“Alcatraz” is the latest of what has become J.J. Abrams’ own little sub-genre. A mysterious and inexplicable occurrence sparks the creation of a team, one with its own secrets. Mysteries will lead to other mysteries and occasionally even to unsatisfying answers. There is the blond police officer, the geek who is an expert on the context of the occurrence, and the shades of gray older investigator who knows more than he’s letting on.
If I seem a bit dismissive, it’s because the main problem with the show is that it felt overwhelmingly by-the-numbers, sort of like how when you watch the pilot of a show on USA, you feel like you’ve already seen it before. Sure, it’s by-the-numbers with imaginary numbers and repeating fractions that don’t normally have a place on prime time network television, but it’s still a pattern we’ve seen before. A mystery is set up, and the apparent answer is that there’s going to be more mystery. Any potential avenues of explanation are nearly magically swept away by behind the scenes forces, which is supposed to enhance the mystery. That approach was already getting irritating by about the third season of “The X-Files” though, and it becomes apparent that whatever mystery you substitute in (aliens, strange island, alternate universes, disappearing people), and however cleverly you keep rambling on to string along the audience, it becomes less a story and more of a shaggy dog joke.
Everyone on Alcatraz disappeared the night of its closing. Every guard, every inmate. And fifty years later one of them shows up having not aged a day and proceeds to go on a killing spree, leaving his impossible fingerprints all over the crime scenes. It’s a wonderful hook, but the rest of the episode squanders the promise.
It begins by stringing together implausible circumstances, with a San Francisco cop who just so happens to be the daughter of one of the guards who wasn’t there that day (and granddaughter of one of the disappeared prisoners) catching the initial case. She just so happens to track down a historian who is the world’s expert on Alcatraz. Jorge Garcia’s character Diego Soto is necessary to the plot because although she can run fingerprints and find out they belong to a former Alcatraz prisoner, she is completely incapable of scrolling down the page to see that the prisoner died in prison in the seventies. These sorts of bone headed events run through the entire pilot, engineered events to make the plot move forward by having the characters be morons.
Take for example, the stupendous Dr. Diego Soto. He is presented as an expert on Alcatraz, who has a PhD on the topic and has written a half dozen books on the prison island. He knows the names of all the prisoners and guards off the top of his head, knows when they died and where. And yet in his research he never managed to figure out that all the evidence of their existence after the closing of Alcatraz was faked or nonexistent? That when he was doing interviews, not a single prisoner or guard there on the prison’s final day remained alive for contact? I could spend my thousand words here doing nothing but ripping apart the plot minute-by-minute, but I have enough reasons to drink without putting both of us through that tedium.
Sam Neil is fantastic though, delightfully chewing his way through the scenery and making us wonder why the hell he isn’t in far more films. He manages to anchor the show in its preposterousness, all growls, significant gazes, and sinister smiles, playing every bit of the inherent cheesiness of the role while the other actors stoicly tread water with the material. He gleefully head butts another character and you can almost hear him screeching “because I’m Sam fucking Neil, that’s why!”
At this point, JJ Abrams needs to shut down production on both “Fringe” and “Alcatraz” and launch a new show featuring Walter Bishop and Emerson Hauser. The mysterious mysteries might be wearing thin, the plots thread bare, but damned if Abrams can’t produce insane old guys who could be entertaining just reading the phone book.
Strangely, I felt like the story before the story was far more interesting. Every person on Alcatraz disappears without a trace one night. What are the thought processes behind covering this up? Where is the manhunt for hundreds of the worst of the worst? How are all of the guards’ families silenced? How are records maintained to fake the continued lives of these prisoners so they don’t seem to all disappear at once?
The purpose of the pilot is to tease us, yes. But it isn’t teasing us about these events, they’re more of an aside. We’re brought into the picture long after all of these events are resolved and taken care of. And we’re not rewarded with the digging and latching onto of corners by our intrepid protagonists in discovering these things, because they’re all just presented as known. Sam Neil’s character was there since day one. Which means that none of the interesting mystery is actually a mystery to the characters in the know.
But the mystery of how the government covered up something so massive is a far more interesting puzzle than merely how space and time were bent in order to let some prisoners escape. One of those questions violates the laws of physics as we know them, but the other is simply science fiction.
Look, the show wasn’t terrible, and it was an entertaining enough hour. But as it stands it has far too many holes for the trademarked Abrams mystery to keep it very interesting for very long.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.