Alcatraz Series Premiere Recap: J.J.'s At It Again

Whenever we catch word that J.J. Abrams is developer yet another television show, the inevitable reaction is "oh no, not another 'Lost'." Usually, that reaction is unwarranted. Abrams is definitely not a one hit wonder, he's proven that with his ability to consistently put entertaining programming on both the small and big screens. But we still get that lingering feeling every time Bad Robot Productions puts out a new show, and we can't explain it.

Well, with "Alcatraz", that feeling was almost justified by everything that we were shown as promotional material leading up to Monday night's debut for the highly anticipated new show. Not only had the new show been consistently compared to Abrams' breakout hit, but everything we were told about it led us to believe it would at least be similar. Magical islands, mysterious agents, time travelling, even Jorge Garcia. The first trailer had us especially worried.

That said, it's obviously best if we save our judgments until the show actually aired, and that finally happened on Monday. How did Alcatraz live up to the hype?

The answer lies somewhere in between.

Monday night's Alcatraz premiere featured two episodes. The pilot, as well as episode two, "Ernest Cobb". While the pilot obviously introduced us to the underlying plot as well as all the characters, both episodes featured, to a certain extent, standalone plots showcasing two separate cases for our characters to solve. While a good chunk of each episode dealt with the "serial" portion of the show, for all intents and purposes, Alcatraz told us that over the course of its run, it's going to be a procedural, "criminal-of-the-week" type of drama. While in certain respects that was the source of a few eye rolls, the presentation actually made us welcome it.

But first, let's talk about what this show is about. As you probably inferred by the title, Alcatraz deals with the famous San Francisco island prison and the circumstances surrounding its mysterious closure in the 60s. While common knowledge indicates that the prison was simply closed, the truth (within the show of course) is that every single person in the prison on that faithful night simply vanished. The disappearances were covered up and basically forgotten about over the course of the last fifty years.

But all of that changes in 2012, when one of those prisoners, Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce) reappears on the island, in his cell, without having aged a single day. He has a ferry ticket in his pocket and a wad of cash, and he proceeds to wreak havoc on the streets of San Francisco. Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) stumbles onto his fingerprints. Seeing as her family as a long history in the prison as guards, this piques her interest, and that leads her to a comic book artist and Alcatraz expert Dr. Diego "Doc" Soto (Jorge Garcia), as well as an enigmatic federal agent, Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) who seems to be in key with all these goings on.

Hauser reluctantly brings the duo into his investigation, along with his lab technician Lucy (Parminder Nagra), the foursome uses Doc's knowledge, Rebecca's heritage, as well as a goverment cover-up to catch Sylvane and eventually discover that the conspiracy is much greater than this one escaped convict, and that Hauser probably knows a lot more than he leads them to believe. Hauser brings Sylvane to an upgraded version of Alcatraz, where he and Lucy will interrogate him and future captives in order to uncover the plot, as we're left to wonder who is bringing these people back from the dead, equipped to commit brutal murders on their behalf.

In episode two, another prisoner re-appears. This time it's Ernest Cobb, a sniper with a definitive pattern for his crimes. He begins targeting young victims, and Rebecca, Doc and Hauser find themselves in a race against time before Cobb disappears -- ironically choosing to look to the past to find their way forward.

The end result was a weird mix of about 67% procedural cop drama, and 33% serial mystery. And in all honesty, I think I like it. I've always said that TV will always need good procedural dramas, shows that allow you to step in and out of the series with little consequence. But it's also important for these types of shows to adapt as they head forward, and give people reason to tune in every week. the solution to this is to introduce serial elements, character development. Give viewers reasons to come back for more. In at least the first two episodes, Alcatraz has seemingly struck this balance.

Every week, we can look forward to something a little different. A new character introduced, a new villain, a new modus operandi, and a new crime for our characters to deal with. But at the same time, those new criminals will seemingly become members of the cast, living at Hauser's new prison, working with them to uncover the overall mystery. In episode two, the show made a point to connect Cobb's time at Alcatraz with Sylvane's, and that was pretty well done. We'll expect that sort of thing in the future. Moreover, it's a J.J. Abrams show, so you can expect the occasional twist, and we definitely got a few in these episodes.

Of course, we still have our reservations. We said the exact same thing about renovating the network procedural and meshing it with serial elements when J.J.'s last show, Person of Interest debuted, and it ended up falling a little flat, turning into something a little too much like CSI: Miami and not enough like Lost. By the look of Alcatraz's upcoming episodes, we're definitely in for a case-of-the-week format, but it's up to them to keep the mystery alive and kicking, and to give us faith that we will in fact eventually uncover the mystery.

It's also not the perfect show. Fox tends to be more ambitious when it comes to its action dramas, and the result seems to usually be a big screen level of ambition, with a television-level budget. Terra Nova certainly suffered from this earlier this season, asking viewers to buy in to a brand new universe and big budget production values, while offering visuals that ended up becoming the butt-end of a few Internet jokes. For all intents and purposes, you couldn't really ask much more of a TV budget, but the show presented itself as something more, and that ended up hurting it. We sort of get that feel from Alcatraz. While 1960s prisons and San Francisco settings are obviously easier to reproduce than an imaginative dinosaur-riddled world, the show did have a certain feel to it that made it feel a little odd. The over-dramatic and omin-present score didn't help either. All we can say is lay off the violins every once in a while.

The acting sort of follows suit in that same vein. We all know what Jorge Garcia is capable of and he doesn't really have any problems in his role, but Sarah Jones is a relative newcomer and you can tell she was a little nerve-ridden, especially in the first episode. But she holds her own. And we love Sam Neill, but there were a few lines where he over-delivered. Nonetheless, the cast actually has some solid chemistry between them, and that should help the show.

Overall, Alcatraz is a weird blend of what we know from Lost, from procedural cop shows like Person of Interest or CSI (the pilot director, Danny Cannon, is a vet of the CBS crime drama), and even elements of the X-Files, right down to the mysterious older gentleman that holds the key to everything the show represents. And a lot of that, we like. Problem is, all those shows also bad qualities that could easily come out if the writers decide to stretch things out like they did in another show, or if they decide to lean on the procedural format more than the mystery.

It's really too early too tell. But it's hard to enjoy a show when these questions are obviously and legitimately weighing on your mind, and rightfully so. Still, we can't say that the two hours of "Alcatraz" that we watched were bad at all, in fact, Abrams' team managed to put on two very entertaining hours of television on Fox's airwaves. That's why the series premiere of Alcatraz gets a 7.5 out of 10, with plenty of potential to either rise, or fall pretty quickly.

Bits & Pieces:

  • Sam Neill's character narrating the opening sequence is pretty badass: “On March 21, 1963, Alcatraz officially closed due to rising costs and decrepit facilities. All the prisoners were transferred off the island. Only that’s not what happened. Not at all.”
  • There were 302 prisoners that disappeared from Alcatraz in 1963. Does that mean that the show's producers expect the show to last 12 seasons? We definitely want to know what the mystery is before that!
  • Did anyone else find it pretty crazy that a network show was pretty quick to gruesomely kill off teenagers? Usually that's a no-no on network. It may sound weird, but their willingness to murder children on air actually gives us hope that this show will do things differently. It definitely presents an element of grit.
  • My main thought after the pilot aired: I'm not saying it's aliens... but, aliens.
Comments 5
Phil T's picture

Definitely one I'll keep an eye on, but I don't want to get invested in another show until I know for sure it's headed in the right direction.

Patrick Storto's picture

The show seemed pretty average, but I'll give it another chance or two. I'm not saying Terra Nova.....but, Terra Nova.

George Prax's picture

Phil T wrote:
Definitely one I'll keep an eye on, but I don't want to get invested in another show until I know for sure it's headed in the right direction.

Thing is, despite the over-arching plot, I don't think it's something you necessarily have to get invested in, seeing as a lot of the individual episodes have standalone stories. I quite like that.

bitchstolemyremote's picture

Agree that it was a solid "meh": good actors, interesting idea, so-so execution. The case of the week thing is going to be make or break (as in they need to make the cases better or else it will fall into Person of Interest territory as you suggest).

Our cautiously hopeful take here:

Matt Langdale's picture

Fringe is the only Abram's series that has actually done very well in my eyes. It may have had a less than solid start to this season, but it is its fourth, and it's catching back up already after the long break it had.

Yet FOX will likely cancel it soon, because they decided it would be a great idea to switch it over to the death slot.