton, Laura Mennell, The Bourne Legacy, Starpulse Exclusives, Television, Movies, Drama, Syfy

Photo Credits: Universal; SyFy

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