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?