Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Television Review - Alcatraz Pilot

Title:  Alcatraz
Creators:  Elizabeth SarnoffSteven LilienBryan Wynbrandt
Producer:  J.J. Abrams

Genre:  Drama / Science Fiction
Rating:  4 out of 5 cells

Let me first say that I am a big fan of J.J. Abrams.  I had a lot of fun with Alias, Fringe and LOST, and I loved Cloverfield, Star Trek, and Super 8.  Imagine my excitement when I heard that the man was producing another television show to soak up another free hour of my life every week.  Yes, the pilot of Alcatraz premiered this past week, and I was watching.  What follows is a quick summary of the episode and main characters, and my thoughts on it.

In Alcatraz, three unlikely allies team up to investigate a series of murders committed by people who shouldn't even be alive.  In the 1960's, 302 prisoners were said to have been transferred from the island prison.  We quickly learn, however, that these inmates in fact simply vanished out of thin air.  Fast-forward to present day:  these same criminals are showing up in San Francisco with a debt to settle.  What is even more strange, however, is that they haven't aged one day.

Our journey begins with Rebecca Madsen (played by Sarah Jones), a San Francisco Police Officer, as she gets called in to investigate a murder.  We learn (through a convenient LOST-esque flashback) that she witnessed her partner's death at the hands of an as-yet unidentified criminal, and we assume that she wants to be the best cop ever to make up for not being able to save him.  She is quickly shoo'd off the scene by Emerson Hauser (Sam Neil), a tight-lipped know-it-all federal agent.

Leaving the scene with nothing but a stray fingerprint to guide her, Rebecca discovers that the evidence points to one Jack Sylvane, a man who was imprisoned on Alcatraz four decades prior.  She meets up with Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia), a Double PhD/Alcatraz Book Author/Comic Book Salesman (no, I'm not making this up) to investigate The Rock further.  Through a series of unfortunate events, Madsen, Hauser, and Soto (a.k.a. "Doc") decide to work together to find and incarcerate (again) Sylvane.

(end of ridiculous exposition)

As you can see, a ton happened in the Pilot.  Questions were answered and new questions were raised.  But how does it stack up to Abrams' other shows, and is it even worth watching?

The first thing people usually want to know about an Abrams show is how "cliffhangery" it is.  As much as I loved LOST, it would get so frustrating because there were so many plot lines and questions that were never really answered.  Each episode would just make you feel more... well... LOST.  Fringe started to get away from this, but still required a lot of patience to watch.  From what I hear, Alcatraz will try to focus even more on the "one episode, one story" formula.  They will be investigating one case and catching one criminal during each episode.  This sounds a lot like a cookie cutter cop drama (I'm looking at you, CSI and friends), but watching the pilot gives you a feel that there will still be some twists and turns for those devoted to the series.

First of all, Alcatraz employs liberal use of the flashback, something that payed off big for LOST.  Between each commercial break, we are treated to the present-day exploits of our three heroes as they try to catch the villain as well as a look into what this villain's life was like while imprisoned on the rock.  These flashbacks to the criminal's past gives you a lot of insight on the character and renders him more memorable than those goofy bad guys you see at the end of Scooby Doo (or CSI).  It reminds me of Criminal Minds, and the extra effort is appreciated.

Another thing that makes Alcatraz stand out from the pack is that there is obviously something supernatural going on here.  People don't just disappear for 40 years and then pop back up again to commit crimes and run 40K's.  Through a combination of flashbacks and present-day character development, I am sure this story arc will add a lot more energy to the "catch one bad guy a week" formula.  The question is this:  How bogged down will the series get because of it?  (Spoiler:  Only time will tell.)

In terms of characters, we get about as much as we expect from Abrams.  We stick to the formula that worked for Fringe (strong blonde female protagonist, older male superior who keeps information from said protagonist, crazy civilian who really has no business investigating murders) and really don't make any deep changes.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, however because it could all change when we learn more about the characters.  I, of course, immediately love Emerson Hauser because everything Sam Neil does is genius.  And Hurley Soto isn't bad either.

Finally, the show is visually beautiful.  The past and present time periods are immediately recognizable.  Past-Alcatraz is dark and gloomy, while the prison that Hauser puts the criminals in during the present (which looks structurally similar to the interior of Alcatraz) is bright and sterile.  Even Soto's comic book shop has a bit of a charm to it.

Though eerily reminiscent of Abrams' past projects, Alcatraz seems to be a perfect mix between cop drama and supernatural thriller.  Time will tell how popular the series is, but I plan on watching regularly.

4 out of 5 cells!


I hope that you enjoyed this review, and if you are watching the show as well, I would love to know what you think!  I don't plan on writing a review for every episode, but I may do an end-of-season and beginning-of-season summary when applicable.


  1. A well put and detailed summary. Still, after watching it for a few weeks now, what are your thoughts? Is this "one story, said and done" episode approach working for you?

    Honestly, after watching Lost, I find the one story each episode approach refreshing. A soundtrack nut, I enjoy the music for the intro and the scenes. Sam Neil, as always, is awesome. To me, his acting makes up for a lot of, well, bad acting, or, dare I say it, poorly scripted scenes. Honestly, I don't think it's the actors' faults a lot times. The pressure of having each episode tell a whole story seems to cut some of the scenes within the episode a little short, making them shallow and poorly developed.

    All in all, I am enjoying the premise of the plot arch a lot. It has its moments where I am sure the season will be cancelled, but then in the same episode something seems to come along like Superman and save it all from its impending doom.

    What are your thoughts on The River?

    1. Spot on with your comments about poorly scripted scenes. I was having this discussion with my girlfriend a few days ago. I really want to like Sam Neil's character but he's just so dry. It seems like the only reason he is there is to transition to the next scene.

      I think it is still a bit too early to judge whether the "one episode, one story" will be effective for this show. It seems like the writers are trying to build up a base of plot points and characters (main characters as well as the guys in prison) that they can later play around with in more interesting ways.

      At least this is what I HOPE they are doing. It feels to me like they are sacrificing character development to churn out convenient 40-minute dramas. Hauser spends his days either underground in a secret facility, or shooting people in the leg. Madsen seems cold and sterile. And Sato continues to feel misplaced. Hopefully, they will start focusing more on the characters as time goes by.

      I have not yet checked out The River, but after reading your comment and watching the trailer on Youtube, I am definitely going to check it out!

  2. It seems that the single episode thing did not work, which was sad, because the IDEA of the series was great. The episodes somewhat sucked until they threw you a bone at the end to make you tune in next time. I was shocked a little by the ending of the series, but it felt resolved. What are your thoughts?

    The River was very good. You know how Paranormal activity was way too long, but engaging, well The River had the same feel, but in a whole bunch of episodes. It got canceled for next season though, which I'm okay with. Spielberg wrapped the season up well.

    Have you watched any of Once Upon a Time? Now that is kick-ass. :)