‘Alcatraz’ Pilot Recap: “You’ve Been Waiting for This”

I’d be lying if I said the name J.J. Abrams doesn’t interest me. Count me as one of the people who will forever think of ‘Lost’ whenever I hear a new Abrams project is in the works. He’s good at creating mysterious, mythology-laden shows that demand your attention and have ominous cliffhangers at the end of every episode. Still, Abrams’ new show ‘Alcatraz’ is missing something.

‘Alcatraz’ jumpstarted its mid-season premiere with a two-hour special that aired Monday night. When the Alcatraz prison closed down in the ’60s, all of the prisoners were transferred… except that they weren’t. Sam Neill narrates an ominous credit sequence informing us that the official history couldn’t be further from the truth. The real story seems to be something Roanoke related. Nearly 300 prisoners and a bunch of guards simply vanished one night. What happened to them? We don’t know… yet.

Fast forward to the present and we meet up with hard-nosed, good-looking cop Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones). She has a unique connection to the prisoners of Alcatraz that’s developed in the first pair of episodes. If you ask me, Detective Madsen is the biggest problem with this series. In an era of strong, deep female characters (like Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison on ‘Homeland’ or Mireille Enos as Detective Sarah Linden in ‘The Killing’), Rebecca Madsen feels shallow and motivationally anemic by comparison. She’s a cookie-cutter version of every woman cop with a tough exterior. Think Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) on ‘SVU’, only less interesting.

Madsen soon meets up with Alcatraz aficionado Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) after she comes across a very peculiar murder scene that has Alcatraz connections. The two form an unlikely team and are eventually contacted by Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill). Hauser runs a top-secret government investigational body whose sole job is to hunt down the time-traveling Alcatraz prisoners that keep popping up.

Wait…what? Yeah, that’s about the gist of the show. Somehow, the prisoners at Alcatraz when it closed were taken, and are now reappearing in modern times. It seems that they’ve been sent back by someone, or something, in order to commit horrendous acts of violence. The first two back-to-back episodes focus on the return of two prisoners: Jack Sylvane and Ernest Cobb. Cobb is a psychotic sniper who picks victims off at random, whereas Sylvane seems to be on a specific mission to kill.

Through flashbacks, we learn about the prisoners’ time in Alcatraz. This is the most interesting aspect of the show. We get to follow the plot of the series through the bad guys’ points of view. You may find yourself furiously jotting down or memorizing series of numbers like we had to do in ‘Lost’, looking for whatever connections you can piece together, hoping for more and more Easter eggs as time goes by.

The formula has been set. Each episode will apparently deal with a new returnee. Madsen and Soto will try to hunt them down before they’re able to do too much harm in the present day. We’ll learn about what happened through bits and pieces of flashback material provided during each episode. The sad thing is that the show feels borderline generic. It lacks the flair that ‘Lost’ began with. The mystery is the only thing the least bit interesting, because the characters we’re provided with aren’t. Hauser constantly glares at people and speaks in cryptic talk. Madsen grits her teeth and puts on a tough criminal-catching face. Soto, of course, runs a comic book shop and geeks out about the whole experience. And that’s about it. The show seems to lack a basic character element. These characters are simply cardboard stand-ins to run through a convoluted plot.

I can see people getting hooked on finding out the mystery to yet another Abrams’ island, but ‘Alcatraz’ lacks any of the strong characterization that made ‘Lost’ so watchable.

What did you think of ‘Alcatraz’? Is it a worthy time investment, or a TV show you’ll skip?


  1. I liked the pilot episode(s) well enough. The show is no Lost, but the premise is neat and it has good atmosphere.

    Complaints about the thinly-sketched characters are fair (honestly, what purpose does Jorge Garcia’s character serve at all?), but there’s room for growth and improvement here. A lot of good shows take a while to find their footing. I’ve already set it for a series recording.

    I liked Sam Neill’s secret prison. The idea that we may continue to see and interact with the criminals again is an interesting twist on the usual procedural formula.

    I doubt that Abrams had much to do with the production of the show. He likes to put his name on things, give some of his friends jobs, and then walk away. He had next to nothing to do with Lost or Fringe after their pilot episodes.

    • Aaron Peck

      I just kinda felt bored. I didn’t care about anyone on screen. Feels A LOT like USA’s ‘The 4400’. I don’t know. It just didn’t have that tug I’m looking for in a new show. Something to suck me in – which really should be the characters.

      It’s true that Abrams might not be the head of the operation, but it’s his idea and he’s the one heavily promoting it so whatever it churns out falls directly on his shoulders.

      I’ll give it a few more episodes, but I’m not really holding out hope for the characters to all of a sudden become interesting. Madsen is one of the blandest characters I’ve ever come across.

  2. Bryan

    I actually liked it quite a bit. The characters are still a little paint-by-the-numbers, but I think there’s a good opportunity to grow them into something more. And while it doesn’t have quite the “hook” that Lost did, at least they’re still making/airing shows like this. I doubt we’ll ever see another Lost (certainly on network TV) because the audience retention for such heavily serialized genre shows just isn’t there. This is kind of the best of both worlds, a serialized procedural ….

    …and I did really like the twist at the end! 🙂

  3. The pilot was WAY better than most other pilots we’ve seen this TV season (for network TV, at least). Judging solely on the first two episodes, I like ALCATRAZ a lot (far more than TERRA NOVA, that’s for sure).

    • Aaron Peck

      Yeah, it’s better than ‘Terra Nova’ anything is. Ha. I’m just not sure I want to invest my time into another deeply serialized show full of mythology if I 1) don’t know if I’m actually going to get a good explanation/payoff and 2) if I’m not invested in any of the characters. I don’t know. I’ll give it a few more episodes.

      • I’m basing it on a few things.

        1. It’s on Fox and it’s by the same guy that produced Fringe. Fox will lavish it with attention. Movie it next year if it gets a Second season. Then they will banish it to 8:00pm on Friday and kill it off, just like they have done with so many other good shows. These guys would have cancelled the X-Files if it started today and ask the Simspons cast to take a pay cut because they claim they can’t afford it then announce new animated series literally 2 months later. Fox should really remember when they weren’t even on the radar, because they act like that can’t happen again.

        2. Even though Fox is a partner in Hulu they have decided not to release it to the paying customers of Hulu + so basically in my cord cutting world the thing doesn’t even exist.

        3. I’ve grown weary of getting into a show only to have Fox kill it over and over again. Fox has done it again and again, hell Buffy wasn’t even on their channel and they had a hand in it ending because they decided they didn’t like such a popular show being on a competing channel. I hate these guys!!!

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