TV Talk: ALCATRAZ 1.04 “Cal Sweeney”

A bank robber with an Anton Chigurh affectation is our newest time-traveling inmate. 

Read Devin's take on the first two episodes here, my take on the first two here, and my post on last week's episode here.

For those of you who, like me, were hoping Alcatraz might shake up its formula in the near future, "Cal Sweeney" does not deliver. However, within the confines of the formula, as rapidly tedious as that is becoming, this was a reasonably fun episode. I maintain that despite some fixable issues, this show could be good. I just seriously doubt whether the writers care to fix those issues.

First, Alcatraz continues to dip into the Vancouver Acting Pool with Eric Johnson, who plays Sweeney. Johnson played Whitney Fordman on Smallville and a particularly memorable demon on a Season 5 episode of Supernatural ("The Devil You Know"). Thanks to copious watching of those two shows, along with The X-Files, I am a master at knowing within moments if a show has been filmed in Canada, ascertaining by scenery, climate and guest stars. While some of the Alcatraz pilot is filmed on location in San Francisco, it's definitely mostly Vancouver up in this club, and I called it ten minutes into the pilot. 

I love the Vancouver Acting Pool. The actors don't look so Hollywood perfect, and they have an interesting, unusual (Canadian) presence that just reads a little different from American actors. Johnson does a great job as the charming but sinister Sweeney, a bank-robbing ladies' man who carries around an Anton Chigurh-brand cattle bolt pistol. He leaves the vaults alone, only showing interest in the safety deposit boxes, to which he gains access by wooing Hollywood-homely (in other words, quite lovely), Hollywood-middle aged (in other words, mid-thirties) bank tellers. As Haircut-or-Hurley, I forget which, points out, the fact that Sweeney only shows interest in the safety deposit boxes makes it painfully evident that he's from the 50s, because most boxes are hardly stuffed with gold bars and cash these days. Unless you're lucky enough to hit Jason Bourne's safety deposit box. Then you're aces.

So Haircut and Doc Hurley begin the episode by enjoying a leisurely dim sum brunch, and they have an easy rapport that I mostly buy. It's weird that, after presumably having been friends and partners for at least a few weeks, Haircut only now thinks to ask Doc Hurley what he's doing running a comic book shop when he's got multiple Ph.Ds. Doc Hurley has a complicated relationship with his parents, he got the Ph.Ds to make them happy, and he intentionally sabotaged his career by writing a dissertation on crime prevention in Gotham City (More Geekspeak for Dummies). This teensy bit of character insight and pleasant, non-procedural action is interrupted within four minutes by a phone call informing Haircut of the bank robbery. Doc Hurley hears that only the safety deposit boxes were hit and he immediately knows it's Sweeney--but, if someone didn't already know it was Sweeney, why would Haircut receive that phone call? 

Before we get back into the question of whether Doc Hurley is relevant to the team (long story short, he's not, but I like him so who cares), let us ask a moment whether Haircut is relevant to the show. What do we know about Doc Hurley? He's a genius but an underachiever, he has a complicated relationship with his parents, he loves comics, he was abducted as a child and he escaped, he's obsessed with Alcatraz, he abhors violence but is ultimately quite brave. That's some solid insight into one character, and the details have (mostly) been revealed in an organic manner through multiple episodes. What do we know about Haircut? Her partner died, her grandfather is one of the time-traveling inmates and the person who killed her partner, and her uncle is a former Alcatraz guard turned bartender (seriously, where is Robert Forster?). We learned all of that at once in a big info dump in the pilot, and have learned nothing new since. Also, all three pieces of information are about the people peripheral to Haircut. We actually don't know anything specific about Haircut, except that she's nice, she has a haircut, and she has deliberately walked unarmed in front of an armed Alcatraz inmate in literally every single episode of this show. So, she's suicidal? Courageous? Cocky? One of those, probably.

Doc Hurley's got the comic book shop as his territory. Weirdly, Alcatraz is crotchety old Sam Neill's territory. Sadly, that hospital bed is Lucy's territory. Where is Haircut's realm, her safe zone, the environment that the audience identifies as hers? Does she have any outside friends? Doc Hurley's got the adoring kid from the comic store. We need to see more interaction between Haircut and Robert Forster stat, first of all because seriously, where is Robert Forster? But also because we need to associate Haircut with more than the job if we're ever to care about her. With all the backstory and flashbacks and Doc Hurley-provided color, we currently know more and care more about each of the four introduced inmates than we do about our alleged protagonist, and that is a problem.

Another problem: Alcatraz continues to rely on the alternate humor or drama behind Doc Hurley's law enforcement inexperience. This week he blew it while tailing Sweeney and Haircut, and sure, it was all very cute, his pouting to crotchety old Sam Neill to please stop yelling because he's never done this before. But if they're determined to keep Doc Hurley on the team due to his supposedly indispensable knowledge of these inmates, shouldn't they, you know, train him? Give him a gun, train him to shoot, teach him how to drive a car like a law enforcement officer. Otherwise, they should really just leave him back in the office, because he's going to get himself or someone else killed. In real life, he'd already be dead four times over and so would everyone around him.

But back to the mystery! With those four paragraphs, I have now spent more time on the main characters of the show than the writers have, so let's dive back into the procedural routine, shall we? Sweeney was the guy who could smuggle stuff into Alcatraz and over-charge for it, like Red in Shawshank. His buddy and protégé Harlan (Steven Grayhm, also from Smallville, also from the Vancouver Acting Pool) double-crossed him in order to gain dominion over the contraband business. All the particulars of that exchange are superfluous, but here's what you need to know from flashbacks: Deputy Warden E.B. Tiller, the victim from the pilot, is even shadier than we thought, trying to edge in on Sweeney's business. The Big Bald Warden is weirdly preoccupied with Tiller. Lucy went by the name of Lucille Sengupta when she was back in the olden days, and she dealt with a lot of chauvinist bullshit as a brilliant double-doctor interested in Eternal Sunshining the violence right out of the inmates. All of the flashbacks are pretty juicy and fun to watch, and it all makes a decent amount of sense.

The current day stuff, however, is dumb. Sweeney starts visiting the homes of the safety deposit box owners, something he never did in the past, and it's not explained why he does it now. He wants to hear the stories behind the stuff he steals, maybe? Could it really be so pointless? We learn very little else about this, and it just feels like a filler scene when he cattle-bolts a doting husband. Sweeney eventually holds a bank hostage and Haircut does her thing where she approaches him unarmed, and they leave the bank together. She crashes the car because Sweeney isn't wearing a seatbelt and basically, et voila, the mystery, she's solved!

But some interesting mythology comes into play in the last few minutes of the episode. They discover that Sweeney was hitting the boxes looking for an elaborate, old-fashioned key similar to the one Jack Sylvane used in the pilot. Devin got one of those keys in the mail! Crotchety old Sam Neill uses "molecular analysis" to learn more about "how the prisoners jumped"--so he's clearly not as informed as he seems. I'd say, "Just ask Lucy or the Alcatraz doctor how they jumped!" but maybe he doesn't know they're from the past, or maybe they don't know or remember how they got here? Sweeney was trying to procure the key for someone else--some shadowy person in charge. And in the flashback, Big Bald Warden takes Harlan, the backstabbing protégé, to a mysterious door in the bowels of Alcatraz that requires three of the elaborate keys to open. Harlan's coup caught the attention of a "certain subterranean resident who desires a parlay," and that means Harland's future "just got a heck of a lot brighter." We don't see what happens after Harlan opens the door, but presumably, there are answers within!

I feel that Alcatraz is, against all odds, managing the mythology quite well. Every week I learn just enough of the arc to keep me interested, despite all the time wasted on the procedural format. Nothing is infuriating me on that scale, and I honestly thought that would be Alcatraz's biggest weakness. But every episode's A-plot is boring, and the show's own disinterest in its main protagonist is disquieting. Give Haircut an actual story, already. 

You can watch "Cal Sweeney" for free right here.