Scattered Thoughts on ‘Alcatraz’

Posted: January 19, 2012 in Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Reviews on the new J.J. Abrams/whoever-else-ends-up-being-in-charge-of-the-story series Alcatraz have been mixed-to-positive. Most have commented on its procedural structure, as though that’s a bad thing in and of itself, but by and large the reviews feel like an unjustified pre-judgment on the show now that Lost is done with.

These reviews seem to forget 1) that Abrams’ name was also attached to the completely (and hey, justly) forgotten Undercovers, 2) seriously, the guy’s a producer, he’s not Aaron Sorkin writing these things by his lonesome (meaning, we don’t really have room to judge Alcatraz the same way we could all laugh at Studio 60), and 3) Every criticism lobbed at Alcatraz seems to echo all the criticisms thrown at Fringe when that one first showed up. 

And if you haven’t been paying attention, Fringe has become one of those shows critics and nerd-TV-viewers love that everyone else forgets is on (it’s on Fridays at 9 on Fox, FYI). This is a show where characters have protracted conversations with phrases like “parallel Earth,” “shapeshifter,” “New kind of shapeshifter,” and “Walternate” in all seriousness and nobody bats an eye.

What I mean is, considering Fringe entered this world as a poor man’s X-Files and grew to be a genuinely interesting and heartfelt show should allow Alcatraz a little bit of leeway. Especially since its pilot and second episode – while mirroring Fringe‘s in a lot of ways – are way, waaaay more confident than what Fringe mustered up. 

1. The opener is set up much like Fringe – a law officer stumbles upon a Case Unlike Any Other, is teamed with a civilian consultant who’s out of his depth (here Jorge Gonzalez takes on both the Walter and Peter roles, but substituting “nutty” or “cocky” with “hey, remember how much you guys liked Hurley? Here’s a better-groomed Hurley for you”) while working under the command of someone with greater knowledge than he admits. But unlike Fringe, which threw a lot of vague mysteries out and called them “The Pattern” (which we later understood to be the writers padding things out until they could figure out whether X-Files2 could work or not), Alcatraz‘s questions are clearer: What happened that caused the inmates to disappear; why are they back now; who’s responsible; and what does Sam Neill really know? These are “known unknowns,” and that’s a lot more compelling to build a season around, if not a series, than the usual Abrams “What’s the rabbit’s foot?” nonsense that’s usually substituted for substantive curiosities.

By which I mean: if ANY of the questions above get answered, it changes the structure of the narrative. Which isn’t to say they can avoid answering them for long stretches of time – this can continue to be a “Two leads chase down criminals from the past; Sam Neill remains vaguely menacing” for Quite Some Time. But the minute one of those crucial questions gets answered, the game changes, in a way that Jack asking Locke “What the Hatch means” didn’t change Lost.

And in the meantime, the show’s structure is interesting enough in its own right, split between three plot threads: Case of the Week, the What’s Sam Neill Up To With His Alcatraz 2 Files, and The Transplanted Inmates Previously Led Detailed Lives. That’s a lot of meat for a weekly series to chew on before inevitably changing its structure once it gets bored and/or the ratings slip.

2. What is up with genre shows naming their enemies after numbers? The “63’s” here; on The Event (a show I confess I’d completely forgotten about until other reviews mentioned it) had its 1 percenters or whatever it was; Terra Nova was focused on its 49ers or something similar…this is probably a pattern that needs to be knocked off.

3. My only problem with this show is it’s really making me miss Brimstone. Does anyone else remember this series? Peter Horton starred as a detective who died after killing his wife’s rapist and was sent to Hell, only to be brought back by The Devil (John Glover – and that right there should’ve gotten you hunting torrent sites for the show already) to hunt down 113 souls who broke out of the pit, each irredeemably evil soul with their own novelty-powers (and, incidentally, were never referred to as “the 113-ers” or similar). Really does make “this sniper just wanted to be left alone in his cell” a bit quaint by comparison.

4. Another reason I’m interested in this show is that at some point sooner rather than later, it’ll have to force its hand and explain The Why of its premise – why the inmates have returned, at which point it will HAVE to become a different type of show, and I am interested in seeing that metamorphosis, for good or ill. I mean, they can dribble out bits of info at their leisure, but unlike Fringe, where The Why ended up being “Turns out we’re at war with a parallel Earth,” or Lost, where the Whys ended up so numerous that “magical cork” didn’t BEGIN to satisfy as an answer, here, knowing The Why feels like it’ll simply open up Stage 2 of the storytelling engine, but in a less convoluted way than Lost and a less out-of-nowhere way than Fringe.

5. I’m on the fence about Sarah Jones as the lead. On the one hand, I like the actress’s presence. She’s more down-to-earth and knowable than Anna Torv’s first Fringe season as Olivia (though the show managed to cover its ass when it eventually fleshed her character out/Anna Torv got a handle on how to play it – that Olivia is closed off, dull and hard to read for very specific reasons). And being a cute, short, affably middle-class blonde cop who encourages Jorge Garcia is a more conventional way to develop a viewpoint character than trying to concoct another Olivia Dunham. But the “My dad was a cop, my grandpa was a guard on Alcatraz – no wait he was a CRIMINAL! AND HE KILLED MY PARTNER!” may be laying it on a bit too thick. On the other hand, it gives Robert Forster something to do, and if “father-figure to a cop” fit him well on the late, lamented Karen Sisco series, it should do okay here, too. But I swear, if it turns out she’s some kind of chosen one I’m gonna throw something.

6. And now I’m missing Karen Sisco too. Dang. Hey, that reminds me, Justified kicked up its new season last night, and man are you missing out if you haven’t watched that show yet. (Archer starts up again tomorrow, just so you know.)

  1. Moff says:

    But the minute one of those crucial questions gets answered, the game changes, in a way that Jack asking Locke “What the Hatch means” didn’t change Lost.

    Well, unless the answer to “What does Sam Neill really know?” turns out to be “His mom told him not to enter the light in the cave, but wouldn’t explain why, because every question would just lead to more questions.”

    Also, “magical cork” is a pretty sad answer even if we’re only talking about a handful of Whys. In fact, I cannot think of a single question that “magical cork” answers satisfactorily.

  2. Kelly G says:

    This show has an eerily similar premise to “The 4400″…a bunch of people disappear only to return years later without having aged a day and with some unknown purpose…

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    “In fact, I cannot think of a single question that “magical cork” answers satisfactorily.”

    “What would one use to keep magic liquid in a magical jug?”

    But you probably mean a question brought up by “Lost.”

  4. Moff says:

    Even that, I feel like, if the jug needs a cork to keep from spilling, how good is that magic, really?

  5. braak says:

    Double especially because the answer “magical cork” didn’t even fucking explain the basic question of whether the cork is supposed to keep the evil out, or the magic in.

  6. Jeff Holland says:

    @KellyG, Yeah, I vaguely recall the concept of that show. Mostly I only recall that The Rocketeer was rock(eteer)ing a beard, and it looked nice on him.

    The concept of that one was “Future people took them,” right? I’ve been trying to come up with the permutations Alcatraz could go with, and so far I’ve got:
    1) Future-people, but not like 4400
    2) Aliens, like in Close Encounters
    3) Aliens, but NOT like in Close Encounters
    4) Alternate reality, because if you’re not watching Fringe, it’s all new to you
    4) Angels, because something-something God, or
    5) Demons, because something-something The Devil/Holland’s the only guy who remembers Brimstone.

    Any other ideas?

  7. braak says:


    6) Weird science experiment, because Quantum Mechanics.

    Like the Rip Van Winkle Caper, maybe, or else some other kind of weird science experiment that they (for some reason) purposefully or accidentally used on a bunch of prisoners.

  8. John Jackson says:

    I loved Brimstone. Oh, and 7) Fucking clones man. Sharks in the water, pigs in trees, monkeys fetching cheese under tables and throwing it at you, and clones fucking clones and killing civilians. That’s totally what it is. And if that’s all Lost was, man am I glad I just watched Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. Far less nonsense and a lot snazzier fashion. At least Life on Mars had a magical cork and a magical rastafarian bartender.

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