Impressions of “Alcatraz”

[Technically, this is a review for the first two episodes of Alcatraz, as they aired in tandem.]

This past Monday, FOX premiered its newest mystery-drama series Alcatraz.  Produced by J.J. Abrams, the show had a decent amount of hype going into it.  A few people called it “the next LOST” (really, what mystery drama isn’t called that nowadays?), but the show creators themselves outright dismissed this claim.  Instead, Alcatraz is more of a crime/prison drama with a few random mysteries (and one big sci-fi concept) thrown in.  The first two episodes have already aired; so, what do I think of this new series?  I’m glad you asked.

Alcatraz centers around the former prison island of the same name.  Only, in this show’s version of history, the prison shut down in 1963 for very different reasons than the ones we know.  Instead, all of the inhabitants of the island mysteriously vanished without explanation.  Fast forward to the present, and former inmates of the island are suddenly showing up — without having aged.  From there, we get your sort of basic crime drama, with a team tasked to capture these inmates before they return to their lives of crime in the present.  The team consists of Detective Rebecca Madsen (played by Sarah Jones) and Alcatraz expert Diego Soto (played by LOST‘s Jorge Garcia).  Playing the sometimes advisor, sometimes antagonist, always mysterious secret agent Emerson Hauser, Sam Neill kinda-sorta comprises the third member of the team, but he’s a little more aloof than the other two (and a bit of a loose cannon, it seems).  After two episodes, it seems the basic outline of the show is finding out about the villain of the week through flashbacks while the team attempts to track down and catch the same villain in the present.  It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but it works.  The flashbacks are, for me, the high point of both episodes, as we get to see some classic, old-school prison drama.  Personally, prison drama in a modern day setting bores me pretty quickly, but once you go back to the 60’s or earlier, it suddenly gets interesting.  Not entirely sure why — maybe it’s the uniforms.  Anyway, while the flashbacks are definitely the strongest points in the show so far, the present-day stuff is hit or miss.  If you like crime drama, it’s pretty procedural stuff.  Nothing groundbreaking here, but neither is it uninteresting.  The big things propelling the story are the mysteries (both the grand one and the smaller, “where is he?” one) and the characters.

"Sorry, buddy, this is prison in the 60's. I can screw with you as much as I want."

And that’s where I get a little iffy.

Recently, I’ve become reflexively leery towards TV shows that want to introduce mysteries that may take full seasons to solve.  It’s not because I don’t like a good mystery, mind you.  I’ll stick with such shows if they’re good.  The reason why I’m hesitant is because, ever since the success of LOST, TV creators the world over have been trying to create serialized mystery dramas — with little to no success.  The reason, I think, is because the writers spend so much time thinking of cool mysteries and very little time focusing on characters.  This naturally means that the mystery drives the show, and when that happens, your mystery better be really dang fascinating.  If it isn’t, your show will become boring and quick.  Characters are responsible for giving a show life.  Why do you think there are so many successful crime dramas out there when they all contain the same premise?  Characters.  They give it something unique.  If a show has boring or unlikable characters, it’s going to crash and burn if your plot isn’t highly entertaining.

Case in point? "FlashForward." Not a bad concept and even some talented writers, but hopelessly boring characters. It was a terrible show.

But I digress.

Alcatraz obviously has quite a few mysteries to it.  “What happened to the inmates?  Why did that first guy want that key?  What does Hauser know?  When did Hurley change his name and get two PhD’s?”  Nevertheless, the mysteries are significantly downplayed compared to other Abrams’ shows like LOST or even Fringe.  In fact, much like Fringe‘s first season, Alcatraz seems to consist more of standalone episodes than constant, what-happens-next serial drama.  The writers have purposely made the show in such a way that you can jump into any episode and easily grasp what is going on.  The big mystery of the show seems to be a catalyst for storytelling rather than the whole story itself.  Because of that, it’s obvious that some of the show’s mysteries will take a long time to answer (ie: Don’t expect any time-travelling murderers to spill the beans after three episodes).  That’s not to say the mysteries are unimportant — the characters ask too many “What is going on?!” questions for them to go completely ignored.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the mysteries become more important as time goes on — especially as we near a season finale.  Still, if you’re going into this show hoping to see a bunch of mysteries and then a slew of answers, it’s possible that you may be looking in the wrong place.  That being said, the basic premise of the show is interesting.  A nice twist on the classic “catch the badguy” scenario is the fact that the characters can’t rely on some of the standard crime-solving tools because these men are supposedly all dead (and, therefore, not in the system).  We’ll have to see how much the writers further play with that idea in the future.

"This man is bad, and that's all I'm telling you. Happy Hunting."

Finally, there are the characters of Alcatraz.  It’s only been two episodes, so they still have yet to thoroughly establish everyone, but I’m both optimistic and slightly concerned about this category.  For one, I’m optimistic because characters in Abrams’ shows tend to be pretty strong.  For what it’s worth, the actors are all well-chosen for their respective parts.  Unfortunately, the characters are mostly archetypes right now, rather than real, fleshed out personalities.  We have the goofy, not physically active geek; the serious, wants-answers detective girl; and the grumpy old man who knows more than he lets on.  Jorge Garcia provides the most comic relief for the show, but it’s hard not to think of him as Hurley the entire time he’s onscreen.  I’m hopeful that the writers will do a few things with his character to differentiate him from his previous role.  Sam Neill plays the helpful jerk perfectly; though, again, I’m hopeful that he’s not always there merely to provide the foil for Madsen’s questions.  As for Sarah Jones herself, she plays the role well, but Madsen feels too much like a copy of early Olivia Dunham from Fringe for my taste (if it turns out that she was having an affair with her now-deceased partner, I’m out).  Basically, all of the characters in Alcatraz have potential (if the writers decide to start getting a little creative), but, as they are right now, they’re not very realized.

Occasionally, I got the sense that Rebecca Madsen could be a more "fun" character, if the writers would stop trying to make her super serious all the time.

In all, Alcatraz is an entertaining show with a few problems, but a lot of potential.  The prison-flashback scenes are easily the strongest moments (aside from that one cheesy scene with the Warden practicing his shooting), and the mysteries themselves are intriguing but not so overwhelming or convoluted that you might feel lost if you miss an episode.  Indeed, the only thing that really needs work are the characters — and we’ll hopefully see that as time goes on.  For now, I’m definitely keeping an eye on the show.  If Alcatraz can do a bit more to show that it’s different, we might have another winner from J.J. Abrams.


~ by digitallysmitten on January 19, 2012.

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