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Ahh, Fox. Will you EVER give a high-concept show a chance again?
on July 1, 2012
While this is a review for the first and, sadly, the only season of J.J. Abrams' ALCATRAZ, this will also be, in part, a rant against Fox Broadcasting and how quickly they forgot their roots.
Let's begin with the review though. First, a quick rundown of the plot: Back in March of 1963, Alcatraz officially closed. All the prisoners were transferred to other prisons. This is the official story, but it's not the way it happened. In actuality, 256 inmates of Alcatraz as well as 46 guards mysteriously vanished and no one knows where... until now, that is. Mysterious and shadowy Federal Agent Emerson Hauser (the terrifically underrated Sam Neill) appears in San Francisco just around the time that our main protagonist SFPD Detective Rebecca Madsen (the talented and lovely Sarah Jones, who doesn't have a lot of credits to her name) loses her partner to a fleeing suspect. Madsen comes into direct contact and conflict with what Agent Hauser is trying to do when two men are murdered in the same day by a man who was one of the vanishing convicts and also looks exactly the same as he did in 1963. Enlisted in the search for this killer is the cuddly, lovable and very intelligent comic geek man-child Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia aka Hurley from LOST) who is considered to have written the definitive works on Alcatraz and its inmates. Along with Hauser's assistant, Dr. Lucy Banerjee (the talented and lovely Parminder Nagra, who first made a splash as the co-star of BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM and then onto ER), they form something of a secret task force to find the rest of the missing "63's".
However, as with LOST, we have flashbacks as well to when the prison was still active, and secrets aplenty during that timeframe, kept primarily by Warden Edwin James (a terrific Jonny Coyne), who is a man of seemingly infinite patience and a sadistic streak a mile wide. Also joining the cast from time to time is Ray Archer (the great Robert Forster), who is Rebecca's uncle and a former guard at Alcatraz who ALSO has some secrets in his past. The cast is terrific, and the characters as we come to know them are extremely engaging. The scene-stealer though is always Coyne as Warden James, who has a kindly and almost beatific smile while he's twisting the knife even further into his inmates. His presence alone is tremendously unnerving.
The big questions, as with LOST (which is really the best analogue for this show), are who, what, where and why: What is responsible for the disappearences; Who are some of these escapees working for; Where did they go; and of course, Why is all of this happening? Sadly, unlike LOST, this was a program that had a pretty big start but viewership cooled enough that by the end of the first season, despite a really terrific thirteen episodes and one heck of a season finale, Fox decided to drop it, leaving far too many questions unanswered, namely all of the ones I just listed.
Now, I can understand that there are a few problems with this show that need to be addressed, and probably would have been improved upon in the second season. First and most importantly is that this show, while being a lot like LOST, wasn't quite enough like LOST. Over the past several years, there have been a glut of procedural crime thrillers/dramas that have come down the TV pipelines and one that has a sci-fi "what if" type of concept wasn't quite enough to differentiate itself from the dozens of others that are still on, for good (BURN NOTICE, PERSON OF INTEREST) or ill (any incarnation of LAW AND ORDER, CSI, or NCIS). Secondly, the show, being only 13 episodes, making way for a mid-season replacement if it wasn't up to snuff for the network that has the biggest show on right now and the lowest production costs (AMERICAN IDOL... argh) needed one of those answers answered. LOST was such a brilliant show all the way up through the end (despite the legions of nay-sayers) because it owned its strangeness and it gave us a large number of characters that we cared about. ALCATRAZ, because it took a procedual drama tack in the midst of all the bizarre goings-on, lost part of that edge and started to lose viewership because the characters were sparse and we just weren't terribly invested in Rebecca Madsen's life because the show wasn't invested either. One thing the show absolutetly did right though was understanding that this was a show that lived and died by its main characters, and while the life of Det. Madsen wasn't very interesting, the lives of Hauser and Doc were interesting enough to keep a forward momentum going. You didn't simply love Doc because he was Hurley from LOST; this was a new character with a new backstory and Garcia really makes the most of it. Sam Neill plays the hell out of Hauser as well. Being a cryptic and mysterious Fed seems to be a staple of J.J. Abrams TV, and he really works this character hard to the point where you care about him despite the fact that he's not very likable.
So while I believe that this show didn't fail from a story, script or acting standpoint, the major letdown was that it didn't let its freak flag fly, like FRINGE or LOST did. ALCATRAZ was pretty darn good television, but it also just wasn't ambitious enough.
Fox obviously has a history of doing this to better shows than this, such as EVERY program that had the name Tim Minear as a producer/creator (FIREFLY being the most glaring example, but also his other shows he was involved in like THE INSIDE, DRIVE, and THE CHICAGO CODE), and a great many other shows in favor of its more insipid programs like AMERICAN IDOL, SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE?, and any number of the other "reality" flavored brands it has out there. FRINGE was it for a really long time and that's getting axed too, but that could simply be because it ran its course. But what Fox doesn't remember is its roots. The show that really seemed to put Fox on the map and make it Stay-at-home viewing was THE X-FILES. It was the ultimate slow-burn show, ratings-wise, and it gave this network a name and a brand. Sadly, the show did decline severely in its last two years, but there's no reason that a show like SVU can stay on for 15 seasons and shows like ALCATRAZ only get one, and not even a complete one at that. This show might have found a better home elsewhere, but I guess we'll never know.
All in all, for people who actually watched this show when it was on, I'm sure you'll enjoy watching the episodes again, but for people just experiencing this for the first time on home video, ALCATRAZ might be an exercise in fuming frustration and leave you screaming for answers after you watch the last episode.
That's not to say that it's not worth the scream.