Of all the television programs J.J. Abrams has produced, none have left a more indelible mark on the cultural landscape than Lost. So, naturally, once word broke that the famed director/producer would be involved in another island-based drama with a time-travel theme, Alcatraz inevitably, and perhaps unfairly, became the heir apparent to everything (positive and negative) associated with that series.
So it feels appropriate that Alcatraz should come with something of a disclaimer stating: Despite all the outward appearances and the inclusion of Lost star Jorge Garcia, Alcatraz bears little or no resemblance toward the program it finds itself most associated with. In fact, to Alcatraz is really more of the same ilk as Abrams’ other FOX effort: Fringe.
From the onset, Alcatraz has the same small-screen playfulness that Fringe had when it debuted in 2008, as opposed to the large-scale theatricality that was likely part of the initial draw to Lost. And while there is a larger mystery to be unraveled in Alcatraz, its appeal is that it can be doled out in tiny morsels through the naturally episodic nature of the series – rather than be built up week-in-and-week-out in a serialized format that, after several years, begins to repel new audience members because the core story is simply too dense.
With what looks to be the killer-of-the-week format that Alcatraz has started, it’s clear this new series won’t have to deal with confusion or plot density right away.
But it is time to dispense with the comparisons, because Alcatraz does manage to stand on its own with an intriguing premise that presents itself as both immediately palatable and easy to understand. Regrettably, the delivery of the series is approached without the kind of gusto and vigor that demands the audience beg for more. For the most part, Alcatraz just comes off as another passable hour of television, but nothing too remarkable.
It’s a shame, really, because the three main leads: Sarah Jones’ Detective Rebecca Madsen, the aforementioned Jorge Garcia, as Dr. Diego Soto and Sam Neill as the mysterious Emerson Hauser all come off perfectly likeable and capable in their performances – however, there is a nagging feeling that the audience should be compelled to feel more about any of the three.
Det. Madsen is our link to the strange happenings surrounding Alcatraz and the prisoners who disappeared there nearly 50 years ago, but have recently begun to turn up in the present without so much as a wrinkle. Of course, for her, the returning inmates aren’t simply a bizarre phenomenon; there is also a personal connection Madsen has with the prison, as one of her relatives was an inmate in the prison.
The trouble with Madsen is that because she’s asked to play something of the everyman – which is likely why her character is given the most backstory – we should expect her to react to the situation with a certain amount of surprise, or disbelief – as most naturally would. Instead Madsen confronts the situation – every situation, actually – with earnestness unseen in seasoned cops 30-years her senior. That steely resolve may maker her good at her job, but it also makes her something of an emotional void for the audience. Madsen is so automatic in her duties that even being faced with the impossible doesn’t seem to faze her much. Unfortunately, besides Madsen’s natural attractiveness and dogged determination, there isn’t really anything to latch onto, character wise.
The two other leads Garcia and Neill, both carry their respective roles and characters quite well, providing a mix of levity and mysterious authority that will no doubt drive the non-Rebecca Madsen moments of each future episode.
Though he’s a little too much an amalgam of all that is geek, Garcia’s Dr. Soto is a nice alternative to the usually older character that performs similar duties in these kinds of programs. He still comes off as Hurley with a PhD, but looking for anything different would mean looking past Garcia in the role – one that he fits quite nicely, actually.
Neill, on the other hand, is the key to the mystery of Alcatraz, as he holds all the answers, but isn’t willing to share everything, just yet. It’s easy to marginalize Neill when he’s playing heroic roles as he did in Jurassic Park, but here, playing a secretive and duplicitous manipulator, Neill is so far the most thrilling character in the series. And by establishing a clandestine connection between Hauser and his technician Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra, Bend it Like Beckham), two potential one-note characters become all the more intriguing.
Actually, as it stands, the most intriguing and entertaining aspect of the pilot was the 1960s flashbacks to when Alcatraz was still a functioning prison – and not a tourist attraction. While the sepia tones of the flashbacks in the pilot were a little obvious, the brief depictions of life on that island, and the cruelty of the warden, manage to engage a bit more than the actual modern day storyline.
Sadly, this may be only a short-term plus, as the thought of being introduced to a new ‘60s criminal each week does pose a problem in terms of keeping the idea of Alcatraz fresh. The novelty of men with Buddy Holly glasses and slicked back hair (or what have you) wreaking havoc in the present, only to be imprisoned by Sam Neil, may wear a bit thin after a few weeks. A fact made evident by the second episode, ‘Ernest Cobb’ which airs immediately after the pilot.
Though it’s a fun episode with a nice twist at the end, ‘Ernest Cobb’ hits all the same perfunctory, and ultimately hollow notes that the pilot does.
For all the hubbub and speculation, it turns out Alcatraz is essentially just another procedural, but with a sci-fi twist. While that may be a let down to some, the larger questions posed in the pilot then reiterated, and expanded upon in the second episode are certainly enough to keep most viewers coming back – if only for a glimpse at what’s really at the center of this story. Hopefully, the writers will be able to craft episodes engaging enough, or more engaging than the pilot, at least, to satiate the audience in between delivering those morsels of information.
And even though audiences are basically looking at another bad-guy-of-the-week series, keep in mind programs like The X-Files, Supernatural and Fringe all started out the same way, but managed to grow into something larger, and more compelling than a mere procedural. Here’s hoping Alcatraz also has something special hidden up its sleeve.
Alcatraz airs Monday night @8pm on FOX.