Spring 2012 Review: Alcatraz

26 Jan

Alcatraz is based on the supernatural premise that right about the time super prison in San Francisco bay Alcatraz was supposed to close, every prisoner disappeared instead of being transferred to other prisons.  These prisoners have started reappearing in San Francisco in the current day at the same age they would have been in 1963.  Main character and homicide detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) is solving a homicide which leads her to Alcatraz, and to a nerdy PhD who specializes in all things Alcatraz named Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia, or Lost’s Hurley).  The two of them briefly meet up with her “uncle” who was a guard at Alcatraz (played by Robert Forster), and eventually run into the paths of FBI agents Emerson Hauser (played by Sam Neill)  and Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra), who seem to already know about the return of the prisoner from Alcatraz.  Eventually they round up the inmate, and the FBI invites Madson and Soto to help out with the upcoming appearances of other former Alcatraz inmates in modern day San Francisco.  However, they’ll be on a need to know basis – it seems as if the FBI has a lot of secrets they’re not telling about why and how these inmates are coming back and who is behind it all.

We learn a couple of titbits in the two hour pilot which go toward these mysteries (the first two episodes were aired back to back).  First, Madsen believes originally that her grandfather was a guard at Alcatraz, and learns both that her grandfather was actually a prisoner, and moreso that her grandfather, also back at the same age he was in 1963, was responsible for the death of her partner, which happens in the first minute of the pilot (her partner falls off a roof as she tries to help in what has to be a homage to all-time great San Francisco film Vertigo).  We also learn that Hauser’s partner Banerjee hasn’t aged since the 1963s, like the escaped criminals.

Alcatraz is produced by J.J. Abrams, and comes with the imprimatur of some of the people who brought us Lost.  Like Lost, Alcatraz deals with the supernatural, and time travel in particular, along with big questions which leave the viewer waiting for answers which hopefully come sometime down the line.  Lost, however, started with a much larger story, was initially much more ambitious (I don’t mean that as a good or bad thing), and had a much larger cast.  Lost additionally had virtually no procedural aspect.

Although I haven’t watched Fringe, Alcatraz has a lot more in common initially with X-Files and with what I imagine Fringe to be about than Lost.  There’s a largely procedural element, a monster of the week, so to speak (inmate of the week in this case).  There’s also an ongoing long-term story which involves some shady super secret government organization which knows a lot more than anybody else about the mysterious circumstances, in this case, the disappearance and reappearance of Alcatraz inmates.

I appreciate that I know I’m in for the supernatural up front, and I don’t feel like the scope will continue to grow exponentially from season to season, compared to Lost, which is the upside of a more limited ambition.  Unfortunately, I also don’t find it nearly as intriguing as Lost from the first episode, though maybe, considering how I felt about Lost by the end, that’s a good thing also.  The show already has fallen into the cop cliche pile several times and while these cliches are so ubiquitous that I have learned to tolerate them well enough, it’s hard for a police-based show to be great without at least starting to break away from the most basic, such as the cop who cares too much, the cop who works best as a loner, and others.

The X-Files was an excellent show that became spotty and inconsistent, and a show in which the monster of the week or freak episodes were better than the long-term plot or myth episodes.  I’ve heard with Fringe the opposite is true, that the running plot episodes are better.  If this show can live up to the better-than-average if not great standards of these two shows, it will probably be at least a relatively enjoyable show if not a great one.

Will I watch it again?  I might.  I wasn’t blown away, but it was intriguing enough and I’m hungering for new shows to follow, particularly large mystery shows even though I know I’m likely to get hurt in the end.  After Luck, this is so far the second best new show, but I think there’s a fair distance between the two at the moment.

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