This post contains spoilers for the January 23 episode of Alcatraz.
By David Liss
Last night’s episode of J. A. Abrams’s Alcatraz suffered from precisely the same flaws as the series debut last week, and very little changed to improve the plot and character mechanics, and yet – somehow – it actually seemed like a better show. The series still lacks the excitement and energy of early episodes of Alias and Lost, and the commercial for the new Star Wars online game did a better job of grabbing my attention than most of the scenes. There were also more than a few moments of clumsy cliché and even clumsier plot points, but even so, there are signs of life, some electric moments, and promises that there could be exciting things on the horizon.
No one who watched last week’s episodes will be surprised by the episode’s structure. The latest Alcatraz inmate from 1963 mysteriously appears in the present day, and it is up to our intrepid team of one police officer and one comic book “guru” to track him down. In this case, we get an added ticking clock, as the creep of the week is a child-abductor who follows a specific pattern: kidnap on the Friday and return the dead body on a Sunday. Madsen and Soto are on the case, however – even after their efforts are hampered by the even-yet-still-creepier Hauser, who cancels the Amber Alert on the abducted child lest the general public somehow get wind that psychos from the ‘60s are walking our streets – even if it is only one at a time. Get ready for the great cherry-pie-hunt.
Here’s what worked about the episode: (1) we get an effective ticking clock. Sure, we saw that last time around with the returned sniper, but now we’ve got a sympathetic child, a creepy psycho trying to make him have “fun.” These moments where the kidnapper is attempting to force his victim to fish, enjoy a movie or eat cherry pie are almost unwatchably painful. The alchemy worked.
(2) More and better Jorge Garcia. Setting aside the problems of a morbidly-obese professional intellectual with no police training running around in the field, pursing a dangerous criminal on his own, it still worked out fairly well – especially since Soto’s detective work involved him picking up on the all-important cherry pie clue. Yes, it makes no sense that Soto would comprise 50 percent of the team devoted to catching some of the most dangerous criminals around. Yes, if he were a consultant he would not be so deeply involved in the day-to-day apprehension of ruthless murderers. The show knows that and – again – goes out of its way to make a case for his presence. It’s not convincing if you stop to think about it, but it is if you don’t, so that’s something. We get a lot of silliness with general clues (the prisoner sure had a lot of money to spend on cigarettes!) turning, almost instantly, into Soto computer-jockeying his way to pinpointing the secret hide-out, but if it moves quickly enough, maybe you won’t notice. We also get a hint of a dark back story for Soto, and even if the act of withholding the story feels like blatant manipulation for its own sake – rather than for some compelling plot or character reason – it’s still intriguing.
(3) More prison flashbacks! These are, in my view, the best moments of the series. In this episode we get a back story of this weeks’ bad guy, Kit Nelson, the psycho child kidnapper, played by Michael Eklund with a chilling combination of menace and empathy. I’ve come to absolutely love the scenes of prisoners interacting with warden Edwin James (Jonny Coyne) who rules Alcatraz with an iron fist in an iron glove, though the glove is laced with dramatic-irony velvet. This week’s episode in which the warden extracts a confession out of Nelson in a darkened cell, illuminated only by a diminishing pile of matches, was utterly absorbing. It takes great acting and great writing to pull of a confrontation like this between two utterly unlikable characters. If every scene in Alcatraz were half this good, it would be the best show on television. I’ve become impressed with Alcatraz’s willingness to spend so much time rendering absolutely unsympathetic characters human and interesting, even if they remain psycho and reprehensible. It’s a big risk, and if it is yet to pay off, it is enough to keep me checked in.
Here’s what didn’t work: (1) The episode goes out of its way to suggest that Madsen and Soto are the only characters looking to track down the returned prisoners. This is clearly an operation with deep pockets. They have military guards and the new neon prison – so why can’t they get a few cops whose loyalty and competence isn’t suspect? There are hints that Madsen may be central to these events, but three episodes in, we need more than hints. We need some dots connected to make the conspiracy/mystery plot something more than a promise.
(2) Coincidence! Kit Nelson and his victim just happen to show up at the diner where Soto just happens to be visiting at that moment. I suppose it’s not entirely random, but it’s close enough to feel contrived and unsatisfying. If Soto is going to do real police work, let’s see him earn his big moments. Stop trying to explain to us why Soto should be there and show us how and why he is invaluable in the field.
(3) False tension. There’s lots of it, but none more so than establishing Hauser as the bastard who is willing to let a child die to get his way, and then have him show up, dues-ex-machina, at the end of the episode to save the day. See, he’s not such a bastard after all! Too much formula, not enough actual character development.
(4) Mysteries no one gives a crap about! The unexplained and/or inexplicable isn’t inherently compelling, so piling on these moments fails to make the show better. Last week we discovered that Lucy was, at her current age, present in 1963. This week we learned that the gruff prison physician, Dr. Beauregard, is here in the present, the same age he was in 1963. Having him dance around the autopsy room was creepy in a Twin Peaks sort of way, but it doesn’t add up to much. Having Madsen’s grandfather function as the Greek chorus behind the infirmary screen is getting old. Stop hinting that someday things will be interesting. Make them interesting now.
(5) Madsen is still a cipher. “Tough, attractive female” is a casting call, not a character. This, to me, is really the heart of everything that doesn’t click with Alcatraz. Madsen is positioned as the heart of the show, and the show’s quest should be her quest – or she should, at the very least, be plugged into that quest emotionally. She cares, but only in the way a generic cop cares about a generic case on a generic cop show. In the past, J. J. Abrams has put together stories that brilliantly tie together broad mysteries and sweeping conspiracies with beautifully-nuanced elements of character. On Alcatraz, the main character still feels like an afterthought, and that makes the whole program feel like an afterthought.
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.