Case Study 11: Alcatraz, Episode 2–“Ernest Cobb”

Original Airdate: January 16, 2012 on FOX

It would seem that director/writer/producer J.J. Abrams has become pop culture royalty, but I’ve never been particularly impressed with his work. Under review tonight is an offering from his production company. It should be noted that Abrams is not the “creator” of this show–that would be Elizabeth Sarnoff, a veteran of his writers room on Lost–but you wouldn’t know it from reading the press, where it’s often described as “J.J. Abrams’ Alcatraz,” which I suppose is understandable considering that’s what the show’s promotional art says. The thing is, if you look at Abrams’ track record in terms of what he’s produced, his win-loss ratio is terrible: 5 hits (Lost, Alias, Felicity, Fringe, Person Of Interest) to 7 losses (What About Brian, Six Degrees, Undercovers, Alcatraz, Revolution, Almost Human, Believe.) You could argue this is because Abrams isn’t directly involved with the creative process anymore–Felicity, Alias, Lost, Fringe and Undercovers were the only shows on that list where he’s actually billed as “creator.” You see, now J.J. doesn’t have time for TV–he’s off ruining beloved media franchises on the big screen. Alcatraz may be from Abrams’ farm team, but it’s clearly part of the Bad Robot brand. Its failures and successes are driven by the hallmarks of previous Abrams projects, as you’ll see below. I should note that I am far from an Abrams expert–I’ve seen substantial chunks of Lost and Fringe but not the full run of either series, as well as both Star Trek movies and Cloverfield. Most of the comparisons here are based on Lost, since that is a) Abrams’ most famous project b) the one I have seen the most recently and c) Sarnoff’s entry point into the Abrams quicksand. And that brings me to thing that’s most fucked up about the Abrams/Sarnoff elision: If Alcatraz had been a hit, Abrams would get the lion’s share of the glory and Sarnoff would maybe get another gig. As it stands, he’s gotten a chance to shit out 3 more failed TV shows and has received a raft of plum directorial jobs in Hollywood, and she appears to have vanished into a swirling abyss for the last 3 years. (This logic may not map neatly onto Person, but Jonathan Nolan started on second base thanks to his brother. Also, he’s a dude–can’t help but wonder if that’s a factor in the abrupt ending to Sarnoff’s career.) Moving on to the actual show and away from the insider baseball…

Strengths

  • Intriguing (in a cheap sort of way.) As often happens with Abrams properties, the show has an instantly compelling premise with plenty of potential. According to the show, when Alcatraz Federal Prison was closed in 1963, the prisoners weren’t transferred elsewhere as society has been led to believe. Instead, they mysteriously disappeared and have inexplicably been reappearing in the present day without having aged since 1963, which makes this the third show I’ve reviewed in a row to deal with timey-wimey shenanigans. Predictably, given its provenance, the show raises all sorts of questions and sets up all kinds of mysteries which it has no intention whatsoever of resolving any time soon–and, of course, it got cancelled, so percentages on any kind of satisfaction are even further diminished. Let’s briefly review the meat of the story. I’ll note that for the purposes of this review I also watched the pilot, which I felt was probably going to do a better job of introducing me to the characters and the premise than internet research and since I’m reviewing the second episode, it’s far from onerous in terms of catch-up. Our hero is the blandly intrepid Det. Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones.) She’s recovering from the violent death of her partner at the hands of a ruthless perp when she’s assigned to investigate the death of one E.B. Tiller, who turns out to be the former deputy warden at everyone’s favorite iconic island prison. This sends her down a rabbit hole leading to a secret, high-tech Alcatraz mystery lab, helmed by shadowy FBI agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park.) By the end of the pilot, we have two huge Abrams-brand caps lock twists: Madsen had previously believed her grandfather to be a prison guard at Alcatraz, but he’s actually THE GUY WHO KILLED HER PARTNER, and when Hauser catches the bad guys, he’s not taking them to a normal prison, he’s taking them to a SECRET ALCATRAZ REPLICA HE HAS BUILT IN A WOODLAND GLADE.  Mysteries arise–not just the fundamentals like what happened to the prisoners and why they’re reappearing, but also things like what’s the backstory around Madsen’s grandfather? What’s Hauser’s true agenda and long-term plan? Madsen’s uncle and father figure Ray Archer (Robert Forster, Jackie Brown) is a former Alcatraz guard and is cagy and full of undoubtably juicy secrets–what are they? The malevolent prisoner du jour in the pilot is one Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce, The Tomorrow People) and some of the present-day crimes he commits seem to be incited by some higher power unknown to him–what’s going on there? This tactic is effective–despite the fact that the pilot was distinctly unimpressive, I wanted to see more, because a unique mystery is inherently fascinating to many viewers, including me. But it’s also cheap. If I wanted to come back for a second episode, it wasn’t because of any strong craftsmanship displayed in the pilot–if anything, it was in spite of the shoddy craftsmanship there. Alcatraz didn’t earn its intrigue. But it is intriguing nonetheless.
  • Jorge Garcia. Garcia was one of the highlights of the large and varied cast of Lost, and he’s also been brought up through the Abrams farm system for a star turn in Alcatraz. He plays Dr. Diego Soto, an expert in criminal justice and Civil War history (?) with four published books on the prison. Soto becomes Madsen’s de facto civilian partner. Garcia’s readings bring life and charisma to otherwise leaden dialogue and he gracefully delivers a character arc in the second episode centering on his squeamishness around the actual nuts and bolts of crime solving, what with the victims of violent crimes and their grieving families. He aptly demonstrates that he’s more than just Hurley. I’d be interested to see how he’s faring in his new role on Hawaii Five-O. Not interested enough to watch that show, though. Until I’m forced to, that is.
  • Multifaceted. I had to wrack my brains over this one. This is a problem I suspect I’ll encounter frequently–a situation where a show’s qualities are a double-edged sword, serving as a strength in some ways and a weakness in others. We’ll get to the deficits below. I think a big explanation for why Abrams’ work is so popular is that it can be many things to many people. It defies genre. On the surface, Alcatraz seems like a sci-fi show. It is, but the plot of any given episode is driven by deduction and detection, like any good mystery or police procedural. But these aren’t cerebral mysteries of the kind you might find on PBS–Each episode is also sure to come laden with well-trodden action tropes. The pilot has a scene where Madsen and Soto are sneaking around in secret off-limits rooms in Alcatraz, only to be the victims of a mysterious knockout gas from an unseen source dramatically rolling down the stairs. The second episode culminates in a tense standoff with a maniac wielding a sniper rifle. Theoretically, it can please some of the people all the time.

Weaknesses

  • Evidence that being multifaceted can backfire. In practice, however, Alcatraz fails to live up to the other half of that credo–that is, pleasing all of the people some of the time. Its attempt to serve multiple masters leads to an inability to properly and consistently deliver any of the thrills it sets out to provide. If you want a mystery, you’ll probably itch at the wild contrivances built in through brazenly unrealistic technology–although Bones is dustily clattering into its 11th season, so maybe I’m out of touch with what the average mystery fan wants. At one point Madsen urges Soto to take a photo of the contemporary San Francisco skyline and edit out all the buildings that didn’t exist in 1963–a feat he accomplishes with a few keystrokes. I suppose these sorts of shenanigans are de rigeur in a post-CSI landscape, but for someone who wants to see a mystery solved through research and deduction, it feels extraordinarily cheap and might as well involve wizards and cauldrons. If you want an action adventure with car chases and shootouts and whatnot, you’ll have to sit still long enough to watch Madsen poke around on Google and endure long stretches of increasingly risible Alcatraz-related exposition. If you want sci-fi thrills, you’re in the same boat as you’d be watching Lost–you’re confronted with unexplained phenomena suggestive of science fiction without being given any kind of grounding in internal logic or even basic principles until you put more coins into the bottomless Bad Robot bubblegum machine. Alcatraz will likely scratch enough of your respective genre fiction itches to keep you watching, but it’s just as likely to leave you feeling empty and as if you’ve wasted 45 minutes.
  • Sarah Jones & Sam Neill. Look, Neill is fine in Jurassic, but he’d really have to stink to ruin such a great movie. Alcatraz is no Jurassic. I wonder what the craft services situation on Alcatraz was, because Neill is determined to eat scenery. I’m sure the treatment read like high comedy, but Neill’s over-the-top shady, dramatic asshole routine doesn’t fit the relatively straight-faced approach Alcatraz takes to its ludicrous subject matter. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jones is a cold fish. Madsen is not very interesting as a character, but with a steady hand on the wheel Jones could have made her come to life. She’s the protagonist and she’s a feisty, fierce, no-bullshit woman in a man’s world. Since she’s underdeveloped, the performance is the tipping point that pushes it one way or another. Jones pushes it decidedly into “another” territory with her wooden delivery and inability to convey basic emotions.

Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. There’s enough going on here to keep you coming back, if you can live with the inevitable disappointment of a cancellation after 13 episodes that surely leaves many threads dangling. I’m especially inclined to look kindly on “Cobb,” since it is a marked improvement over the pilot, particularly when it comes to the script. I’d only give the pilot a 4/10.

NEXT TIME: I take on the juggernaut of today’s police procedural landscape: NCIS!

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Case Study 11: Alcatraz, Episode 2–“Ernest Cobb”