Maybe it’s just my naiveté talking, but Fox’s new series Alcatraz seemed like it had real potential. It’s from J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot production house, it’s got a lot of the same crew from Lost and Alias, it’s got Robert Forster lending his bad-ass gravitas (bad-gravitas?), and it’s a show set in San Francisco that seems to be actually filmed in San Francisco.
It also borrows the concurrent-timelines gimmick from Lost and the police procedural plot-of-the-week/series-long conspiracy combo from The X-Files and virtually every TV series after The X-Files. It almost seems as if Fox wanted its own version of Lost but forgot that it’s already got its own version of Lost and it’s called Fringe.
Based on the pilot and first episode, though, it seems to be doing everything it can to discourage interest. Part of it’s built into the premise — right before Alcatraz shut down, hundreds of prisoners and guards just went missing. They’re showing up in the present day, un-aged and on the loose, still looking to pay back whatever was bugging them enough to get sent to a maximum security prison in the 60s. And, apparently, they may or may not have been given subliminal/post-hypnotic suggestions to kill folks on behalf of some yet-to-be-revealed shadow organization.
The problem is that murderers coming back from the past just isn’t all that compelling. They kind of used up every possible twist on that in the first two episodes, and there’s still an entire series and hundreds of bad guys left to bring back, over and over again. If all the episodes were done from the criminal’s perspective, as the first part of the pilot was structured, there might be some interesting future-shock material. But they got rid of that as quickly as possible, to focus on a police detective and Jorge Garcia playing basically Smart Hurley.
(Jorge Garcia is one of the best aspects of the show, incidentally, which is kind of a problem, since he’s a character actor who works best when he’s making observations from the sidelines).
As it is, you’ve got the super-secret high tech agency led by Sam Neill plus a cop using 2012 technology and an author who knows every detail about the prison and its residents, against… a bunch of guys from the 60s. Even murderers from the 60s seem relatively quaint compared to the post-Hannibal Lecter serial killers on every other crime show. I foresee lots of ominous scenes of the killer slowly approaching his victim, and then freaking out at the sound of a cell phone ringtone or the sight of an HDTV. “Now I’m going to gut you to appease my dark master and… my God! The screen is so thin! What sorcery is this, a portrait of the cast of Glee and yet it moves?!”
And let me get back to “super-secret high tech agency led by Sam Neill.” For some reason, I’ve had the idea stuck in my head for years that Neill lends an aura of integrity to whatever project he’s working on. But thinking back on everything I’ve seen him in, I have no idea where I got that idea. (Maybe The Hunt for Red October?) The man agreed to do everything asked of him in Event Horizon, for Pete’s sake. If that’s not reason enough to question his judgement, then his performance in Alcatraz might be. I’m sure it doesn’t help that he doesn’t have a lot to work with; his lines all seem to be taken directly from the master handbook of “Things Ball-Busting Heads of Secret Conspiracies Say.” But his delivery seems tone-deaf throughout, as if he’s playing everything a little camp while everyone else is trying to be straightforward.
My biggest problem with the show, again at least from the first two episodes, is that it doesn’t seem very smart. To be clear, I don’t mean real-world smart, but TV smart. Lost was, we all have to admit, a soap opera with pretty people in pretty scenery and lots and lots of crap science and implausible plot twists. And Alias was even goofier. But they both had a kind of swagger to them. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they were fully aware of how silly their core premise was, but they presented everything with the confidence of being in on the joke. They knew when to just drop something matter-of-factly, and when they were getting into weirder territory, and make it all sound like they knew exactly what they were doing.
Alcatraz takes an already somewhat dull premise and tries to milk intrigue out of it. How are these people coming back looking exactly the same as they did 50 years ago?! Well, time travel or some kind of stasis, obviously. And what does it have to do with this mysterious medical experiment?! It could be any one of a hundred different medical experiments we’ve seen on TV before, from cloning to alien-human hybrids to just run-of-the-mill tachyon injections. Showing a doctor taking a few vials of blood from a guy does nothing to pique my interest. Making an incision and it shoots out a jet of toxic gas which incapacitates an ambulance and gives everyone black ink running out of their eyes: that’s got my attention.
It’s disappointing, because I was kind of looking forward to getting wrapped up in and ultimately disappointed by another big-mystery series. But this one just strikes me as another show like the Sci Fi channel’s Haven: the main cast is competent but not charming enough to keep me coming back, the premise is inherently repetitive, and the events aren’t weird enough (in TV terms) to make for must-watch television.