Alcatraz: Rock-Solid Start

Monday night, Fox debuted the latest offering from J.J. Abrams, Alcatraz.  Yes, it’s a show about a mysterious island with a potential paranormal connection and Jorge Garcia, har har har (can you imagine how many times these actors have probably heard that by now? And they haven’t even hit the convention circuit beyond ComicCon yet!).  This mystery-thriller is also the most promising new mid-season replacement, and really one of the most promising new shows of the season.

Back in 1963 Alcatraz shut down, ostensibly due to cost.  What No One Knows is that the last batch of inmates and guards weren’t transferred – they disappeared without a trace.  Now they’re coming back, one-by-one, not a day older and apparently not at all reformed.  It’s up to a “task force” of one young detective, one nerdy Alcatraz expert, and two spooky FBI agents who know more than they’re saying to track down the criminals and lock them up for good.

I admit I’m biased.  Sam Neill, Jorge Garcia and Sarah Jones?  Potential time travel?  I wanted it to be good.  Luckily, I think the show is off to a good start.

A two-hour premiere gives us ample time to get immersed in the plot without dragging.  I’ve read some complaints that the returned inmates seem to accept their jump in time a little too easily; I don’t have a problem with this, for two reasons.  First, it’s unclear exactly what the inmates know and don’t; secondly, it would be a waste of time to watch some guy stumble around, freaked out, for five minutes out of every show.  What was seen is what counts; and that is that the inmates are returned with everything they need to get started – an eyebrow-raising moment in a show that’s full of them.

Now, no show is perfect, especially in a pilot, and this is no exception.  I have minor issues with each of the main characters, starting with Rebecca Madsen, the detective played by Sarah Jones.  As a character, she’s a bit too like every female cop or FBI agent in modern thrillers – pretty but tough, she scarfs down food and drinks beer while managing to easily maintain her curves.  On the other hand, they certainly have her running around more frequently than I do, and through the hills of San Francisco no less, so maybe she can afford the calories.  And I rather like that she’s not a Buffy clone, with crazy martial arts abilities.  If anything, her super power appears to be critical thinking, and I can get behind that.

I’m still waiting for Jorge Garcia to make this new character, “Doc,” his own.  He seems to be trying not to put a Hurley vibe on him, which is understandable, but instead we’ve got a guy who is increasingly grim and having difficulty coping.  While perhaps a realistic reaction, it doesn’t make us particularly like him.

Indeed, if there’s anything this show is missing it’s a dose of levity.  There is some humor here and there – I laughed at a Hardy Boys joke early on – but things get very grim very fast.  I admit it’s hard to find a place for it, especially when you’re trying to catch a completely different killer each show, especially when you’re trying to establish a world and a tone.  I’m just hoping a little more humor makes its way in there eventually, because I’m not sure I can handle hour upon hour of intensity.  Similarly, I’m hoping any problems I have with the characters are just a matter of the writers settling in and finding the individual voices.

On the whole, though, Alcatraz kept me interested.  Every time it seemed to settle into something predictable – a typical procedural/thriller – something would happen that I didn’t expect.  The key here will be finding the sweet spot in mystery pacing – I’m getting the vibe that the audience isn’t ready for the level of meandering LOST did, but they want to be kept guessing.  I’ve got confidence they’ll find it, though.  And in the meantime, I’ll be watching.

What about you?  Will you be watching Alcatraz

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