A Tale of Two Shows

Two posts ago, I wrote about my impressions of the TV show Alcatraz, after having seen the pilot (and second) episode.  My impression was mostly favorable, minus a few concerns that needed to be addressed.  I thought I would revisit the subject of Alcatraz, however, because, frankly, I can’t, in good conscience leave you, dear reader, with the false impression that I think it is a good show.  It really hasn’t shown itself to be one.

“Why the sudden turnaround?” you may ask.  Well, remember those concerns I listed?  As it turns out, they were more important than I thought.

Sadly, "Alcatraz" had a lot of unrealized potential.

From the very first episode, the biggest thing Alcatraz had going against it was that its characters weren’t very well-realized.  They were mostly archetypes meant to fill certain roles, but they provided little personality.  I was hopeful that the writers would address this issue over the course of the season.  After all, plenty of shows start with weak, archetypal characters who become more fleshed-out and real as the show progresses.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t really the case.  Dr. Soto remained the geeky outsider with no experience and a love of comics.  Emersen Hauser was only there to be a jerk and a roadblock (despite wanting help — I never quite figured that one out).  And Rebecca Madsen remained the no-nonsense detective who wants answers (this role was probably the least believable and most underdeveloped in the whole show).  With all of the episodes I watched (and it was only about six), character development was distinctly absent — from the present day characters, that is.

Ironically, the criminals often received more attention than the main characters.  From beginning to end, the flashback sequences were always the most interesting.  For the most part, they were well done, and I really don’t have any complaints about them.  In fact, if the whole of Alcatraz were spent in the past, it might have even been a good show.  The problem with that is, well, you really don’t want your audience rooting for the bad guys, do you?  To counter gaining too much sympathy for the villains, the writers tried to make them as inexplicably evil as possible in the present day.  It occasionally worked, but sometimes, it was laughable.  And it’s really in the present day scenarios where Alcatraz fell apart.

Dr. Soto was the best part about the present-day segments, but the writers did very little to differentiate him from Garcia's previous role, Hurley from "LOST."

See, while the flashbacks were interesting, somewhat gripping, and portrayed actual characters (gadzooks, what a concept), the present day was filled with boring, lifeless characters and plots that made Scooby-Doo look complex.  Alcatraz perhaps spent too much time in flashback mode — forcing the writers to take some ultra-quick shortcuts in finding and catching the criminals.  In my initial impressions, I had this to say about one of Alcatraz‘s more unique elements:

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).

Unfortunately, the writers themselves must not have picked up on this “twist” because they, more often than not, relied on typical “Hollywood cop” means of crime solving (“Quick!  Zoom in and enhance that photo from the street camera!”).  Insane leaps of logic were sometimes taken, and, of course, the good guys were ALWAYS right when they took a risk.  Some of the methods employed in the early episodes were so unbelievable, they had me shaking my head in disgust.

Ultimately, I ended up dropping Alcatraz out of boredom.  The characters were uninteresting, the plot mediocre, and the show itself was too constrained by its own format (Six episodes in, and it was very predictable).  The show had glimmers of hope — its flashbacks were well done and the mysteries were, for their part, mostly interesting — but the changes the show needed to grow stronger simply weren’t there.

Of course, soon after dropping Alcatraz, I found a new show that seemed to be the antithesis of everything I couldn’t stand about FOX’s prison-related crime drama.  The show that I’m talking about is NBC’s Awake.

Like "Alcatraz," "Awake" deals with some minor sci-fi themes, but, unlike the former, it does so with human characters at the forefront.

Starring a distinctly American Jason Isaacs (The Patriot, Harry Potter), Awake follows Detective Michael Britten, who finds himself stuck in two realities after a car accident dramatically alters his life.  In one reality, his wife survived the accident; in the other, his son survived.  In neither reality, however, do both survive.  What follows is a gripping and heartfelt drama of a man trying to figure out how to deal with a tragedy that affects him very differently than it does those around him (since it still feels to him like his wife and son are both alive).  At the same time, Britten is tasked with solving murders in both realities — and he finds that, occasionally, the facts of both investigations cross over.  What’s more, the show occasionally drops hints that one reality (or perhaps both) may not be real.  It’s a bit of a mind-bender, but the stories are both compelling and original.  And that’s what makes it such a breath of fresh air in comparison to Alcatraz.

Alcatraz promised compelling mysteries but its cookie-cutter plot and uninteresting characters didn’t deliver anything special.  Awake has character and engaging plot in spades.  Britten himself is a complex man who wants to do what’s best for his family but still wants to remain in both realities (for obvious reasons).  We can identify with him when he struggles to relate to his wife’s pain or when he stumbles in being a single father.  And we can easily feel for Britten’s wife and son, as they deal with their own respective life changes.  As for Britten’s cases, they range from incredibly compelling to mostly interesting, but, even at their slowest, the characters hold them up.  There are touching moments, humorous moments, brain-teasing moments, and tense moments.  Most of all, Awake has heart.  The show makes you feel something for its main characters, and Jason Isaacs especially should be applauded for his work as Michael Britten.  Awake is only four episodes in, but I can already recommend it.  We’ll see if the writers can maintain this kind of momentum going forward, but so far, it’s my favorite broadcast show currently running (Aside from Fringe, of course.  As a longtime fan, I’m dedicated to it until it’s pulled from the air).


~ by digitallysmitten on March 30, 2012.

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