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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Alcatraz is a mysterious island


     FOX's Alcatraz begins with over three hundred prisoners and prison employees disappearing inexplicably in 1963. In the present day, Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones, Sons of Anarchy, Big Love), who lost her partner three months ago, encounters one of those prisoners, who hasn't aged a day. With the help of Alcatraz expert Doctor Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia, Lost, Becker), Rebecca uncovers a secret federal investigation led by one of the guards who found the empty prison fifty years ago, Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill, The Tudors, Jurassic Park). Emerson won't give the unlikely duo hardly any information, but does allow them to work for him, hunting down these reappearing baddies. 

     Alcatraz brings to mind two other series J.J. Abrams had a hand in: Lost and Fringe. Look at the facts. There is a mysterious island. Characters show up with no idea what is going on. Portions of every episode are flashbacks to prior events. It's a procedural where a small team investigates things the public at large can't know about to protect the greater good. Plus, the tone and music match up pretty well with both of those other shows.

     Which is not to say that Alcatraz is a copy cat, because it's far from it. It brings it's own story completely, with a talented cast and some superb writing. It does harken back to early Fringe somewhat in its setup, but is likely to branch out in various ways as it goes on. The concept of some unseen evil putting things into motion isn't unique, and yet, it manages to feel fresh when the questions are laid out in such a neat, intriguing way. Some reviewers have panned it, but that seems odd, because this one has really no beef with the first two hours, which thrill. Even a couple of things that seem odd, like characters not questioning plot points, start to appear more than surface, and so a set up for back story or depth.

     The cast is terrific. One cannot possibly get enough of Sam Neill or Jorge Garcia in one's lifetime. Neill goes for a level of malice he honed in The Tudors, but seems to have a vulnerable, friendly side he is trying to hide. Garcia isn't as much the comic relief that he was in Lost, since he needs to carry this series more squarely. He gets serious, but is still the relatable one, viewers' entry into this world. Jones is good, make no mistake about it, though the role does scream for Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff, and since there is a physical resemblance, it's hard not to be disappointed that Alcatraz goes for a lesser known thespian. That being said, given how comfortable the actress seems in the part, it likely won't be long before Jones firmly takes Rebecca as her own, and any comparisons drop away.

     Setting part of the series in the past is an interesting choice, made all the more so by the decision of the writers to have the flashback scenes in both the "Pilot" and the second hour, "Ernest Cobb," take place in 1960, three years prior to the disappearance. What is the significance with allowing for a three year build up? Does that mean this trope will be used for three seasons, like in Lost, with a major mystery concluding at that point? Or will it progress more quickly, as a specific story needs to be told in that era, and it will play out in one season.

     Alcatraz is unlikely to stay in the present anytime soon, given the inclusion of two series regulars that only appear in the 1960's timeframe. Jonny Coyne (The Bill) plays Chief Warden Edwin James, a somewhat sadistic, tough man seemingly totally in charge of the island. Jason Butler Harner (Next) is Deputy Warden E.B. Tiller, a character murdered in present day by the first escaped convict in the "Pilot." James is dead before the series begins. So, yeah, they need to stay in the past.

     Part of the mystique of the show centers around Rebecca, obviously a focal point. Not only is she raised by former Alcatraz guard Ray Archer (Robert Forster, Heroes), but the man she is chasing when her partner dies is none other the her grandfather, Tommy Madsen (David Hoflin, Neighbours), whom she is startled to learn was a prisoner on The Rock! What is Tommy doing there, and why is he sneaking around? What's more, Tommy is definitely aware of who Rebecca is, given the way that he looks at her.

     The biggest impact so far, though, is the surprise sniping of Hauser's assistant (whom may be a bit more than that), Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra, ER). Even more shocking, she shows up in 1960's Alcatraz! Which means she could be the key to what Hauser knows, and why the whole investigation is set up. She may know almost nothing, like the two prisoners caught so far, who do things that they cannot explain their motivation for, or she may have already figured it out. Or maybe she is partly responsible for what happened. There is no telling at this point, but it's a hell of a set up for what's to come.

     The only fear with Alcatraz is that broadcast networks tend to prefer procedurals. Fringe flirts with that format from time to time, but mostly stays its own thing. But Fringe also suffers from low ratings, despite how wonderfully creative it is. Alcatraz has the potential to be a heck of a serial, one that draws people in week after week, if FOX will allow it to be such. Unfortunately, many viewers, and thus advertisers, prefer mindless crap. Some behind the scenes drama worries that this will be the case, and episodes will start to fall into a familiar formula. If it can avoid that pitfall, Alcatraz will soar. If not, it won't be worth watching for long.

     Watch Alcatraz Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on FOX.

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