TV Talk: ALCATRAZ 1.01 “Pilot”/1.02 “Ernest Cobb”—Meredith’s Take

Oof. I wish this show were better.

You can read Devin's Alcatraz TV Talk post here.

"On March 21, 1963, Alcatraz officially closed due to rising costs and decrepit facilities. All the prisoners were transferred off the island. Only that's not what happened. Not at all."

I hope you like that little monologue, because you get to hear it TWICE in the pilot. First as a gravelly voice-over decorating the opening scene, and again near the end of the episode as part of the dialogue of Sam Neill's character. This sort of heavy-handed "Did you catch that? You caught it, right? Well, here it is again, just in case," method of treating the audience like attention-deficit children is rampant in Alcatraz, and it's what I consider the primary problem in a show full of them. 

I was initially quite intrigued by Alcatraz, and absolutely willing to dive into the murky waters surrounding The Rock, understanding that the mystery might appear maddeningly impenetrable upon first visit. Oh, if only that were the problem. This show is just boring, a rote procedural that simply doesn't have enough happening to capture my attention for one full hour, much less two. The first week brought the airing of the first two Alcatraz episodes back-to-back, "Pilot" and "Ernest Cobb," and by the end of that two episode block, my eyes were glazed as donuts. 

The names of the episodes make it abundantly, depressingly clear precisely what this show will be. The first episode is simply titled "Pilot," but it's about one of the vanished Alcatraz inmates, named Jack Sylvane, reappearing and murdering people until he is caught by Detective Madsen (dubbed by Devin as Clea Duvall's haircut), Doctor Hurley--her inexplicable partner with no experience in police work--and crotchety old Sam Neill. The second episode, titled "Ernest Cobb," is about one of the vanished inmates, named Ernest Cobb, reappearing and murdering people until he is caught by Haircut, Doctor Hurley and crotchety old Sam Neill. The third episode is titled "Kit Nelson." Wonder what that will be about?

This slavish adherence to a procedural format is baffling. Why nail themselves to a Perp of the Week platform so early in the game? And actually NAMING each episode after the perp so we're certain to understand precisely how starkly blueprinted this show is? Devin asked us to imagine how lame it would be if every week The X-Files presented the same case. Further imagine if every episode were titled after the monster menacing the leads each week: "Aliens," "Stretchy Beast," "Aliens," "Killer Computer," "Jersey Devil" (okay, they did that one), "Aliens."

Devin finds the premise of Alcatraz ultimately tedious, and that's a bigger problem, but I don't. I like the premise. How did those prisoners vanish, and where have they been? Why are they returning now? Who's pulling their strings? How is Lucy (crotchety old Sam Neill's hot British partner) involved, now that we know she's one of the vanished? Is it time travel? Is it suspended animation? I dig it, is what I'm saying. But the idea that every week, one new inmate will be loosed on the streets to wreak havoc in San Francisco until Haircut and Hurley do a little light sleuthing and nab him--now that shit is tedious. Every week, presumably, Haircut will step, unarmed, in front of a villain holding a gun to show she's one loco motherfucker. Every week, presumably, crotchety old Sam Neill will injure an unarmed perp who is already in custody.

And oh, how light is the sleuthing. As Devin pointed out, they bring up an image of 1960s San Francisco on the computer, et voila, the mystery, she is solved! They realize that a gun from 1960 has a range of 500 yards versus the 750 yards of today, et voila, the mystery, she is solved! All of poor, pointless Doctor Hurley's computer prowess reminds me sadly of this:

There were plenty of other inexcusably lame plot devices in the show: as Sylvane takes the ferry from Alcatraz, he looks over and sees a book lying next to him titled The Inmates of Alcatraz. He picks it up and flips to his own picture to let us know he was an inmate. Later, through some startlingly adept police work that is not quite clear, Haircut discovers the same book, written by none other than Doctor Hurley. "What's your story, Diego Soto?" she asks her computer screen, before going to meet the doctor--who runs a comic book store in addition to all of his Ph.Ds and masters, and yet offers the most pedestrian geek references: Call of Duty, origin story, Batcave. It's Geekspeak for Dummies.

Haircut's computer voice-over is really the worst culprit of Alcatraz's unspoken accusations that we are all idiots. As she does research on Sylvane's first victim, E.B. Tiller, a name we've heard several times already, she mutters aloud, "Vic's name was E.B. Tiller" as she enters it into a search engine, so we know why she's typing it. Ugh! And double ugh: someone says the words "This is Alcatraz" no fewer than three times in the pilot. Not like, "Welcome to Alcatraz!" but in the manner of, "This is Alcatraz, bitch." Three times, this happens.

And yeah, the most bizarre thing is how totally chill Haircut is about all of this. At least Doctor Hurley knows well enough to be supremely weirded out by this time-traveling Alcatraz murder business. As Devin rightly observed, Haircut discovers that her partner was killed (in a rooftop chase scene flashback that introduced us to Haircut) by her still-young grandfather, whom she learns was an inmate of Alcatraz and one of the vanished 302 prisoners. And she seriously does not react AT ALL. She literally shrugs and moves on. WTF?!

But but wasn't all bad. I do dig the premise, and I know there's a small, manageable plan buried under there somewhere. One of the only benefits of this idiotic Perp of the Week scheme is I don't think it leaves them with much time to get all mired down in mystery box uselessness. I may be wildly optimistic here, but I feel like there is a master plan, and I'm curious what it is. Alcatraz also boasts beautiful cinematography and a stirring score. I totally like Doctor Hurley. He may be pointless, but he's charmingly pointless. And Robert Forster is in this damn show! And that is wonderful! He's only had about four minutes of screentime as Haircut's uncle, a former Alcatraz guard turned bartender, but any Robert Forster at all is just so great. And crotchety old Sam Neill is my favorite kind of Sam Neill. 

Some of the violence was solidly rad. Ernest Cobb just started picking off kids at a carnival, and I really didn't think he'd do that. I mean, we saw him selecting victims, but I assumed Haircut and Hurley would tackle him before he blew up smiling teenagers. Nope! He shot them right through the heart as they flirted on the ferris wheel. That was pretty badass.

And there's one other thing I dig about Alcatraz. It's mild, but it's there. Haircut is sort of bland and not particularly memorable yet, BUT...she's different from the typical female TV cop. She's not all hard-assed, stone-cold and grizzled. She's nice. She holds Doctor Hurley's hand (metaphorically) as he deals with dead bodies for the first time in his career (due to his woefully inadequate experience as a permanent student and comics store manager). She cheerleads him and does her best to make him feel like a valued member of the team, even though he so totally isn't. Now, the lack of that hackneyed hard-assed lady routine leaves Haircut without any decisive qualities other than, well, her haircut, but if the writers can give her something else to do or think or say or be, anything at all, she could get interesting. I know what I'm saying is weird--she has no qualities at all, but that's better than having this one quality!--but it's true. The cliché that a strong woman on TV must be stoic and curmudgeonly and rude just isn't my bag at all. I like that Haircut's sweet. Now if she can only be something else, too--anything at all--we might be in business.

You can watch the first two eps of Alcatraz at the Fox website.