Alcatraz – Pilot review

In 1963 Alcatraz prison closed. But the prisoners weren’t transferred away as everyone thinks, in fact they and all the guards just disappeared. Now it seems they’re coming back and they don’t seem to have aged or rehabilitated in the intervening half century. A special team of FBI, police and civilians is formed to track them down before they commit more crimes, and to find out who took them and what they’ve been sent back to do.

This is the latest in a string of series being heralded as “the new Lost” which basically seems to mean that the story is built around a core mystery that will encourage you to spend hours picking apart all the hints. Of course of the many things studios have hoped would be the new Lost, few have succeeded and the label is as much a curse as anything else these days. Alcatraz however has the bonus of pedigree behind it – JJ Abrams produced it, there’s overlapping writers and Jorge Garcia (Hurley, one of the best things in Lost) co-stars.

The concept behind Alcatraz looks pretty good for the Lost-model – it’s got the mystery to keep you returning each week but also a good set up for episodic story-lines to keep you entertained while it taunts you with micro-hints each week. There’s a mixture of present day cops running around and shooting and gradually revealing flashbacks to fill in the gaps. The combination of true history and made up mystery is sure to be sending some hefty traffic wikipedia’s way as well.

The problem I had with the show was that the pilot didn’t feel very well put together, in particular a lot of the dialogue felt as if someone had written all the placeholder exposition and then forgotten to address the note of “make this sound more realistic before filming it”. The characters had a similar problem, as if they’d just gone with a shorthand version and forgotten to sand off the cliché corners, for example the lead character was orphaned at a young age, raised by gruff cop, grows up into ambitious young detective, bit of a loner after the death of her partner which haunts her.

Somewhere under the cliché and poor dialogue there’s some good actors struggling to get out. Relative newcomer Sarah Jones somehow managed to take the cliché ridden character and clunky dialogue and still be interesting to watch. Jorge Garcia’s very presence brings something unusual to the show, a very non-Hollywood presence. Sam Neal may only ever really play one character, but at least he does it well. The supporting players didn’t really rise above though, the villain of the week was particularly bland.

I think what JJ Abrams has done is not re-created what he did with Lost, but instead what he did with Fringe, and I mean that in both a good and bad way. Alcatraz, like Fringe, has a good foundation to build on – elements like actors, character breakdowns, mystery and episodic set up that can come together to form a really solid and interesting series. Unfortunately, just like Fringe, I think it’s got off to a really poor start with a pilot singularly lacking in any spark that makes me want to come back. The fact that I will give it a few more episodes is solely down to the fact that I fell for that misdirection with Fringe and it took me years to realise what I was missing. I don’t want to fall into the same trap with Alcatraz.

Alcatraz will be shown on Watch in the UK from March

Other reviews – I always read the other reviews after writing my own, at which point I realised that Alcatraz actually aired the first two episodes back to back as a pilot, but I’d only watched the first. I couldn’t be bothered to re-write the review, so my stuff may not tally with the reviews below.

CliqueClack – It looked captivating, unique, mysterious and … interesting. Sadly, it is none of those things to me after seeing the 2-hour premiere.

TV Fanatic
Alcatraz hits on all the key elements that make a show great and, while not as serialized as many of J.J. Abrams other shows (Lost, Alias), it does contain plenty of factors that make the series more than just hunting down criminals each week. Fox has another winner on its hands and I’m looking forward to seeing where this show takes its characters and the fascinating mystery that surrounds them.

The Upfronts: Fox

Another year, another set of upfronts. Fox is a channel I approach with considerable nervousness, I’ve never forgiven them for cancelling some of my favourite shows (Wonderfalls and Firefly for example). But on the flipside, they’re also the channel that actually commissioned those series, and recently they’ve actually given shows like Dollhouse and Fringe more chances than maybe their ratings deserve.

What’s out
The Chicago Code – This never really got enough viewers for it to survive and another Shaun Ryan show bites the dust. I liked the pilot well enough, but am not sure if I’ll bother picking up the rest of the series now. I was more upset about the loss of his other show, the superb Terriers.
The Good Guys – Despite the dream pairing of Bradley Whitford and Colin Hanks, this wasn’t my kind of show, and the ratings would seem to indicate it wasn’t other people’s either.
Lie to Me – Now this one I am cross about. I feel this show never really got a fair shot with mucked about scheduling and minimal promotion. Tim Roth was superb in this, raising it up above other similar procedurals like The Mentalist. It could have been improved with more development of the supporting characters, but this is one of only very few cancellations that I have any kind of strong feelings about.
Also off are Human Target (not awful, but just a bit crappy), Breaking In (Christian Slater thing), Running Wilde and Traffic Light (comedies) and Lone Star which is probably the winner of this year’s “critics’ hero”to “ratings zero” award.

What’s back
There are no surprises that Bones and Glee are back, nor the animations that I have no real idea about but see people talking about a lot (American Dad, Bob’s Burgers, The Cleveland Show, Family Guy and The Simpsons). Also Raising Hope is back which I hear good things about.

Fringe’s renewal came a bit of a surprise to everyone, and I actually really appreciate Fox’s commitment to this show despite it’s not great ratings. I wouldn’t have thought there’ll be another chance next year, so I hope the writers take the opportunity to produce an amazing season that concludes the story.

House will also be back, but due to massive budget cuts it will be without Cuddy (news story) – which as far as I’m concerned may actually improve the show. It will almost certainly be the last season of the show and I’m not overly devastated about that, hopefully the writers will make the most of the opportunity to go out on a high.

What’s new
Terra Nova – The long anticipated and rather spectacular looking Stephen Spielberg action adventure thing. Looks like an extended Jurassic Park. I can’t wait.

Alcatraz – JJ Abrahms’ new mysteryish show. It’s starring Lost’s Jorge Garcia and Jurassic Park’s Sam Neill and the trailer efficiently hooked me in. Don’t get overly excited, it’s not on until mid-season.

The Finder – the Bones spinoff which was backdoor piloted got an official pickup. It’s got some potential, but also some really irritating tropes (bloody awful accents, know it all characters, intellectual tough guy) that will need toning down. Another midseason.

Plus a couple more animations (Napoleon Dynamite and Allen Gregory) and two utterly hideous looking comedies (The New Girl and I Hate My Teenage Daughter). And… The X Factor. Lucky Americans, no reason we should suffer alone I guess.

LinksThe TV Addict (thanks for the youtube links), TV Squad, and The Futon Critic