Alcatraz premiered with back-to-back episodes on Monday night as Fox did its best to lure a large audience, trained to tune into House, to check out its newest production from producer J.J. Abrams and costarring a very prominent Lost alumnus, Jorge Garcia. Combining cop drama with supernatural elements, it has, at its best, the elements of an old Steve Ditko-drawn Strange Suspense Story tale. At its weakest, Alcatraz is a mash-up: CSI: Fringe Prison Break.
The show proceeds from the premise that when Alcatraz was closed in 1963, its prisoners and personnel weren’t transferred – they disappeared, and some of them are popping up in the present. This provides work for a spunky cop, Rebecca (Sarah Jones), who, along with an Alcatraz historian (Garcia), become part of a “task force” overseen by a mysterious man presenting himself as a federal agent, Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill).
The character arrangement is a bit early-era Fringe: Female law enforcement agent (like Anna Torv, Sarah Jones is starting out the series seeming rather restrained), teaming with an eccentric (take your pick of the Bishop father and/or son) to solve a stand-alone case while delving into deeper, more mysterious mysteries. But like being in prison, Alacatraz feels somewhat hemmed-in – its pool of villains is drawn from the 1960s prison population, who have been plopped into our time period with barely a twitch of where-the-hell-am-I?, hitting the ground and running to do law-breaking work. In tracking down these felons, Neill’s harsh-tempered Hauser is the most intriguing: Why is he so perrennially peeved, and what is he up to, with his underground-lair headquarters, and his gleaming-white new prison for the 1960s refugees who are recaptured at the end of each hour?
The series lost its co-creator and showrunner Elizabeth Sarnoff, and among her producer replacements is Jennifer Johnson, who worked on Lost but whose name I recognized as the creator of the underrated Chase, last season’s Kelli Giddish cop show. Johnson has a way with tough female characters, a gift I hope she uses to nurture Jones’ Rebecca into a more vivid character.
Because this is a new serialized show from Abrams, as someone who tries as much as my feeble intelligence will allow to follow all the clues dropped by Fringe, I began to feel, as I watched Alcatraz, that there might be some significance to the frequent invocation of numbers. I began jotting down”cell 212” and “infraction number 28” and “Pier 31” – who knows when they may pay off or not? Is this a new way to watch TV, trying to play geek catch up?
Each hour of Alacatraz concluded with a woo-woo moment. SPOILER ALERT FOLLOWS!
Both Hauser and assistant Dr. Lucy Banerjee (ER’s Parminder Nagra) were revealed to have past lives as part of the 1960s life on Alcatraz, which is obviously crucial to both hooking the viewer to the series’s budding mythology, and to shoot up a kind of warning flare for those of us dubious about entering into yet another show that’s going to pursue the multiple lives of characters in multiple time lines. Personally, if I never saw the word “time line” used in the context of a TV show for at least another five years, I’d be pleased: Time to give this trope a rest for a little bit.
Or, maybe, not. I’d also never underestimate the imagination of J.J. Abrams and his collaborators to exceed my own when it comes to storytelling. In other words, I’m not bowled over by Alcatraz (do you think they had a bowling alley somewhere in the prison in the ’60s?), but I’m intrigued enough to keep watching for a while.
How about you?