Jeremy Likes TV

I like TV. Probably more than any human should.

Review: Alcatraz

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Grade: C+

JJ Abrams has become a cottage industry unto himself over the past 15 years or so. He’s gone from moderately successful television writer/producer (Felicity, Alias) to moderately successful film writer (Joy Ride) to hugely successful television writer/producer (Lost) to hugely successful film director (Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek, Super 8). It’s because of these successes that his name value alone gets shows greenlit, particularly when looking at the last five years. Sometimes they become critical and niche champions [1] like Fringe, and sometimes they become generic [2] procedurals that either inexplicably hit with the masses (Person Of Interest) or flop terribly (Undercovers). Imagine, then, if Abrams were to use his name value to combine these approaches. The result would probably look something like Fox’s new Alcatraz.

Alcatraz somewhat fantastically posits: What if all 302 inmates at one of the country’s most famous prisons just mysteriously disappeared in 1963, only to begin reappearing without aging in the present-day? What if the prison’s shutdown was not because the facility was outdated, but because it was part of a massive cover-up? Is this conceit enough to sustain what is, in essence, a police procedural? Based on the two-hour premiere [3], the results are mixed. Alcatraz itself as a jumping off point is interesting. Personally, beyond the Nicolas Cage-starring The Rock, there aren’t many shows/movies that have used the prison as a setting that immediately come to mind. At the center of Alcatraz is Sarah Jones (Big Love, Sons Of Anarchy) as Rebecca Madsen, a San Francisco police detective turned quasi-government agent. Madsen stumbles upon the conspiracy central to Alcatraz’s premise while investigating the death of the prison’s former warden only to find that the perpetrator is none other than one of Alcatraz’s former inmates. The fact that the man was presumed dead for nearly fifty years leads her to seek out the help of a local Alcatraz expert, Dr. Diego “Doc” Soto (Jorge Garcia, Lost). In the course of their investigation, the two are clued into the mystery of the inmates’ disappearance by shadowy government agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) and his assistant, Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra, ER). Madsen also has a personal connection to Alcatraz in that the man who raised her, surrogate uncle Ray Archer [4] (Robert Forster, Jackie Brown), was a prison guard at Alcatraz in the 60s and also claims to be the best friend of her biological grandfather, supposedly a fellow guard at the prison. However, as the first hour progresses we learn that Madsen’s grandfather was not who she thought he was and instead is one of the escaped inmates – a fugitive that Madsen has been chasing for murdering her partner and the reason that Hauser [5] brings her into the fold.

Abrams’ shows have often been noteworthy for the actresses that he discovers to anchor them [6] and with Alcatraz, Jones is the next potential ingénue in line. Is she up to the task? It’s hard to say, at least initially. She’s fine in the role and has been compared to early-Fringe Torv in her style, which isn’t necessarily a compliment since it took Torv a season or so to grow into her role as that show’s protagonist. Jones is attractive and has impressed in smaller roles in the past, but the jury’s still out on whether she’s going to be able to carry Alcatraz as its nominal star. She’s almost like a poor man’s Reese Witherspoon – the potential is there, but she hasn’t quite harnessed it yet. Jones does have some support from her co-stars, particularly Garcia, who’s essentially playing Hurley if he were an expert on famous prisons, and Forster who is criminally underused – he only appears in one scene total in the first two episodes – if the show decides to use them properly. Neill is a little less impressive, which could be the fault of his role as the keeper of the show’s secrets and thus needing to play things close to his vest. There’s also a nice reveal involving Nagra at the end of the second episode that had me a little more encouraged about her prospects after her not registering much of an impression for most of the first two hours.

On the subject of the second episode, it was interesting to see that Fox scheduled Alcatraz as it did by presenting the first two episodes on the same night. On the one hand, there was no wait to see how the series would settle in following its initial installment. There was an immediate look at what the show would look like post-pilot, which dispensed the need for much speculation. On the other, the second hour was by far the weaker of the two and if this is the type of show that Alcatraz decides that it wants to be, I don’t know how long I’ll have an interest in sticking around. It felt almost USA Network-ish in that it bookended itself with nods to the series’ mythology while the bulk of the episode focused on the not-very-compelling search for one of the vanished inmates, a psychotic sniper who was working through familial issues via his murderous rampages. Less of this and more of the overriding mythology in the future, please. As I mentioned, only an interesting development in the final minutes with Nagra’s character [7] saved the episode from a complete trashing.

It’s difficult to tell whether Alcatraz is going to be the type of show that not only has staying power [8] – an increasingly difficult proposition in today’s television landscape – but whether it’s going to be one worthy of any type of critical attention. In its favor: Abrams’ track record is pretty solid when it comes to female-fronted action dramas, it contains some of the elements of shows like Prison Break (before it became a parody of itself) and The Fugitive, and possesses an intriguing premise. Running against it: the second hour was dreadfully boring and Alcatraz seems like it could easily settle into the uninteresting bad-guy-of-the-week formula. One possible saving grace is that another Abrams-involved show, Fringe, also seemed ready to settle into formulaic boredom before embracing its weirdness and getting much, much better as a series. If Jones is able to find her rhythm and the show decides to be interesting instead of safe and boring, there could be something here. If not… the world will have the second Person Of Interest that no one asked for.

[1] Though terribly ratings-challenged.
[2] Read: boring.
[3] The premiere wasn’t so much a two-hour pilot because it was clear that these were two separate episodes that Fox decided to air on the same night.
[4] No relation to Sterling or Mallory.
[5] Who is himself revealed to be a former young Alcatraz guard who was to be transferring prisoners from The Rock on the night of the disappearance in 1963.
[6] Think Keri Russell (Felicity), Jennifer Garner (Alias), Evangeline Lilly (to a lesser degree on Lost), and Anna Torv (Fringe).
[7] SPOILER: She appears in a flashback to 1963 at the end of “Ernest Cobb” looking as old as she does in the present-day, meaning that the phenomenon affected the Alcatraz inmates seemingly has impacted her as well.
[8] The early ratings had to be encouraging for Fox as Alcatraz became Fox’s highest-rated drama debut in three years by attracting almost 20 million combined viewers in its first two hours.

*I’d say that right now, Alcatraz is in some ways comparable to NBC’s Grimm. Both shows possess an interesting mythology that need to be fleshed out but the self-contained procedural aspects of each are pretty boring thus far.
*Another aspect of Alcatraz that I hope continues is the differing perspectives of the various inmates in the show. For example, when Ernest Cobb (the episode two baddie) is initially brought to Alcatraz, we see Jack Sylvain (episode one’s villain) in the prison from a different angle than what was presented in the pilot. It’s similar to how Lost handled flashbacks that eventually tied its own characters together.
*Beyond casting Hurley, Alcatraz’s producers also cribbed from Lost by landing composer Michael Giacchino to do Alcatraz’s score.
*After Madsen and Hauser capture Cobb at the end of episode two, Hauser shoots Cobb (an accomplished sniper) in the right hand, taking away his dominant hand to discourage more shooting. He’s a bastard and that’s kind of cool.
*”Is anyone else’s head exploding right now?” Yes, Hurley, they are a little. Alcatraz likes to pack a whole lotta exposition into a small little space.
*Episodes below via Hulu as usual. Enjoy.


Written by jeremylikestv

January 23, 2012 at 11:01 pm

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