Alcatraz Plays It Too Safe

Alcatraz is the latest show that premiered on Fox from executive producer J.J. Abrams (for anyone who doesn’t know, he’s the guy behind Alias, LOST, Fringe, Super 8 and the Star Trek reboot). It’s co-created by Elizabeth Sarnoff, Steven Lillen and Bryan Wynbrandt and is about the manhunt for prisoners who escaped from the infamous Alcatraz prison.

The twist? Back in 1960, 256 prisoners and 46 guards disappeared from Alcatraz without a trace and now they are popping up all over modern-day San Francisco and haven’t aged a day. Was it time travel? Hibernation? Not even the prisoners know. After being captured and interrogated, they reveal that they’re just as mystified as the show’s main characters, though there are hints of time travel during nuggets of revelation.

The show stars Rebecca Madsen as Sarah Jones, a local police detective with unexpected ties to one of the escaped prisoners; she is recruited by a mysterious government agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), who was once an Alcatraz guard and knows a lot more about what is going than he’s willing to reveal. Sarah is teamed up with comic book store owner and geek Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia, well known as the beloved Hurley from LOST), who is a walking encyclopedia of Alcatraz trivia that proves useful in the investigations.

The rundown of each episode aired to date goes like this: some escapee appears in the city unaged and continues the same criminal activity that had him jailed in the first place. Sarah and Diego run around the city, tracking him down with half-hearted help by Hauser, (who sometimes seems as if he’s impeding them) and his aide Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra), who like the prisoners hasn’t aged since 1960. In between, the manhunts, we’re shown flashbacks to life in Alcatraz before the prisoner escaped so that he can be fleshed out and given some motive. Here and there, viewers are given clues and riddles without an answer such as how did the prisoners and guards disappear and why? Who is behind this? What is the deal with Hauser’s assistant? Why hasn’t she aged? Will Hauser stop beating around the bush and just explain it all to Sarah? After all, she is supposed to be working for him now and should be privy to what is happening in order to better perform her duties.

There lies the flaw with Alcatraz. It has some good moments and hooks to keep viewers watching, but it doesn’t have the drive and real mystery that LOST and Fringe had. The mythology isn’t as compelling and many of the characters aren’t as interesting. Maybe it’s a response to complaints about J.J. Abrams’ shows being too mythologized, so he plays it safer this time. Sarah comes off as a pale imitation of Fringe’s Olivia Dunham, just a younger, bustier version without Dunham’s inner toughness. Hauser, as portrayed by Neill, seems bored half the time. Garcia’s Diego is the most interesting character but only because he isn’t a law enforcement type and the show wisely shows how he is more like an ordinary person swept up in this mystery. And while the stories about the prisoners are so far interesting, the basic setup of each episode is starting to get repetitious. In many ways, Alcatraz seems more like a procedural cop show that belongs on CBS.

Then there are some nagging problems about the premise. Chiefly with the way the prisoners so easily get by in modern society without drawing attention to themselves. Sorry but if someone from the early ’60s were to suddenly appear today, that person would experience a future shock over how things have changed. They would speak differently, act a bit strange, not know how to use modern devices or how to blend in. Yet none of this is shown, unless the prisoners are lying about not knowing anything and had time to assimilate into modern society.

So is it worth watching? Short answer: yes. When compared to ninety percent of the garbage on TV now, it stands above them. But so far it isn’t as captivating as Abrams’ other shows.

José Soto

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