Thursday, January 19, 2012

TV REVIEW: Alcatraz: "Pilot" (2012)

To describe Alcatraz in a convenient shorthand, the new sci-fi mystery series from creators Elizabeth Sarnoff, Steven Lilien, Bryan Wynbrandt and executive producer J.J. Abrams is a lot like Brimstone (1998) meets Lost (2004 - 2010).

Don't remember Brimstone?  If not, a true shame, because it is worth remembering.

Brimstone was a terrific but short-lived Fox horror series (that aired on Fridays with  Millennium) and concerned a laconic cop (Peter Horton) working with Satan himself (John Glover) to send back to Hell some 200+ demon prisoners who had escaped from the underworld. 

Each week, there was a a different prisoner to catch, each with his or her own story  and unique modus operandi. 

What made Brimstone authentically great, however, wasn't necessarily the somewhat repetitive premise, but rather the scintillating chemistry between the stars, and the fact that the series dwelt much on the personal life of Det. Ezekiel Stone (Horton), who had also been a prisoner in Hell himself, and returned to Earth to find that his wife (Stacy Haiduk) had moved on. 

I wish the series had been more popular, or that Fox had shown a little faith in it and given it more time on the air.  One of these days, if I can get my hands on all the episodes, I should cult blog the series as I'm currently doing with The Fantastic Journey.  An official DVD set would sure be nice.

But back to Alcatraz.  The series premise is eerily similar.  In March of 1963, Alcatraz was closed and "officially speaking" all the prisoners were transferred to newer facilities.  But "that's not what happened.  Not at all."  Instead, in some kind of Philadelphia Experiment way, all the prisoners disappeared...never to be seen again.

Until now...

For some reason, these deadly criminals are re-appearing in 2012, and wreaking havoc in nearby San Francisco.  The prisoners not only seem to be following their own modus operandi, but appear to be working for some unknown group or conspiracy, in furtherance of some diabolical agenda.  They haven't aged a day since 1963, and appear to be performing tasks for some unknown overlords.

Working to apprehend the 300+ criminals is police detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and her partner, author and geek Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia).  They work for the mildly sinister Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), who was a guard at Alcatraz the night the prisoners vanished from sight and knows much more than he is currently revealing.

So thus far, each week...another prisoner to catch, each with his distinctive methods.  "Ernest Cobb" was the Wichita Sniper, for instance, with a pattern of killing three innocent victims every three days, as per the second episode.  He gets caught in the second episode.

The Lost comparison comes into play because Alcatraz, at least in its pilot and first regular episode (the aforementioned "Ernest Cobb") heavily involves character flashbacks.  We see the prisoners' time on Alcatraz before disappearing, for instance, which serves as clue to the larger mystery.  The overall setting -- an island filled with temporal mysteries -- also clearly harks back to the earlier Abrams series, as does (the inspired_ casting of Garcia.

Although Alcatraz is mired in familiar elements from BrimstoneLost and about a dozen police procedurals currently on the air, I must admit I found it  modestly intriguing, and it held my interest for two hours  I was particularly gratified in the casting of Sarah Jones as Madsen and Garcia as De Soto.  They are an unconventional but intriguing pair, cast for their solid acting abilities, not merely their looks.  In fact, I found Sarah Jones quite fetching.  She's not traditionally beautiful (though she is lovely), yet she projects a distinctive personality and quality of reality that I appreciated.  Her casting reminded me a little bit of Gillian Anderson on The X-Files.  She's a woman who -- the more you look at her and spend time with her -- the more you see her inner and outer beauty. 

What's the point?  Well, even with all its derivative qualities, I sense that Alcatraz may be worth sticking with simply for the character interplay.  The performances of the actors and personalities of the characters may overcome some of the admittedly routine material.  That's my hope, anyway.  Sometimes watching a TV show isn't about a premise, or about a particular narrative, but about spending time with people who intrigue you.

In general, I must admit, I also found the pilot of Alcatraz smarter than anything I  ever saw on the re-made V, Terra Nova or Flash Forward.  Again, I realize that this compliment is like being voted the nicest inmate in prison (on Alcatraz?), but I suppose it's something.  Watching Alcatraz, I didn't feel that my intelligence was overtly being insulted (as was surely the case with both V and Terra Nova).

My wife, who watched both the Alcatraz pilot and "Ernest Cobb" with me was not so excited by the possibilities of the program.  When I asked her what bothered her, she stressed J.J. Abrams' involvement and noted her fear that Alcatraz was going to lead us around by the nose but never truly come together; that the central mystery was never going to be resolved satisfactorily.

Good point.  I hope the show doesn't just lead us on.  I hope it goes somewhere amazing; somewhere that is internally consistent, makes sense, and really wows the audience.  Let's have not only a grand mystery...but a grand, mind-blowing investigation and resolution too. 

Is that too much to ask?


  1. I shared your wife's reservations, which is why I didn't watch it. I wish American television would follow the British mold and do mini-series. If I knew this would only run 6 or 12 episodes with a definite conclusion at the end, I would watch it. With an open-ended series, you known they are going to jerk the audience around and keep throwing in twists and turns for as long as the ratings hold up. That, to me, is where our intelligences are insulted.

  2. Hi Neal,

    You make an excellent point, and my wife does feel exactly that way. I agree with you that the British model would work far better.

    For me, another model that works is the Veronica Mars one: make as many seasons as you want, but present seasonal mysteries that are wrapped up at the end of each batch of episodes. Then next season, introduce a mystery beyond that one; building on it. This CAN be done, but it requires good, disciplined writing. The audience has to feel that it is getting some (valid) answers along the way, and that's what was missing from LOST, and what ultimately turned it (and also, sadly, the new Battlestar Galactica) into a colossal waste of time.

    Excellent comment,

  3. Ah, Brimstone, if there was any series that deserved better, etc, etc.

    I have to second a thumbs up to Neal's comment. Labyrinthine and obtuse can be a load of fun, but as a great guitarist once opined, there's a fine line between stupid and clever.

    And above all, as you said, characters. Even the dullest of X-Files were still enjoyable (at least to me) because the leads were so wonderful.

  4. I like the premise and am intrigued to see where they go with it. But as you say, they will have to be very careful not to lead people on too much. I like the cast, esp. great to see Sam Neill whom I admire greatly. I guess we shall see in the coming weeks what they plan to do with the mythology for this show.

  5. More excellent reflections on Alcatraz and these multi-seasonal story arc shows.

    Randal: Fine line between stupid and clever, indeed! I agree with you that a resonant, complicated, multi-faceted mystery is a wonderful thing. But writers can't make it up as they go along, or clues won't be followed up on. LOST was a champion of that, going off on tangents and never re-visiting them. It jerks folks around, and makes one resent the investment of time.

    The X-Files worked so beautifully (and is one of the best, if not THE best multi-seasonal arc shows in my opinion) not only because Duchovny and Anderson were so good and shared so much chemistry, but Chris Carter carefully made each character a lens through which to the view world: the skeptic and the believer. Even a lesser story was, in some sense, made more interesting by this dual lens conceit, which added a layer of fun and intelligence to the storytelling. God, I miss The X-Files...

    J.D. I like the premise too, and was more positive about Alcatraz than my wife. I was also happy to see Sam Neill again -- a terrific actor. I hope the show proceeds ambitiously, but also with one eye towards a sense of fairness towards the audience.

    We'll see!


  6. *inhales through clenched teeth* – I’m on the fence with this one.

    I, too, sat down with the two-hour premier Monday night. Well, technically, I woke up; Cannon works the graveyard shift five nights a week. I don’t usually rise until around 10:00 p.m. but I have been mildly anticipating this show as well. So, there it is.

    Unfortunately, I think I had near the opposite reaction from yours concerning Sarah Jones and her character, especially her character. Ugh... the whole 'young, dogged female detective' trope has become increasingly boring. They’re everywhere, and they all look and act the same: stern, crisp-faced, no-nonsense, authoritative, self-critical ...blandish. I’ve nothing against Jones per se. She’s normally pretty and seems like a perfectly capable actress, but her screen presence for this particular show’s lead protagonist didn’t leave much of an impression on me. Again, though, it’s the character that sinks it, who I more or less had pinned down in her very first scene, seconds after she runs into frame. From then on everything about her played routine. But it is a TV show and characters do have a tendency to grow on you. If the writing holds and/or improves then maybe I’ll warm up to her a bit.

    It is fun to see Hurley back in nerdy, irreverent form, provided they find something for him to do other than drag behind, huffing and puffing, during a chase scene. I know it sounds superficial and even harsh to rib the guy for his excessive weight, but we’re essentially talking about a gumshoe pursuit formula and I’m afraid Garcia’s character, Soto, will end up being the guy who lumbers around the corner at the last minute – "What happened?", "Did he get away?", "She’s dead!" – before cutting to commercial.

    One major plus is Sam Neill. Man, I’ve enjoyed Neill all the way back to his early films such as Ivanhoe and Attack Force Z to A Cry in the Dark and Dead Calm; The Hunt For Red October and his films with John Carpenter, Memoirs of an Invisible Man and (the totally rad) In the Mouth of Madness. He also made the best Merlin in the Hallmark produced mini-series of the same name. And, of course, when I was a kid I always wanted to be Dr. Grant. I still do.

    In this show I really dig his coldly sardonic personality and I like the idea that he can (and likely will) drift back and forth between friend and foe. As for the rest, the premise is strong and I completely agree that the writers should avoid flaking out the central mystery by supplanting satisfying, thematically strong, sci-fi oriented resolutions with vague, flimsy life lessons à la Lost. There was only one instance where that worked, and worked awesomely: Quantum Leap, bitches!

  7. Hi Cannon,

    Another one of your great comments here, buddy.

    We're both sort of fence sitting on Alcatraz. I'm leaning a little towards it (whereas my wife is leaning against it...).

    Regarding the Madsen character, I can't disagree with you that she is conceived from a very familiar mold. We've already seen her like on the remade V and Fringe, to name just two. Yet I found Sarah Jones' performance somewhat less inspid than either of those examples. I have read comments from other folks who also didn't care for her character, so this may just be me. I found her fetching...despite the manufactured drama of her character's background.

    I agree with you that Sam Neill is a terrific actor, and he looks to be well-utilized here, skirting the line between darkness and light. I anticipate some good moments with Emerson Hauser...

    I also agree with your final conclusion about how the show should operate, which is brilliantly put.

    To my everlasting shame and guilt, I was not a regular watcher of Quantum Leap. I was a casual viewer back in the day, and I've long considered it necessary to revisit the show. Your commentary on it may just be the nudge I need to go back and watch closely. You're not the first person to tell me how good it was.

    Great comment!


  8. I can only add to a number of the similar refrains here.

    Like you, I was incredibly disappointed by Lost and Battlestar Galacatica the way they ended, because both started so incredibly strong for a few seasons.

    Like so many here, including your justifiably cautiou swife, why would I want to do it again to myself? Like Neal, I passed and I do absolutely love Sam Neill as Cannon covered. What a terrific actor. I'm not a Jorge Garcia fan but he's fine. The actress really intrigued me from the previews.

    But as you mentioned, it's the chemistry and the journey with these characters. Their interaction makes it fun to watch.

    I felt very much this way on Battlestar and Lost. I was really distracted by the rudderless ship thanks to outstanding casting, but by the time we reached the end of the road I was waiting for something that never materialized. That's really not fair to the viewing audience.

    Also, with ratings having such an impact, and attention spans what they are today, I'm surprised a full season of anything gets accomplished anymore.

    Cheers John. Nice to see an assessment on this series. Maybe someday if it doesn't get cancelled I'll turn to the box set.

    I wish I was there for Firefly. I'm not sure sitting it out is the way to go, but... well.

  9. Hi SFF:

    Another great meditation on sci-fi tv in this age of "multi-season" arcs.

    I agree with you that LOST and Battlestar Galactica started strong, but ended weak. I can only assume this is so because the writers made things up as they went along, instead of mapping out a plan (replete with specific clues) that could be used as a blueprint throughout the series.

    A few years ago, people would have told you that LOST and BSG represented the best and brightest -- future of sci-fi TV -- but after the way they ended, things have become suspiciously quiet on that front.

    The drawback of a multi-season arc series like LOST or BSG is that part of what keeps us coming back each week is the promise of "the plan" resolved (remember how the Cylons were supposed to have a plan?)

    If you promise a plan every single week, you better damn well deliver in your finale a cool, internally consistent plan. If you don't...well, the series is retroactively seen as a waste of time.

    I've rarely seen such a drop-off from avid, zealous, vocal fandom to total disinterest as I've seen in the fan community in the years following BSG. Something went badly wrong (which is why Caprica was canceled, and Blood & Chrome is struggling mightily to get to us). The franchise pooped itself. It promised, and never delivered.

    Now Alcatraz walks this very path. It's a dangerous one. It's one that standalone type programming (like the original Star Trek) didn't have to face. But it's the challenge of these types of shows; and they must be up to it, or failure is imminent.

    I'll be curious to see how Alcatraz develops. But note to the writers, if they should happen to read this: make your blueprint NOW. Make it all fit. KNOW exactly where you're going. Please.

    great comment!


  10. Fine post, John. I, too, remember, well and fondly, 'Brimstone'. If there's any justice, Fox executives will be roasting there sometime in the future for killing off things like the Peter Horton/John Glover series and 'Firefly', but that's for another discussion. I saw the commercials for 'Alcatraz', but even they didn't intrigue me much (and if Sam Neill's character was a guard in 1963 doesn't that make him seventysomething in this?!?). Perhaps, and like SFF, I've been burned with things like 'Lost' and 'BG' in the last few years to not want to start another Gordian Knot of a series. I hope this turns out well for those who follow it, and maybe I'll give it a try down the liine. But, after seeing 'Hurley' yet again on another 'island' is just too much for this fiftysomething at the moment (sorry... maybe it's because I mentioned Peter Horton in this comment that I'm channeling a certain late-80s baby boomer show). Thanks, John.

  11. Great follow up and you remind me how I miss those star treks and space:1999s for their dopey stand alone bravado. How dare they stand on theirnown episode after episode. How simplistic yet how brilliant. You almost miss them.

  12. G Eichler11:14 PM

    High hopes...I have that. But, for me, the series has to improve, otherwise it's just a police drama with an othewordly overlay. Found the pilot to be, well, Alcatrazzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

  13. Hi everyone:

    Le0pard13: I agree with what you wrote. Brimstone should have been given more time, and likely would have been had J.J. Abrams name been on it. How else has Fringe managed to hold on at the network, I wonder?

    Like you, a lot of folks got burned by Lost and BSG: led around by the nose with the promise that everything would fit together. And then, of course, the writers pivoted and said the answer was -- pretty much -- "the Lord moves in mysterious ways." Ultimate cop-out; ultimate let-down. I really, really hope the writers of Alcatraz don't take that same route! Excellent comment, my friend!

    SFF: You make a great point about standalone shows. In some ways, programs like Star Trek and Space:1999 do work better, because they hint at connections and continuity, but don't build elaborate houses of cards upon mysteries that must be solved. We don't feel as let down with them, as a result, and in fact, long for them to return. When, let's face it, who's out there arguing for the return of the new BSG or Lost? Caprica failed, and Blood and Chrome isn't exactly tearing up the Interwebs with interest at this point. Another excellent comment!

    Hi George: I didn't find the pilot snore-worthy, but I disagree with you that the series may become a simple police procedural with a sci-fi overlay: in other words, extremely boring! The more I think about it, the more I realize Alcatraz must walk a tight-rope. It can't just be a procedural, and it can't become a "multi-season" arc story that disappoints. How will it succeed?

    We shall see...

    best to all!

  14. Well said John. That's it. Here's an idea: Stop promising elaborate mysteries and a complex web or theme of ideas. Get back to basics. Tighten it up. Give us a great story and weave in the mythology old school style when people aren't expecting it.

    People expect BIG things from these shows when they can't deliver.

    Something like Firefly had that old school right idea and unfortunately never had the chance to develop, but then that was completely mishandled. What a shame. But look at the seismic shift for that show after its cancellation. That has to tell you something.

  15. Hi SFF:

    I like your prescription: stop promising on elaborate mystries and just give us a great story, in this episode! I love that, and I'm totally on the same page with you.

    Many programs (namely LOST and BSG -- sorry to be picking on them, but they are the worst offenders!) have almost no re-watch potential because almost nothing happens in individual episodes. It's just sort of a stall, until something big is revealed.

    On BSG, I very much liked a standalone story called "Scar" involving the Cylon equivalent of the Red Baron, but fans apparently hated it. I loved it because it had an historical allusion or reference, a compelling duel between nemeses, and interesting character development. I thought it was a terrific, standalone Galactica concept, and wish there had been more like it!