There’s a subgenre of modern television that blends the procedural tradition – weekly investigative stories with plots that wrap up in an hour – with the expansive narrative possibilities of a serialized drama. On paper, this mix seems like a can’t-miss formula for success: It’s Lost meets CSI! And the best practitioners of the “serialsodic” style can create great television that feels at once classical and modern: Think Justified, or Fringe, or The Good Wife, which can all serve up a tasty one-and-done episode plot while constantly building their overarching stories. The twist is that serialsodic shows rarely do well in the ratings. The Good Wife is one of the lowest-rated shows on CBS. Fringe’s ratings are approaching UPN levels. Justified does fine, but that’s a rarity – one of the best serialsodic shows in recent history was Terriers, which died a quick death and has now been forgotten by anyone who’s not in the Michael Raymond-James fan club. (ASIDE: Terriers is on Netflix, and I guarantee you have nothing more important to do this weekend. END OF ASIDE) Burn Notice in its prime had a great serialized/episodic balance, but the candy-colored USA shows that followed in its wake have mostly focused on the procedural elements. I guess you could consider The Mentalist a serialsodic show, to the extent that “Something Something Red John” counts as mythology.
The godfather of the serialsodic genre was The X-Files. That might sound surprising, since X-Files popularized the notion of a TV show’s mythology. But it established an addictive format, wavering back and forth between monster-of-the-week episodes and alien-centric mythology hours. The twist is that most modern serialsodic shows tend to mash those two types together, creating a sort of mythology-monster hybrid. That’s true of Fringe – where most cases have their roots in some combination of Walter’s experiments and the alternate universe. Alcatraz has also followed the hybrid model: The show’s high-concept set-up seemed like the perfect mix of long game and short game, of clue-tracking serialization and weekly pulp efficiency.
I enjoyed the procedural side of Alcatraz. As homicide detective Rebecca Madsen, star Sarah Jones had a nice everygal-heroine charisma – a charisma first spotted in her pregnant-badass guest-starring role on one of the best “procedural” episodes of Justified’s second season. But the show’s overarching story struck me as dangerously close to the dangerously undefined omniscient conspiracies that often derail sci-fi shows. Warden Edwin James glowered like a Bond villain, inmates reappeared each week performing tasks that should’ve seemed mysterious but actually seemed random, and the occasionally outré flourishes (Civil War gold! Silver in the blood!) just seemed silly.
Tonight’s season finale was an opportunity to answer core questions and prove that the show’s creators had a sense of where they were going. And, unfortunately (SPOILERS FROM HERE) the episode mostly avoided answering any of the big questions. My colleague Joseph Brannigan Lynch posted his full recap of the finale, but for now, we have to talk about the fact that the one big reveal of the episode: the opening of the Scary Door. It was a resounding anti-climax. The revelation that the 63s were appearing all across America wasn’t particularly revelatory. (If anything, it felt like the episode of FlashForward where the big time chart established that the world would end in 2016 – an aspirational road-map moment for a show that could barely sustain its central premise for a single episode.) The fact that Matt Craven’s mysterious scientist guy was lurking behind the door, ageless since the ’60s, wasn’t particularly exciting. Now, I love Matt Craven. I love that, between Raines, Boomtown, The Pacific, and Justified, he’s become Graham Yost’s onscreen alter ego*. But introducing another mysterious character with glasses doesn’t count as a revelation.
The biggest surprise of the night was the death of Detective Madsen, although the sci-fi elements of Alcatraz have been so vaguely established that it’s hard to believe she would stay dead in a theoretical second season. There’s the rub: Alcatraz hasn’t done well in the ratings, and it’s unclear if the show will return to Fox’s line-up. If it’s gone, then tonight’s finale is the last chance we’ll get to learn just what the heck Alcatraz was about. To me, the show feels like a missed opportunity: a catchy concept, a good cast, an impressive creative team, but no follow-through.
What did you think, fellow viewers?
*Matt Craven guest starred on two episodes of Yost’s forgotten, incredible TV series Boomtown. He played Michael Hirsch, a doctor who was also a lawyer, which I realize sounds like a TV show that will air on TNT in about two minutes, but something about the character – and Craven’s snappy, unfussy manner – was memorable. I’ve spent the last ten years comparing every throwaway guest-star character on a procedural show to Matt Craven. Coincidentally, I just learned Matt Craven’s name while writing this piece – for the last ten years, I’ve been referring to him mentally as That Dude Graham Yost Apparently Loves.
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