Alcatraz begins with a voiceover. “On March 21, 1963,” says federal agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), “Alcatraz officially closed due to rising costs and decrepit facilities. All of the prisoners were transferred off the island. Only that’s not what happened. Not at all.” And with that, two guards arrive on the evening of March 20, only to discover that everyone on the island has disappeared.
In fact, nobody ever escaped from Alcatraz, but in the show’s science fictional premise, on that day in 1963, all the inmates and guards just vanished. And now, as the series opens, they’re reappearing in the present day. Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) stumbles onto the big secret when an 80-year-old man, E.B. Tiller, is murdered in his apartment. Flashbacks reveal that Tiller was the cruel associate warden of Alcatraz back in the day. He was particularly mean to Jack Sylvane (Jackson Pierce), who heads right for him when he reappears in 2012. Sylvane hasn’t aged a day since 1963 and is clearly still nursing a grudge.
To help catch Sylvane, Madsen enlists the help of an Alcatraz expert, Doctor Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia), who has written exhaustively about the prison and its inmates and staff. Garcia is playing the same kind of lovable geek character as he did on Lost: Soto is a bit smarter than Hurley, but he’s also a comic book writer who owns his own comic shop. This allows room for plenty of nerdy references, welcome or not. I liked it when Madsen introduced herself to Soto by butting in on an argument about the old arcade game Galaga; I was less impressed when Soto’s reaction to going into a gun store was to spout, “Whoa. Call of Duty: Urban Warfare, in 3D! I think I got a Second Amendment contact high.” Soto’s the newbie for the purposes of Alcatraz: he’s the one who gets sick at the crime scenes and has to say stuff like, “This isn’t a comic book world, is it? People are going to die if we don’t catch these guys.”
When Madsen asks about Sylvane’s background, Soto says that he was a more or less good man who was wrongfully imprisoned in Alcatraz. It seems like Sylvane is ultimately going to end up on the side of Madsen, helping to run down the real bad guys from Alcatraz. At least, his soulful eyes and hangdog expression might lead us to this interpretation. But when Sylvane ends up wantonly murdering anyone who gets in his way, he looks more like he’s only the first of many criminals of the week.
In contrast to Soto’s academic knowledge of the Rock, Madsen has a personal history. Her grandfather was a guard at Alcatraz, as was her Uncle Ray (Robert Forster), who raised her after her parents died. She’s a young detective with a bright future, so it’s no surprise that the shadowy Hauser recruits her to help track down the reappearing criminals. It’s also no surprise—given the spooky sci-fi angle—that Hauser knows more than he’s willing to tell Madsen and Soto. By the end of the first two episodes, though, it’s clear that he doesn’t know exactly what’s going on with these convicts, only that they’re coming back. Neill instead underplays Hauser: he’s taciturn even as he shows little patience for his new recruits.
Like several TV shows with J.J. Abrams’ name attached, Alcatraz emphasizes its mystery and weirdness. Lost went all-out and Alias piled conspiracies on top of mythology on top of double agents. Fringe, following the multi-dimensional adventures of fringe scientists, is strange by definition. While the premiere episode focuses on the essential problem of the returning Alcatraz inmates, seeking revenge and causing mayhem, the show also has an overarching Lost-like mystery in the works as well: why are these people reappearing now and who is pulling their strings?
At the same time, this show seems to be pursuing a “general audience” with some traditional procedural elements: the mismatched partners, the various investments in the case, the conflicts of interests. Even as the sci-fi premise might attract a cultish, internet fan-base, Alcatraz seems intent on appealing to the millions of people who expect the good guys catch the bad guys at the end of each hour.
The thing is, mixing brainy sci-fi with a standard procedural hasn’t worked in years. The X-Files managed to do it in the ‘90s by almost always separating the “mythology” episodes from the “monster of the week” episodes. The television audience is even more splintered these days. I’m not convinced that Alcatraz works well enough as either sci-fi or procedural to succeed as either. Fringe has been a huge creative success for several seasons now, but its audience has gradually been whittled down to the core cult fans. Meanwhile, over on CBS, Abrams’ Person of Interest is popular with general audiences because it’s an entertaining procedural with very few overt sci-fi elements. It’s easy to follow without worrying about the minimal, if ongoing, backstory.
This isn’t to say that Alcatraz can’t succeed. The cast is capable, the writing solid. Jones is convincing as a smart detective, and her character actually does investigative work in the first two episodes to track down the criminals. The science fictional twist might prove compelling (where have the returnees been?) and Hauser’s unknown part in it and his plans for the future are already intriguing. The show can always do episodes involving, say, guards or other staff who disappeared as well, to break up the bad guy of the week format.
Doing all of that might take some time. (And Fox has, after all, given Fringe time.) But based on the first two episodes, Alcatraz is a middling show. It needs to improve quickly—Fox has already scheduled the higher-profile, Kiefer Sutherland-starring Touch for its time slot beginning in March.