Looking back at Alcatraz season 1
Caroline looks back at season 1 of Alcatraz, a flawed but promising new sci-fi mystery produced by J.J. Abrams
This article contains spoilers.
As soon as Alcatraz, the new show from producer J.J. Abrams and his team, was ordered and, subsequently, aired, it couldn't move for the Lost comparisons. While that previous mystery show had its problems and detractors, it's still a grand legacy to live up to, and there was a worry this new prison drama/sci-fi mystery would fail at the task. Well, like Lost, Alcatraz has its problems, but it's also managed to avoid many of its predecessor's mistakes.
That's not something to scoff at, with so much post-Lost television crashing and burning before it could even reach one season (Flash Forward etc.). Other efforts, like Heroes with its ensemble cast, fared much better of course, but nothing had managed to create and maintain the magic the original show had held. Audiences had never seen anything quite like it before, and it captured the world's imagination almost instantly. First of all, Alcatraz is not that show, and its failure to hit that nerve straight out of the gate could hurt its chances further down the line.
I'd actually rather compare this first run, with thirteen episodes aired on FOX mid-season, with another Abrams mystery show: Fringe. Though still struggling to tempt the ratings lesser shows have consistently achieved, Fringe has developed into a complex mystery show no longer bothering to appease casual viewers. It started, however, much like Alcatraz, with a 'case of the week' format that ran alongside larger mythology. That mythology has grown over time, and all signs point to Alcatraz taking the same path, if and when it's granted more episodes.
That mythology centres around the inmates and guards of Alcatraz prison, who are now popping up all over San Francisco in modern day. Some can remember the moments before they disappeared, others have little idea where they are or how they got there. The world was told that the prison had been shut down and the inmates either died or were moved. The show pitches that this was a cover-up, and experiments done on the prisoners (and possibly the staff) have somehow allowed them to jump forward in time. The trouble is, they're almost all homicidal psychopaths, and putting them back in the world is causing a few casualties.
This is a procedural show, so we need to assemble a crack team of detectives and experts in on the secrets of Alcatraz. First up is Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), an SFPD detective descended from inmate Tommy Madsen (she's his granddaughter). She's been raised by her beloved uncle Ray, who may or may not know more than he's saying. Jones hits the nail on the head with a role almost designed to be unappealing. Almost every crime show of the new millennium features a hardened and emotional wounded female detective, usually softened by the hunky partner assigned to her in the pilot.
Well, said partner might not be widely considered hunky (though we've got a soft spot for him), as Lost's Jorge Garcia enters the frame as comic book writer, genius, and Alcatraz expert Dr. Diego Soto. Having written various books and profiles on every known aspect of the famous prison, Soto provides useful knowledge and exposition each week, and his role in things comes across as entirely plausible. Leaving memories of loveable Hurley at the door, Garcia has surprised everyone with his strong, likeable performance. With such a distinctive look which, on the surface, hasn't changed too much from his previous role, it's frankly astounding that he's managed to forge an entirely new persona for Alcatraz.
An equally well-known face is Jurassic Park actor Sam Neill, who heads up operations in what the others label the Bat Cave. Surprisingly, given his prominence in both advertising and the show itself, Neill is probably the weakest of the trio, overacting to an almost criminal degree at various points. His character is important in that he was once a guard at Alcatraz before everyone disappeared, and his life's work has been to find out what really happened there that night. British actress Parminder Nagra rounds things off as Dr. Lucy, a former doctor at the prison (also returned) and love interest for Hauser.
The show's simplicity is both its biggest strength and fatal weakness, as procedural fans will be glad of a crime show daring to break the mould, and sci-fi fans will undoubtedly become bored with the strict structure of each instalment. Setting up their task at the beginning of the episode, we then follow the team as they attempt to find and contain the relevant '63'. During the episode, we are also granted flashbacks to life inside Alcatraz in the years leading up to its evacuation, and this provides some prison drama not often done on the small screen.
Each week the returning 63's range from utter creeps to guards and the falsely accused, and we're given an inordinate amount of time to bond with each of them. The difference here is that we don't have to figure out what they've done or why, as they've already been caught and locked up for their crimes, but instead we're asked to ponder on their connection to the central mystery and those shady figures behind it. During the first season for example, we're also introduced to the creepy and sinister Warden, who's been experimenting with the patient's blood.
He also holds the key to a secret room in the basement of the prison. Until the last moments of the finale, we're unclear as to the nature of this room, but it's contents reveal a future director the show's second season could take. With season one only focusing on one mystery - how are the inmates turning up un-aged in 2012? - new revelations point to queries further down the line like: Who is behind it? How and why did they do it? And, what does that mean for those who've already returned? Putting Lucy in the central task force means that we have an invested interest; one we share with Hauser.
Shows focusing on elaborate mysteries like this are often very irritating to watch. With facts revealed to certain characters at certain points, there's a tendency for them to never speak to each other, and this is the fastest way to alienate an audience. In Lost's second season, for example, only half the islanders knew of the hatch for multiple episodes, and viewers lost track of who knew what, or how much, at later points in the story. Alcatraz avoids this as, by the end of episode thirteen, everyone's on the same page. People even ask vital questions of each other, but the trouble is that no one knows the answers to them yet.
While a standard procedural structure like this can be an entertaining escape week on week, watching them as a set (as genre fans are prone to do) could be more than a little tiresome. That's where this first run lets itself down a little, as the writers have taken their time in building up the mystery and drip feeding information to their audience. This can create a better, richer series down the line, but first it has to avoid the cancellation button. I worry that Alcatraz is the sort of show that's discovered later, and in such a restrictive television environment, a slow-building fanbase isn't often tolerated by networks (especially FOX).
But Alcatraz has a mixture of brave and safe ideas that could just prove its saviour. It keeps with the mythology-light, slightly spoon-fed style that was enlisted after Lost and Heroes shed their casual fans, but has a slightly sneaky side that signals a change of pace should it come back. First seasons are hard to pull off for mystery based sci-fi, given that they have to draw people in without giving away the game, and, on the whole, Alcatraz has pulled it off nicely. With strong performances, interesting ideas and an effectively tantalising cliffhanger, I hope it's not another one that meets the chopping block before it can show its full hand.