I’ve had the good luck lately to be on the winning team, pop-culture-wise. I don’t have to worry about other people liking The Hunger Games, and ABC seems to have found a genuine hit in Revenge, so I don’t have to be an advocate there, either.
Which means I might’ve gotten a bit lazy, since I figured the mix of J.J. Abrams’ name, the post-House time slot and the 50/50 combo of cop-procedural/time-travel mythology would’ve been enough to get people to stay with Alcatraz, without me constantly banging a drum in a vain attempt to get people to tune in again.
Of course, I figured wrong. And so Alcatraz wraps up its first and potentially only season, with a ton of unanswered questions, because people aren’t generally trained on how to watch television these days. Which is to say, the rule is: “You gotta power through the first six episodes, because they’re probably not gonna be all that good, but there’s potential, which usually only gets reached in season 2, so please be patient.”
(With the caveat: “…If you liked the pilot at all.” Which is my way of saying, “You don’t have to support every damn thing just because you hope it’ll get better than crap.” Which is really just my way of saying, “Grimm is stupid.”)
Honestly, if TV shows could put that disclaimer at the beginning of each episode, who knows where we’d be. Probably curling up on a Friday night watching the amazing finale of Threshold and talking about how it compares to Brimstone’s crazy fifth season, while buying tickets for Karen Sisco: The Movie or something. (In the sideways universe, we figured how to clone Carla Gugino AND ONLY Carla Gugino is how.)
The first few episodes of Alcatraz exhibited the usual problems I see in shows that aren’t pure procedurals – trying to serve too many masters. They end up following the same format to a fault (in this case, A-Plot: track down escaped criminal with specific M.O.; B-Plot: shifty crap was going on in prison in the early 60’s; C-Plot: mostly absent…Houser looking shifty, maybe?).
The idea here is to get viewers used to the idea of the show itself, and while that’s noble in the abstract (and sometimes works – Smallville was basically the same episode over and over again for two full seasons, and that goddamn thing lasted ten years), it usually has the short-term problem of boring the shit out of viewers with enough braincells to realize what’s going on.
(Those viewers who don’t have those braincells? They’re watching CBS, where Unforgettable isn’t asking them to buy into a vague time-travel concept. THEY JUST WANT CRIMES SOLVED, DAMMIT. With the power of MEMORY.)
But the people willing to watch the show in hopes of a broader narrative revealing itself are not a patient bunch. Particularly not in the post-Lost years, when every network tried every permutation of the formula (“Maybe they like vague conspiracies? Maybe they like the serialized format? Maybe they want to know that we’ve got an end-game?”) and it failed every single time.
So presumably, after the second or third episode, when they read the adherence to the format not as “This is the format we thought would make casual viewers comfortable for a while,” but rather “We’re gonna start spinning our wheels early,” they bailed.
What they missed was the show methodically providing more and more interesting details about the mystery-arc – “What happened in 1963 that sent all the inmates time-traveling to the future?” – while couching it in procedural stories grounded in some completely likable protagonists.
Even better was how fair it played with the viewers. While Sam Neill’s taskmaster character knew more than the others, it became clear fairly early on that he wasn’t much more in the know than they were, he’s just a guy who plays things close to the chest. And Madsen and Soto didn’t ask stupid questions, they just knew when those questions wouldn’t get answers. Everyone was learning along with the viewers.
This may be the aspect of the show I liked the most – that the characters were all pretty good at what they did, and didn’t behave like they were part of a TV show’s super-mystery. Sarah Jones in particular. Obviously, it doesn’t hurt that I found her cute has hell (like a real-life Power Girl!), because I also accepted her as a down-to-earth, capable detective.
(I also didn’t mind that they put her in a turtleneck and a shoulder-holster for the season finale right before giving her a San Francisco car chase, a Bullitt homage I imagine they were all excited for from the moment they gave her a classic hot rod as her primary mode of transportation, which was just big enough to fit her and ¾ of Jorge Garcia…and wasn’t even the car used in the chase. I’m sure there was a lot of back-stage discussion about that, a clear case of introducing Checkov’s gun and never firing it.)
Of course, there were glitches in the system. While there was evidence that Madsen was looking into her time-displaced grandfather’s deal, she never seemed to follow it up with her uncle and guy-who-knows-more-than-he-lets-on Robert Forester, which was just a waste of casting. Swing-and-a-miss.
And, in a way that felt like, as IO9 put it, “bargain-basement Lost,” mysterious corporations with long-forgotten ties to the island and special keys and crap started creeping up in the final two episodes, and while I’m sure they thought, “Boy, this’ll become a fun narrative thread to pull on in season 2,” it also felt like a too-little-too-late attempt at broadening the conspiracy and adding fake layers.
Like a half-assed iteration of Lost’s Hanso Corporation…which, now that I think of it, was itself pretty half-assed since it didn’t actually have anything to do with anything on Lost, and…goddammit, Lost. I keep waiting for the day I’m not irritated with how you ended up.
Anyway, and then Alcatraz killed its lead, and…cut to credits. Which like the new mysterious-corporation-angle, I’ll bet the writers were thrilled to cap off their season with, so they could come back and revive her with the colloidal-silver-in-the-blood business that would make her super-special, just like Peter and Olivia turned out to be by season 2 of Fringe, and…
OK, so now I can admit that Alcatraz did often feel like B-level variations on tricks previously used on Lost and Fringe.
But here’s the thing to remember: Lost started out good, had some missteps and quickly became a phenomenon, and Fringe shucked its initial case-of-the-week format in its second season to become a well-loved cult favorite. And both shows saw serious losses in their viewership, even as their reputations grew.
And just like those shows and every other decent genre series of the last 15 years, I’ve little doubt that Alcatraz could have reached those levels, given more time to work out its kinks and figure out what it does well.
(This isn’t an issue limited to genre shows, though. Go ahead and watch the first and second season of Parks & Recreation and you’ll see the creative process in action – there was actually an interview somewhere with the P&R showrunner where he was asked what changed between seasons and he answered simply, “We learned how to do it better.”)
So here’s what I’m hoping: Fox realizes that with House ending, it’s got very few long-running shows to build a night from (its only firm programming night that doesn’t have American Idol is its Tuesday Glee/New Girl block) and decides the weirdly-resilient Bones (entering into its eighth season!) might be a decent intro to see if it might have some legs.
Of course, Fox also gave second-season renewals to Human Target (which actually got worse, with the stink of network retooling all over it) and Lie to Me (which I still never bothered to get into despite the pleasing premise of Tim Roth yelling at people every week), both of which failed, so I’ll assume they’re pretty gun-shy about guessing what works with viewers.
But as Alcatraz has shown, you can have a well-cast show with a decent pedigree that on paper appeals to both broad audiences and genre-cultists, and still have no idea what anyone wants to watch.
I hope that at least this gives them the only proper attitude when scheduling a fall TV season: “If we can’t be CBS, then fuck it – at least we’re not NBC.”