If we didn’t have enough fun drinking to REVENGE! over on ABC, then FOX’s latest offering has certainly made up for it. Last night’s two-hour Alcatraz pilot gave us plenty of drinking game moments with its cliched sound bites of the famed prison (i.e. “No one escapes Alcatraz!”; “Welcome to the ROCK” etc. etc.) So how did the new serial from virtuoso TV producer, J.J. Abrams fare? Let’s break it down after the jump.
Abrams has been behind some of the best, most ground-breaking television of late (Think Felicity, Alias, Fringe and of course LOST). But Abrams only serves as one producer on Alcatraz in a mix of many creators and producers. All of this to say- I don’t think it holds the Abrams signature of compelling drama as seen in his previous offerings.
So what’s this show about anyway? Alcatraz shut down in 1963, and all of its prisoners were transported out. But this isn’t the real story. The real story is that all of its prisoners and staff mysteriously vanished. The hook? Cut to present day, and one by one the prisoners are returning – without having aged a day. To top it all off, the prisoners come back even more savage then when they left. Example: Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce). Initially, Sylvane was imprisoned for stealing food to feed his family (something about stealing from a grocery store that was owned by the post office? But really…it’s inconsequential) He eventually kills a guy in prison for ‘making a move’ on him in the communal showers which buys him a ticket to ALCATRAZ! (play along with me!) There, he’s treated badly by (big surprise) the associate warden (Jason Butler Harner). I’m sure you can tell by my dripping sarcasm that there isn’t anything particularly original here.
Anyway, Sylvane returns to the present as a killing machine. After killing the associate warden (who is now in his mid 70s) seemingly out of REVENGE!, Sylvane continues to shoot many random people at point-blank range, without hesitation, if they get in the way of his brain-washed orders. Hardly the Jean Valjean archetype that I think he was meant to be. Where has he been for the past 50 years? Who is giving him these “orders” anyway?
Enter Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), a maybe-federal agent who’s been wise to the fact that the former inmates of Alcatraz (cleverly referred to as the ’63s’) are returning and is hell bent on re-capturing them. Lucy (Parminder Nagra) brings some British legitimacy to the operation as the stoic, know-it-all assistant. Hauser manages to recruit Dt. Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and by proxy, Alcatraz scholar, Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) to catch Sylvane and any other of the 63s that might pop up in 2012. Our team is formed.
There are 302 aforementioned 63s that disappeared on Alcatraz that day – 256 inmates and 46 staff. And thus, we have the formula that will likely dictate a huge share of the episodes this first season. We’ve already seen it during last night’s premiere event – Sylvane was profiled in first hour, and messed-up sniper Ernest Cobb (Joe Egender) in the latter. Which segues me nicely into how I feel about the show overall: bored.
It’s really a shame, since Alcatraz has the makings of a great show:
- We’ve got a somewhat intriguing mystery: what the hell happened to these prisoners and why are they back?
- We’ve got some great actors: Sam Neill is perfect as the smug and sinister suit, Sarah Jones is believable as the tough, smart and attractive but-not-in-the-stereotypical-way detective, and Jorge Garcia manages to transpose his lovable Hurley qualities into a completely different character.
- The production is stunning: It’s atmospheric, well shot and complemented by a beautiful original score (from composer Michael Giacchino, who, you guessed it, scored LOST) The dialogue is believable and the narrative is paced well.
But the problem here is simple: I. Just. Don’t. Care.
There wasn’t enough expository information in the two-hour premiere to make me really engaged with what was going on. I just felt like I had seen all of these elements before in different shows. It has all the parts that make up a great serial narrative, but it didn’t have that intriguing ‘hook’ that ties it altogether.
I didn’t care about Sylvane’s glossed over past, so I didn’t care why he was so hellbent on killing everyone. I didn’t care about Lucy because she wasn’t given more than 10 lines of dialogue before she was (SPOILER ALERT) unceremoniously shot by Cobb. It just wasn’t as shocking as I think it was supposed to be when they tried to kill her off suddenly. (Note: And she doesn’t even die. She’s in a coma. riiight.) Nor was I blown away by the episode’s reveal that GASP! Lucy is actually a 63. Read: No investment = not really shocked. (END SPOILERS)
The fact that the show took pains to say that there were 302 people who disappeared in total, deflated me a bit. It told me that I would likely have to sit through about 302 (!) episodes of the same formula before I got any answers/narrative progression. Either that, or very small reveals sprinkled throughout the 302 (!) upcoming episodes. And that my friends, does not make for interesting television.
Of course, I may be completely and utterly wrong – maybe the show will pull a Homeland and blow me away. But judging by the ending of each of the hours of this premiere (the profiled inmate ends up in Hauser’s prison, cloned after the original Alcatraz, where they sit like his trophies) I would put money on that not happening.
Ultimately, I think the creators were a bit cautious about getting into the deeper, complex questions because they didn’t want the viewers to feel like they needed to pay meticulous attention in order to enjoy the central mystery. This is founded from those whining that LOST was too complicated to keep up with if you missed an episode.
I can appreciate that (I guess) – but only to an extent. I don’t think the solution is to dumb things down to a repetitive formula. There are plenty of shows out there who still create accessible dramas without spoon-feeding everyone (Read: Those horribly distracting inter-titles telling us that we’re back in 1963 or in present day. I think we can figure that out on our own guys…) I will give this show the requisite “three episodes of recap” before deciding to ditch it, but my hopes aren’t very high.
What did you think viewers? Is Alcatraz the next big thing for you? Want me to stick with it for at least the rest of the season? Chime in below!