EPISODE REVIEW: Alcatraz (Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2)


J.J. Abrams fans, I’m sorry—forget Lost. The invincible hordes of the crime procedural continue their advance across genre and time alike, building toward that glorious day when the entire Fall schedule will be a Maoist paradise of CSI conformity. And you will bloody well like it you reactionary literatis since there won’t be anything else to watch. [We just won’t televise any of Ron Moore’s desperate attempts at a procedural, because even soulless network hacks are still pissed about the last season of Battlestar Galactica.]

So, yeah, I had some problems with this. Like Falling Skies and Terra Nova, it seems another lazy riff on things already done better. This one actually reminds me of a briefly aired show called Brimstone that I saw a few times years ago. In that case, a dead detective in Hell was given a second chance at life if he could track down a bunch of escapees from the infernal place. One evil escapee a week. Here we get one evil returnee from Alcatraz a week. The hell stuff actually has more mythic potential, along with more colorful returnees. What Alcatraz offers is the barest hint of an X-Files/Lost vibe. It better get that vibe cooking fast if it wants me to hang around.

Done right, this could be a spooky, over-the-top, graphic novel kind of mystery where your sense of reality is subverted. As done so far, it’s just kind of dull.

The problem sets in right at the beginning. It’s March 20, 1963. We see a boat arriving at Alcatraz. Two guards get off and see unmanned guard towers, open gates, idling trucks, etc. They slowly make there way to find the place looking like it was abandoned lickety split. They keep advancing while we wait for some hint of the truly bizarre to kick off our grand mystery. And… nothing. They phone it in. A loaded metaphor for what we’re about to see.

Flash forward. A little girl on an Alcatraz tour wanders past the “no public allowed” signs and screams. What terrible secret has she seen? Just some guy in prison clothes asleep in the “no public allowed” area of Alcatraz. The Park Rangers come over, say “no sleeping allowed,” and don’t even bother to phone it in. Seriously. They’re the living embodiment of all those useless Federal employees Newt Gingrich is grousing about. The sleeping guy gets up and leaves on the boat tour, surprised to find cash and a key in his pocket. He’s Jack Sylvane, a convict who disappeared from Alcatraz. He also has a really uninteresting back story we’re treated to in repeated flashbacks. I won’t waste your time.

Flash slightly back. In the city, San Francisco police detective Rebecca Madsen and her nameless partner are chasing some felon across the rooftops. Her nameless partner winds up hanging on for dear life, with an assist push from the felon. Rebecca tries in vain to save him, so on and so forth. You’ve seen this trauma trope a gazillion times.

Flashing slightly forward we find Rebecca investigating the death of some old guy we already know is the Deputy Warden who used to annoy Sylvane. A fed named Emerson Howser shows up, takes over the crime scene, and kicks out Rebecca. Being a TV detective, though, she steals a piece of evidence. It has a fingerprint of one Jack Sylvane on it. So naturally she looks up the guy who wrote a book on Alcatraz. He is…

Okay, I’m going to say this in one breath to avoid laughing out loud. He’s Diego Soto, a genius comic book store owner with multiple major publishing credits to his name. I’m sorry again, but if that job existed there is no way on Earth I wouldn’t have it. I’d have killed anyone necessary.

They decide to go out to Alcatraz in case there’s a clue that has been overlooked for fifty years. Needless to say, comic-book-store-owner-genius Soto knows of a secret stash of documents left in a secret basement. They find it and get gassed by Howser. And no, I’m not making this up.

Having gassed them, Howser decides to take them to his high tech lair built in another basement of Alcatraz. There we meet his assistant, Lucy Banerjee. Remember her. To make a long story short, he tells them about everyone vanishing from Alcatraz and that he’s been waiting for 50 years for them to return. Why? We don’t know. Maybe it’s a hobby since he obviously needed a career of some kind to convince whoever to spring for the Alcatraz cave. He shows Rebecca his creepy room filled with the pictures of everyone who disappeared. Turns out she recognizes one face. It’s the felon who helped kill her partner, who is also her grandfather she never knew, who she was told was an Alcatraz guard but was really an inmate. Howser knew that and deliberately lured her to her gassing so he could get her to join him on his mission. Not that this keeps him from berating her about how green she is and how he’ll fire her in an Alcatraz minute if she disappoints him. About this time, I’m longing for an island with a smoke monster.

Sylvane provides the only interesting moments from here on out. He seems to be operating from a compulsion he doesn’t understand. He takes the key in his pocket to a locker where a gun is waiting. He takes it to someone’s house and forces them to open their safe. He ignores the huge wad of cash and takes a little black bag with a big honking key in it. His tedious back story then provides a means for Rebecca to arrest him. Cue Agent Howser taking him into the woods. Sylvane is delivered to an underground prision that’s a spic-and-span version of Alcatraz.

Okay. Then the dreaded truth arrives. This isn’t a two-hour pilot. It’s the first two episodes combined into a two-hour showing, as TV is wont to do these days. The next hour is pretty plodding. I’m fast forwarding past more than commercials. We basically follow psycho killer Cobb around San Francisco as he does his sniper thing and Rebecca chases him. Pure procedural all the way, right down to the pat psychological explanation for Cobb’s actions. In case you’re wondering, he gets caught in the end.

Two item so note in the second hour. First, we see Sylvane being questioned in the clean, underground Alcatraz. So there’s at least some continuity. Second, there’s finally a mini-Lost moment. Howser’s assistant, Lucy Banerjee ( I said to remember her) got shot by Cobb. She’s in a coma at the end of the episode. But in a final flashback to Alcatarz in 1960, we see her as a psychologist assigned to examine Cobb. And wouldn’t you know it, she hasn’t aged a bit in fifty years.

There’s some potentially interesting pieces here, if jazzed up. But right now, none of the main characters seem jazzed up about anything, the writing is pedestrian, and it needs to kick it up a notch.

Best line: “Because you gassed me and now you owe me.” If I was Howser, I’d have just gassed her again.

Will conservatives like this: Neutral. I suppose there’s crime and punishment, even after fifty years. But it’s plodding crime and punishment.