TV Review: Alcatraz (***1/2)


On March 21st, 1963, Alcatraz officially closed. All the prisoners were transferred off the islandonly that’s not what happened. Not at all.”

Yes, this is the exciting premise to one of the new year’s best, most fascinating shows from the creative imagination of J. J. Abrams. Sci-Fi/Supernatural stories and J.J. Abrams go together about as well as champagne on New Years Eve, so it’s no surprise that Alcatraz could very well be the answer to the absence of Lost. J.J. Abram’s previous television hit launched a legion of fans dedicating their time to decrypting the secrets of its complex narrative, as well as pushing forward the production quality of a Broadcast television show. Before Lost, there had never been a show with such a high concept storyline, stunning visual effects, and set production values that had ever been done before. The show felt like a movie, but better — instead of neatly wrapping itself up in two hours, the show spanned six seasons with layer upon layer of mythology, fleshed out characters whose back-stories were given great weight and importance, and a highly complex science fiction plot that ignited fierce and passionate discussion on message boards across the internet. If ever there was a show that marked the beginning popularity of the post-millennium internet age coming together as an online community in debunking their favorite television show in such lavish detail and commitment, it was Lost. The show launched in 2004, and television has never been the same since thanks to J. J. Abrams. Many shows post-Lost have attempted to mimic its high concept narrative and extravagant production values, but to little avail. Most shows that did this were poorly received by the national audience, sank in the Nielsen ratings, and were forced to shut down production because their rating shares could not cover the cost to maintain expensive production. Only J. J. Abrams, it seems, could revive the high-concept science fiction show on Broadcast television. Even though Alcatraz is nowhere near Lost in its overall quality, it definitely holds promise to develop into a show that is both original, refreshing, and the remedy to the absence most sci-fi fans have been feeling since Lost’s series finale ended in 2010.

Alcatraz tells the story of a shocking event that occurred in 1963, where two liaison officers are about to transfer the Alcatraz prisoners back to San Francisco after the government decides to shut down the island prison for good. When the officers arrive, they find the prison cells and the entire island empty — the inmates are nowhere to be found, and disappear for nearly fifty years. The show then cuts back to the present day, where we are introduced to the main protagonists: Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and Diego Soto (Lost’s Jorge Garcia). Madsen is a detective for the San Francisco Police Department, and finds fingerprints at a crime scene where the murder victim is E.B. Tiller, the Associate Warden of Alcatraz who was the last warden before the prison closed in 1963. Oddly enough, the fingerprints belong to a former inmate, who should be nearing 85 if still alive. Rebecca discovers a comic book store owner with a PhD, Dr. Diego Soto, who wrote about the entire history of Alcatraz, including the complete back story of every single convict that was held prisoner on the island. The two pair up to uncover the mystery surrounding the fingerprints, which only leads them down a dangerous path of unanswered questions and deadly confrontations.

Sam Neill is finally back where he belongs -- a good old fashioned Sci-Fi Story.

Sarah Jones and Jorge Garcia, while not suggested as a possible romantic item, do have good chemistry together. If the writers play their cards right, we could be looking at the next Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler from Law and Order: SVU meets Scully and Mulder from FOX’s The X-Files in the partnership department. I wish they had even more screen time together, as unfortunately Garcia’s character does little more than stand in the background and provide some useful intelligence while Jones’s Madsen gets her hands dirty hunting down the missing convicts. Yes, the convicts have magically jumped through time for some unclear purpose, and by some unknown organization, to carry out missions as well as enact revenge on the society who shunned and placed them into Alcatraz in the first place. To keep things under wraps, Secret Ops Agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) alongside his assisting operative, Lucy (Parminder Nagra), take over the operation of tracking down the time-traveling Alcatraz convicts and hire Benson and Soto to be their field agents so long as they don’t tell SFD what is really going on. Neill portrays Hauser with such authorial command and intensity, it would be difficult not to follow orders from this man out of fear. Neill, as many of you know, has been out of the spotlight for a great number of years, limiting himself to small character roles in minor films. As we all remember, Neill totally kicked dinosaur ass in Jurassic Park, and it’s finally good to see him in the science-fiction/fantasy realm where he seems most at ease.

People thinking the show is a Michael Bay ripoff of The Rock meets Lost should think again. About the only thing in common Alcatraz has with Michael Bay’s best film is the setting location. The majority of the show uses San Francisco as its playground for many of the intense action scenes. In fact, I have not seen a television show or film in a long time to use the sprawling and beautiful city of San Francisco so effectively, perhaps maybe since Basic Instinct in the early 90s. Being a huge Vertigo/Hitchcock fan, I love the little homages the series pays tribute to one of the all time great directors, who loved shooting in the Bay Area. There are many sequences, specifically the chase sequence at the very beginning between Madsen and a mysterious man on the run, where you instantly think of the opening scene in Vertigo where the police officer falls off of a building during a rooftop chase. The series may be sci-fi/fantasy, but I detected a great deal of noir in the hard-boiled crime atmosphere that surrounds the plot in addition to the sense of scale, height, and danger that San Francisco provides. Again, Alcatraz brings back to life a beautiful city that has been left incredibly under-filmed in the past two decades. Welcome back to the mainstream, San Francisco.

What is great about the premiere episode is that it functions as a two-part pilot. The first episode establishes the basic premise of the show, and introduces us to the characters and the roles they play. What is great is that I was never able to once figure out the type of narrative structure Abrams would use for the remainder of the series until the very end. I figured the show would just involve one convict from the past who showed up. That is not the case, as every week, just like your weekly comic book issue, there will be a brand new villain. While this may anger fans who want a more conventional, serial format drama series, where each episode is a part of one long arc that continues throughout the season, I can promise that you will not be disappointed. The show functions perfectly for the average viewer who loves watching police procedural dramas whose stories are wrapped up every episode and diehard fans like myself who love cliffhangers and a continuation of the plot throughout the season. How does this work? It’s quite simple: every episode ends with a twist but will conclude with the immediate story arc of that specific villain inmate. Every episode also gives new clues to background of the mysterious time traveling event that brought the prisoners to present day time, their motivations, and more information about the unknown organization that seems to fuel the inmates’ drive to enact destruction on the present day. Unlike Lost or 24, shows that lost viewers over time who could not keep up with the necessary details of every episode that were essential to the overall plot, Alcatraz will not turn away viewers coming in new to any episode. Recaps and resolutions are prevalent throughout the series, yet the show has enough cliffhangers and unanswered questions to last an entire season. This is the most balanced type of narrative formula the network could provide the average television viewer.

San Francisco has not been utilized this well in television or film in over two decades.

As far as the show’s weaknesses, I am happy to say there are only a few. While Jorge Garcia surprises me in showing a new side of the “Hurley” persona which could have stigmatized his acting career, I’m afraid Sarah Jones may not be up to par when measuring her against some of television’s greatest leading females in other sci-fi drama series. She is a little too stoic in her delivery and earnest in her ambitions. I think her character is often times inconsistent, and Jones’s acting could be more focused and showcase dynamics to her personality. The two convicts who have been introduced so far, while interesting in their own way, are not the breakout villains that we know a high concept series like this can spew. For a place like Alcatraz, we half expect all the convicts to be like Jack the Ripper, but instead we get two convicts who are only a fourth as devious as Prison Break’s downright nefarious T-Bag. I understand the reasoning behind the prisoner characterizations  — Abrams wants to humanize the inmates who have been wronged in some way by the government — but it also does not make for compelling suspense, where we figure that Neill’s Hauser and Jones’s Madsen could take them down with relative ease, which they do.

If I could name one final weakness, it is that the show and the characters do not take the plot as serious as they should. Aside from Garcia’s Soto, everyone seems to not even bat an eye at the unbelievability of the idea of time traveling convicts from the past returning to the present, who are exactly the same age as in the 1960s, and are committing rampant murders on San Francisco’s community. The characters are all just a little too accepting; their lack of convincing turns me off slightly as a viewer. I need these protagonists to act more like real people who are witnessing something impossible and extraordinary.

However, the minor quibbles I have with the show do not undermine the fact that the narrative structure, pacing, and overall plot are compelling enough to keep me hooked for a full season. I hope everyone joins in on the discussion of this show, and please do not hesitate to shoot me an email or a tweet with your thoughts on the new series. This is easily Abram’s strongest television work I have seen since Lost. Unlike the former brilliant show that had me both enamored and frustrated, there is something about Alcatraz that makes me believe this is a show that can grow from good to revolutionary if the acting is stronger and the writers challenge themselves on a weekly basis. As a science fiction/neo-noir show, this program fits the bill for an enthusiast of those genres like myself. Throw away the key and lock me up, because this is a prison show I do not mind being locked away in for a very long time.