TV Review: ‘Alcatraz’ tempers ambitious plot with genre cliches

By Ameya Lele

Tufts Daily, Tufts U. via UWIRE

TV Review: ‘Alcatraz’ tempers ambitious plot with genre cliches

“On March 21st, 1963, Alcatraz officially closed. All the prisoners were transferred off the island. Only that’s not what happened. Not at all.”

Bolstered by orchestral background music, these lines serve as the introduction to Fox’s new midseason show, “Alcatraz.”

“Alcatraz,” the most recent J.J. Abrams production, was built to create a new sci−fi phenomenon on network television, similar to Abrams’s previous success with “Lost” (2004−2010).

Numerous parallels between the shows can be made. Both stories are set on islands, and the plots contain an unusual amount of time travel. The new show also stars “Lost” alumnus Jorge Garcia.

The story centers on San Francisco Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), who stumbles upon a strange discovery while working a homicide case: The main suspect is a former Alcatraz inmate who supposedly died more than 40 years ago. Even odder, the suspect, one of the last inmates on the island before it was closed, hasn’t aged at all. Rebecca then decides to enlist the help of Alcatraz expert Dr. Diego “Doc” Soto (Garcia) to help uncover the truth behind the island’s mystery.

Their investigation leads them to federal agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), who heads a secret government agency dedicated to finding the nearly 400 people who disappeared from Alcatraz in 1963 — the “’63s” as they come to be called. Now, they must all work together to keep the identities of the ’63s a secret while figuring out what the conspiracy is really about.

The performances from supporting characters Dr. Lucille “Lucy” Banerjee (Parminder Nagra), the second in command on the ’63 project, and Ray Archer (Robert Forster), Rebecca’s protector and former Alcatraz guard, aid the show tremendously.

Flashbacks bring the show to the 1960s, giving insight into the lives of the inmates, guards and the other Alcatraz employees. Currently, the flashbacks are the best storytelling component; the exploration of the relationships between inmates, guards and wardens creates the most intrigue and character development. Deputy Warden “E.B.” Tiller (Jason Harner) steals the show with his paradoxical layers of stubbornness and vulnerability, a complexity not shown within the other characters.

“Lost” had a great ability to delve into a character’s past and humanize him or her. Suddenly, Sawyer (Josh Holloway) was not the jackass he started out as, and Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson) was not the cold−blooded killer he was once believed to be. In “Alcatraz” thus far, viewers have only discovered more about the recurring characters, while Madsen and Soto’s stories seem far away.

Although fans of Abrams’ work will expect ambitious storylines and compelling characters, the show has yet to truly utilize its cast from an emotional standpoint. Jones, a girl whose grandfather was once an inmate and whose partner died, has yet to step into her character completely and seems too free of internal conflict. Currently, she’s simply a cop with an attitude. Furthermore, her performance as the protagonist is predictable, reusing the well known role of stubborn young detective.

Neill’s character leaves much to be desired as well. He has yet to show anything but angry−old−man syndrome.

Despite Garcia’s comedic relief, “Alcatraz” seems to remain a cop procedural, trying somewhat unsuccessfully to break free of that mold. If the writers find some way to add depth to the characters, the show could reclaim some of the network television glory “Lost” once knew.

There is potential for “Alcatraz” to truly embrace its mysteries and build its characters around their connections to the prison. While it may never truly reach the heights of “Lost,” it has the ability to create a cult following a la Abrams’ “Fringe.” As of right now, “Alcatraz” is only mildly entertaining. Hopefully the writers will create something much more profound as the series progresses. From the looks of it, that might be the only chance “Alcatraz” has of escaping cancellation.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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