TV Review: J.J. Abrams’ Highly Anticipated ‘Alcatraz’ on FOX Needs Some Work

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CHICAGO – There’s “potential” all over FOX’s highly-anticipated “Alcatraz,” debuting tonight, January 16th, 2012 with two back-to-back episodes. A great cast, strong production pedigree, interesting concept — so why are both of the first two episodes so forgettable? Why is this show more “meh” than amazing? Television Rating: 3.0/5.0
Television Rating: 3.0/5.0

Compared to previous launches of J.J. Abrams’ programming, this is a miss. I can still vividly remember when I saw the first episode of “Lost.” It was amazing from scene one. “Alias” was up and down over the years but started off with incredible momentum. Even “Fringe,” a show that I’ve never fallen madly in love with and for which the first season was the rockiest, started with a bang. “Alcatraz” starts with a whimper. Sure, the concept is there and there is incredible room for growth but in today’s network TV market, when shows get canceled after just a few weeks of failure, it makes one wonder if “Alcatraz” will be given time to work out the kinks, of which there are many. The show is interesting instead of entertaining; promising instead of enjoyable. And with so much competition in today’s market (some of the best shows on TV return this week alone [“Justified,” “Southland,” “Being Human,” “Archer”]), the clock may be ticking for our time on “Alcatraz.”

Photo credit: FOX

By now, you’ve surely seen the over-saturated commercials and know the basic concept of “Alcatraz” — the titular island prison wasn’t actually closed in 1963. It turns out that all 302 guards and prisoners disappeared that day and it has been kept as one of the government’s greatest secrets (exactly how they pulled that off is as yet unclear along with a number of other practical questions about the disappearance) ever since. Fifty years later, they’re coming back, starting with Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce) in hour one. Sylvane is straight from the Andy Dufresne (“The Shawshank Redemption”) playbook. He looks like an All-American who probably didn’t deserve to be on Alcatraz in the first place. Why is he the first back? And why is he killing people? Has he been ordered to do so?

Photo credit: FOX

Stumbling into this odd story is the beautiful Detective Rebecca Madsen (newcomer Sarah Jones), who has just lost her partner when she discovers the fingerprints of Sylvane, an inmate reportedly dead three decades ago. Madsen has a connection to Alcatraz as both her grandfather and her uncle (Alcatrazert Forster) were guards there. She goes to Alcatraz expert Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) for help and the two becomes unlikely partners once the greater picture of time-traveling inmates becomes clear. Mysterious government agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) and his partner Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra) enter the picture as two of the few people who seem to know the truth about what happened and what is happening but, of course, they’re not really sharing.

In a somewhat clever move when viewed as a companion to “Lost,” much of “Alcatraz” consists of flashbacks to 1963 Alcatraz as the prisoner-of-the-week is given background and it is revealed that things were kinda spooky before everyone pulled a trick out of “The 4400.” Think about it — “Lost” was a show where everyone was on an island with flashbacks to the rest of the world; “Alcatraz” is the reverse in that it’s a show that takes place in the rest of the world with flashbacks to an island.

Sadly, after that twist and, of course, the inclusion of Jorge “Hurley” Garcia in the cast, the comparisons to “Lost” will end. The biggest problem with “Alcatraz” is how damn seriously it takes itself. “Lost” knew it was kind of silly with characters like Sawyer, Charlie, and Hurley there to punch holes in the ridiculousness of polar bears and smoke monsters. By its very nature, “Alcatraz” is super-silly but there’s nowhere near as much levity or wit in the two-hour premiere as this show is going to need to survive. It’s just not fun enough and people might forget that “Lost” was fun. It was, first and foremost, entertaining. “Alcatraz” has the same production values and a similar high concept but the entertainment value is nowhere close.

Photo credit: FOX

To be fair, the cast is interesting enough that if the writing improves, they’ll be able to deliver. Jones is beautiful but also believable in the action scenes. She’s not going to be in any Emmy conversations but she works here. Garcia seems, at least at first, to be a bit too much like Hurley opened a comic book store in San Francisco. I’d like to see some more range here. Neill is pulling straight from the Cigarette Smoking Man playbook always looking just a bit too secretive for the room. He clearly knows and hides the shows biggest secrets. Best of all, supporting players are strong including Nagra, the first two prisoners returned, and the wardens in the flashbacks (Jonny Coyne & Jason Butler Harner). In the first two hours, I was way more interested in the 1963 scenes, which I don’t mean as a slight to Jones & Garcia but the atmosphere is far more intriguing in the weeks before everyone disappeared into the ether than in the weeks in which people are trying to figure out why.

It’s clear that “Alcatraz” is going to follow a “Fringe”-esque formula in that there will be “prisoner of the week” stories with a new criminal returned from the past that needs to be caught, but there will also be overall plot points from week to week. Questions being answered and new ones being asked. Will people be entrenched enough in the mystery of the show after the premiere episodes to care? I have to say that I barely am. And I don’t mean that as a compliment. This is the kind of high-profile, high-concept show that should have viewers DYING to see what happens next. I’m minorly curious to see what happens next. And if they don’t hook me more next week, that curiosity will probably diminish even further. Pretty soon, a trip to “Alcatraz” might not be worth taking.

“Alcatraz” stars Sarah Jones, Jorge Garcia, Sam Neill, Parminder Nagra, Robert Forster, Jonny Coyne, Jason Butler Harner, and Jeffrey Pierce. It premieres on FOX with a two-hour episode on January 16th, 2011 at 7pm CST. content director Brian Tallerico

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jeannie 's picture

bring Alcatraz back

I watch this show every time it comes on and I even go on demand and watch the shows over again to see if I missed anything the first time around I think it’s a good show and I hope they bring it back

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