I had occasion over the holiday season to watch a screener of a new television show and give my thoughts on it to the networks that would be showing it. While watching I took a lot of notes about the show and I’ll be using those to write this review. The show is called Alcatraz and focuses on the repercussions of a strange event that occurred on the famous prison island back in 1963.
We open on two prison guards coming back from patrolling the bay in a boat. As they dock the elder guard notices a delivery van that hasn’t finished unpacking and becomes suspicious that no guards are around to oversee the handover. The guards draw their weapons and go further into the island, through prison facilities that should be teeming with life yet are conspicuously empty. Eventually they arrive at what appears to be the maximum security cell block and, finding all the felons there have disappeared, the elder guard instructs the rookie to raise the alarm and contact the mainland. Throughout the rest of the show we’ll learn that 256 prisoners and 46 guards disappeared that night. We’ll also learn that the disappearances were covered up and official records altered to show the prisoners as having been transferred to other facilities, with President Kennedy himself having signed off on that order, which opens the show up to tackle and tie into real world conspiracy theories.
This sequence set in the past is very nicely presented to the viewer, establishing the style that all flashback sequences in the show will be taking. These sequences are slightly washed out, the lack of vivid colours presenting a subconscious impression of a bleak past which really adds character to the show as well as helping to give some weight to the motivations of the criminal characters.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, either from the fact this is a JJ Abrams show or from the rather large silver text somewhere around here, the prisoners do indeed start showing up again. Somehow the people who disappeared in 1963 have started reappearing in modern times. They haven’t aged, and they’re showing up in their cells with no knowledge of how they got there. As Alcatraz is now a tourist hotspot and there are regular boats between it and the mainland, these criminals find it easy to get off the island and back to whatever they were up to when they were caught. So far, so generic sci-fi cop show. Where Alcatraz excels is in knowing that it can be either made or broken based on how sympathetic or terrifying the criminals introduced are. The show makes good use of flashbacks to paint Jack Sylvane (expertly played by Jeffery Pierce), the 1960s criminal that the first episode focuses on, as a more sympathetic character than you would expect. We see how his incarceration affects him and see his relationship with other prisoners and guards as well as getting a hint of a deeper conspiracy in those flashbacks. Pierce plays Sylvane almost tragically, yet errs towards subtlety, resulting in a character that is easy to care for while retaining believability in such unbelievable circumstances.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said for many of the other lead characters on the show. Sarah Jones portrayal of Detective Rebecca Madsen is so amateurish that it verges on comical and leaves the character almost unlikeable throughout the first episode. While a lot of the problems I have with the character stem from the fact that this detective looks about ten years old throughout the pilot (itself an odd point, as the actress has looked older in several of the programmes she has appeared in while considerably younger), the majority of the fault most likely lies with the show itself as most Abrams shows tend to have the same type of character – a female lead who, although strong, is haunted by a personal tragedy (in this case the death of her partner during a routine chase) and whom higher ups afford way more leeway than any of her colleagues would be given. As with these other characters, it’s almost certain that more redeeming features will be written into the character as the series goes on but the character is stuck in the first episode as that increasingly tired cliché that most of Abrams’ female characters start off as. It makes this watcher wonder if this is the only way Abrams knows to evolve a strong feminine lead or if he simply has as much a problem with women as Frank Miller seems to.
Detective Madsen soon finds herself drawn into the conspiracy when she steals evidence from the scene of a murder because federal agents took the case from her, and she turns to Diego Soto, an expert on Alcatraz and its prisoners, for help unravelling the clue. Jorge Garcia plays Diego and it’s an unfortunate piece of casting in my opinion. While Jorge is a good actor and never someone I’ll complain about seeing on my screen, he has become a little typecast. “Oh, there’s Hurley” my mind would say whenever his character was on screen. That his role was limited in the first episode, to being a mobile file cabinet full of trivia about the prisoners didn’t help, as the few moments he wasn’t fulfilling a narration role he was acting or speaking in a very Hurleyesque manner. On at least one occasion towards the end of the show this seems to have been the aim of the writers; perhaps aiming to coax new viewers into watching their show by making one of the leads as much like the actors’ most known and beloved role as possible. “Come closer”, they seem to be saying to the shy television watching public, “Look, we have the rotund gentleman from Lost so we must be worth giving a chance.” Had that not been one of the reasons I was interested in the show before receiving the screener, I may have been disappointed in such cynicism from the show.
The two are soon enough officially introduced to the conspiracy by federal agent Emerson Hauser, played by a Sam Neill who surprisingly never once seems to be wondering when they’ll be putting the CG dinosaurs in. As always, Neill’s style of acting is best described as jowly with a hint of foresight, an effect that suits this character perfectly. The viewer is left wondering just what Hauser knows as the show goes on and how much he’s keeping from the younger agents. While nowhere near the same level as Pierce’s portrayal of Jack Sylvane, Neill’s performance is head and shoulders above anything else in the show. Still, even a veteran actor has his work cut out when trying to make a cliché believable, and there are two big ones in Alcatraz. Firstly, our intrepid heroes are knocked out by knockout gas. This has become such a popular way (along with tranquilliser darts) for this type of drama to fast-forward to a big reveal, that common sense goes out of the window. Simply put, if it can knock you out in seconds, it can just as easily put you into a coma. That’s why anaesthesiologists require training like a doctor to get doses right rather than the simpler ability to flick a switch. Even that cliché can be forgiven when compared with the next one though, and it’s something that puts a strain on your level of suspended disbelief for the show. “Hi there person who has stumbled onto a government conspiracy that has been ongoing for over forty years,” we hear the show say “you can join our top secret team and we’ll tell you everything.” I know that the more accurate response of a bullet to the back of the head wouldn’t be as watchable, but they could at least try to deny things a little.
Including those clichés, this is pretty much standard fare for an Abrams show. Shadowy know-all figures, conspiracy and cover-ups, a strong female lead character who doesn’t know anywhere near what she needs to and is somehow connected to events, detailed examination of past events via flashback, and older actors who almost entirely overshadow the younger cast (but will no doubt soon be bringing them up to their level) make up the rest of the hallmarks of his shows. Like all of his shows, this starts out remarkably strong and seems to have its world all figured out. Whether this ends up as nonsensical and unfinished as Lost, or keeps to its strengths like Fringe and Alias have (both equally nonsensical but with the conviction to see it through) remains to be seen, but for now the prisoners of Alcatraz are making a triumphant return…and thankfully they’re off the island.