This post contains spoilers for the pilot of Alcatraz.
By David Liss
Here’s the premise of J. J. Abrams’s new show, Alcatraz: when the eponymous prison shut down in 1963, the prisoners were not transferred to other facilities, as everyone seems to think. They disappeared off the face of the earth, and now they are reappearing – having not aged since their initial disappearance. Upon returning, they immediately get back to committing crimes, seemingly programmed to do so by whomever orchestrated their disappearance. As I write this, it all sounds much more interesting than it actually is.
Unfortunately, based on the first two hours of the series, Alcatraz has not yet found its stride. It fails for a few reasons, but the most important one is the lack of integration between the plot and the characters. Leading the show is maverick cop (ugh) Rebecca Madsen (played by workmanlike Sarah Jones), a babe with a T. J. Hooker swagger. Yeah, she’s a hot chick, but she’s a food snarfing, whiskey-chugging tough gal who isn’t about to let those pencil-pushers make her do things by the book. Madsen has been off her game since her partner was killed while chasing a bad guy they still haven’t caught or identified. Then Federal Agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) assholishly kicks her off a crime scene when she’s investigating the murder of a former Alcatraz deputy warden. Madsen, of course, isn’t about to let something like jurisdiction get in the way of her doing what is in no way her job, so she recruits Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) a comic-book-writing, comic-book-store-owning, video-game-playing Alcatraz expert with four books and two Ph.D.s under his belt. I guess a second Ph.D. wouldn’t be that hard after you figure out how to complete the first one, but still. This is overkill, no? But I’ll just take it as nerd honey-trap #1.
Evidence Madsen lifts from the crime scene point them to a former Alcatraz inmate long believed to be dead, but alive and no older than he was in 1963, so they head over to the Rock, start digging around in a secret archive that Soto just happens to know about. Then they’re gassed and abducted, taken to a secret facility under Alcatraz, run dickishly by Hauser and Lucy (Parminder Nagra), his hot and super-smart assistant (nerd honey-trap #2!) — and promptly recruited to catch the Alcatraz inmates returning from somewhere in time. Soto tries to get us excited about this (“Is anyone else’s head exploding?”), but really, they all take the situation in stride. Madison wants to catch bad guys, and the time travel component remains secondary to the characters because it is secondary to the show.
Over the course of the two hours we learn a couple of things — but mostly about what we don’t know or care much about. Hauser has got more info than he is sharing. He is transferring the recaptured prisoners to a new facility, whose seriousness is indicated by its stationary military guards and its excess of florescent light. Then there’s Lucy, who is shot during the apprehension of the second criminal they come across, and who turns out — as we learn a the end of the second hour — was involved with these inmates back in 1963, during the federal government’s concentrated push to bring more South Asian female doctors into the corrections system. Then there is the facility under Alcatraz itself. Someone has invested millions of dollars into infrastructure in preparation for the prisoners returning, which means someone knew they would someday return. That suggests the disappearance and ultimate return are part of a predictable pattern — or maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe it doesn’t go beyond cryptic guys in suits doing things they don’t want you to know about.
The main issue is that the mysteries and the reveals come too infrequently and too anemically for all of this to coalesce in any kind of meaningful way. In Abrams’ best shows (of which I am a real fan, by the way), mystery and conspiracy are the glue that hold together the edifice of character. In Alias, personal investment and the desire for revenge fuel the inquiry into the story’s central mysteries. In Lost, the characters are tied to the island’s secrets by forces beyond their control. Personal story and motivation is always in the front seat, and the weird secrets are along for the ride. In Alcatraz, there’s nothing to prevent Madsen from saying, “Fuck this shit,” and walking off. I know I’m tempted to.
By the end of the first act of the second hour, I was already irritated with the show’s formula of returning bad guys who have to be recaptured — in no small part because these returned convicts are a missed opportunity. When, in the first hour, former-inmate Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce) shows up, I was psyched for a cool man-out-of-time narrative. I was sure Sylvane was going to turn out to be a intelligent, sensitive guy, imprisoned falsely or unjustly, and we were going to care about his story. But no, he’s a psychopath who wants kill a lot of people. Partially it’s his (we’re led to believe) Manchurian Candidate programming, but the flashbacks also make it clear that Sylvane is in jail because he’s a criminal whose done bad things, and we’re never given much of a reason to sympathize with him. He’s not a likable inmate from The Green Mile, he’s the shark from Jaws, which means his only role on camera is to be bad and get stopped. Same goes with the loony sniper from the second hour. The sprinkling of psychological motivation that cast out does little to make these inmates more interesting or sympathetic.
Casting may be an issue here. Lost’s pitch-perfect casting helped sell me on a large and diverse cast, but while Madsen may be a thanklessly two-dimensional lead, I’m not convinced Sarah Jones has the chops to invest the added life required to make the character compelling. Sam Neill as fact-withholding federal douchebag is tediously unimaginative as well. Again, there’s not much to work with, but for the character to work, it requires a delivery that suggested added depths of either heart or heartlessness, and I’m not getting either from Neill’s phoned in performance. I always find Jorge Garcia charismatic, and he does his level best with this role, but he seems to be wearied by the simmering stew of dork clichés, and as the character himself keeps reminding us, he has no business being in the story at all. His encyclopedic knowledge comes in handy as a plot device — he seems to have memorized the appearance, name, number, crime, prison term and general biography of every Alcatraz inmate ever — but its improbability is distracting and, let’s face it, his function could be replaced by an Alcatraz database phone app.
There are some hints that Alcatraz could be moving to more interesting territory. The criminal who killed Madsen’s partner turns out to be Madsen’s own grandfather, suggesting her role in all this may not be coincidental. In other words, we may get to the point where she can no longer walk away if she gets as fed up as I am, but she’s not there yet. The mysterious presence of Lucy in both present and past is also vaguely interesting, as is the suggestion that powerful people knew all of this was going to happen at some point. But none of this is enough because serialized narrative can’t be about where the story is going, it has to be about where the story is now – with the promise of more to come. As we’ve learned from Abrams’ best moments, there cannot possibly be anything inside the hatch that’s as interesting as wondering what is inside the hatch. We care because it is important and meaningful to characters we sympathize with. A story’s central mysteries have to be a genuine motivation for the characters themselves, and their revelations have to have personal meaning, otherwise it’s just dross. In the next couple of episodes, Alcatraz is going to have to make its own secrets meaningful to Madsen and Soto if they are going to be meaningful to me.
David Liss is the author of seven novels, most recently The Twelfth Enchantment. His previous books include A Conspiracy of Paper (2000) which was named a New York Times Notable Book and won the 2001 Barry, MacAvity and Edgar awards for Best First novel. The Coffee Trader (2003) was also named a New York Times Notable Book and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the year’s 25 Books to Remember. A Spectacle of Corruption (2004) was a national bestseller, and The Devil’s Company (2009) has been optioned for film by Warner Brothers. Liss is the author of the graphic novel Mystery Men and writes Black Panther for Marvel Comics as well as the forthcoming series, The Spider, from Dynamite Comics.