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.