TV Talk: ALCATRAZ 1.01/1.02 - “Pilot”/“Ernest Cobb”

The new JJ Abrams show is a mystery. Sadly that mystery is "Why did they make this?"

Imagine if every week The X-Files was the same case, a case where a prisoner who disappeared forty years ago shows up in the modern day and begins killing people. If you can imagine that you can imagine the entire tedious premise of Alcatraz. At least that's what the show has presented itself as in the first two episodes.

The first episode, titled simply "Pilot," swings wildly from preposterous to plebian. The episode hurries through the set up, which boils down to this: the night before Alcatraz shut down a whole bunch of inmates and guards went missing. The government covered it up, as they will do, but now in the present day these people begin appearing out of nowhere, and they're here to commit murders or something unclear which is being sold as a patented JJ Abrams mystery. A spunky young detective who is also a clone of Clea Duvall's haircut gets mixed up in all this, bringing along with her Lost's Hurley, played by Lost's Hurley. Together they operate a secret task force overseen by Sam Neill, who may be more menacing than... wait, I've lost you already, haven't I?

Basically Alcatraz is a boring, uninspired police procedural - there's a killer, and he'll kill again unless our heroes stop him - awkwardly grafted onto a JJ Abrams mystery box. The mystery here is why the inmates disappeared, where they've been and who's behind it. But the problem is that the answer to those questions is all the same: "Who cares?" There's nothing compelling about the overarching mystery, nothing pressing. On Lost the mysteries mattered because our characters were trapped in a strange environment, always trying to figure out what was going on around them and how to survive it. In Alcatraz our characters hang out in a hidden base underneath the prison, waiting for time-lost prisoners to show up one week after another. 

The second episode, "Ernest Cobb," is better than the pilot, but mostly because it doesn't have to deal with such a rush of exposition*. But it's not any better written. At times Sam Neill seems openly contemptuous of the dialogue in the script,  and the lines given to Jorge Garcia are often grotesque clunkers. Alcatraz is the kind of cop show where they take a photo of the city and hit some computer keys to 'show it as it was in 1963' and then immediately solve the case from there - just lazy, stupid junk.

If the show had interesting characters this stuff might be secondary. The stories on The X-Files were rarely Agatha Christie-level whodunnits, after all. But Alcatraz is filled with half-baked nobody characters, people who vanish from your brain the moment they're offscreen. Jorge Garcia gets the worst of it. His character is an expert on Alcatraz who is also a comic book and video game nerd because that was so popular in the Hurley character. But really he's simply a human stand-in for Google; Alcatraz was open for 29 years but Garcia's character can offhand remember specific details about the crimes and MOs of any person imprisoned there. If the show established his area of expertise was simply the inmates who disappeared this would strain credulity less, but even he was surprised to discover the 'secret history' of the island, so we must assume he simply has the stories of EVERY INMATE over three decades at his beck and call. 

Sarah Jones is the tough cop who partners up with Hurley. How tough is she? When her partner is killed in action she refuses to take a new one. How preposterous is this show? Halfway through the pilot she discovers the guy who killed her partner was her grandfather, who is a time-lost Alcatraz prisoner - but she never knew he was a prisoner. And she just sort of goes "That's pretty weird!" and moves on with herself. I walked away from the show with almost no impression of Jones, except that she has Clea Duvall's haircut. Maybe that's for the best.

It seems impossible to me that this show will improve. Even with an overhaul of the entire writing staff (and it seems that it really needs one, stat), the basic premise is fundamentally fatally flawed. Alcatraz promises to be variations on the same thing every single week, like House if lupus was not only the cause of every illness but also the result of a massive conspiracy. Every single week a new killer from Alcatraz will show up in the modern day, Hurley will have some information about his crimes (except in those episodes where the drama comes from Hurley NOT having the information and doubting himself/his role on the team), the killer will kill some people, they'll stop him at the last moment and Sam Neill will put him in the space prison he has hidden in The X-Files' Vancouver forest. Every five or so weeks we'll probably have some major revelation about Sam Neill's hidden agenda, and every now and again a killer will take TWO EPISODES to get caught. And Clea Duvall's Haircut's grandad will show up again, probably at the season finale. 

I'd love for the show to prove me wrong, if only because Michael Giacchino's score pushes all those dormant Lost buttons in me. But Alcatraz feels like a mystery serial show for people who hate mystery serial shows. And who really like Bones.

* looking back the greatest thing about the Lost pilot was that it didn't have to have ANY exposition. The premise itself was an unfolding mystery, so exposition would have killed that.