Monday, 23 January 2012

Review: ALCATRAZ, 1.1 & 1.2 - "Pilot" & "Ernest Cobb"

Monday, 23 January 2012

"Ernest Cobb"
The latest sci-fi drama from the company behind Lost and Fringe is almost an amalgam of those shows, crossed with the defunct Prison Break and a tincture of Whitechapel. On 21 March 1963, San Francisco's notorious offshore prison Alcatraz was closed and all remaining prisoners transferred off the island, but this series claims that was just a cover-story. In actual fact, everyone vanished in mysterious circumstances one night, and 49 years later those missing convicts have started to reappear and continue their crimes. It's up to plucky SFPD homicide detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones, the pocket-sized Anna Torv) to recapture them on behalf of enigmatic FBI Agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), with the help of comic-book writer and The Rock historian Dr Diego "Doc" Sato (Jorge Garcia), while trying to explain how and why these prisoners have travelled through time.

Stylistically, Alcatraz is as sophisticated and glossy as you'd expect from the team behind the luscious Lost and accomplished Fringe. You can't underestimate the soothing effect of knowing you're in safe hands when it comes to the technical demands of putting a show like this together, and if nothing else Alcatraz doesn't disappoint on a purely aesthetic level (even when, subsequent to its pilot, no filming actually takes place on the real-life Alcatraz). But that familiarity breeds a certain level of problems, because there are chunks of this show that evoke either Fringe or Lost—and not just in terms of production, like the return of composer Michael Giacchino to handle the music, Lost stalwart Jack Bender directing, or Lost's "whooshing" flashbacks being replaced by the "clanking" screen wipe of prison bars. In many ways this is just freshman-era Fringe with mad prisoners replacing mad scientists, chased by another triptych of archetypal characters: the gutsy blonde, the intelligent nerd, and the mysterious older man. Sure there are differences, but there's a pervasive feeling that co-creator Elizabeth Sarnoff (a staff writer for Lost) has taken ingredients she liked from JJ Abrams' other hits and only tried to disguise that fact halfheartedly.

Even the narrative device of flashbacks recalls Lost, as each week's story jumps back to Alcatraz's heyday to provide back-story for the criminals, so we can better understand their motivations and plans. Still, fair's fair, because that's a good format to use for this show, and Alcatraz feels better suited to standalone episodes than Fringe ever did. I just wonder how long the show can take its fugitive-of-the-week procedural formula, with each con eventually being returned to a modern version of Alcatraz secretly built below the original, to continue their sentences. There is a serialized element (namely the central mystery of what happened to the "Sixty-Threes" to deposit them five decades into the future), but how long can Alcatraz string that out for? Unlike Fringe, it's harder to see how this show can be opened up in future seasons, and that's a big concern for anyone wondering if it's worth investing time and energy into Alcatraz. I'm not sure how many episodes I can watch of something that's fundamentally a standard cop show with vague sci-fi underpinning the unseen "prison break", unless that formula proves to be incredibly rewarding in some vital way.

The pilot is surprisingly poor, which I really wasn't expecting to be true. There isn't too much to explain to viewers, but the episodes makes the mistake of spending far too much time on our first criminal—murderer Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce)—rather than get us interested in the show's regulars. After the first hour, I had alost no real feelings or positive opinions of Madsen, Hauser and Soto, and could barely even remember their names. Things don't improve that much for the second episode, "Ernest Cobb", although that story was much more enjoyable because the eponymous con's back-story and modus operandi was simply more entertaining than Sylvane's. There was also a decent ending which intrigued me enough to be considered a success.

Essentially, Alcatraz's first few episodes laid out its premise and planted a few seeds that could grow into something interesting, plus it looks and sounds great as a piece of television, but the stories did a bad job of getting us interested in either of the three main actors, and I'm very wary of SF shows that intend to be mostly episodic. That was exactly the thinking behind Fringe when it first began, until the writers realised that the key audience were responding more to the mytharc than the freak-of-the-week cases. Can Alcatraz course correct in a similar way, given its more rigid concept? Maybe, but it won't be as easy. Will audiences stick with it through these self-contained stories, if only to catch the occasional clue about the bigger mystery? Is it even possible that the big mystery won't be fairly predictable, like a company using Alcatraz's inmates in secret government trials into time-travel? It's always very hard to outwit fans of this genre, especially in this day and age when fan theories spread like wildfire online... and, as we saw with Lost, sometimes eclipse what the creators had in store for us.

Overall, "Ernest Cobb" was entertaining enough to draw me back, even if I can't shake my doubts about this show's overall chances of success. It helps that it's a mid-season replacement, so there aren't too many episodes ordered and less chance for audiences to get bored, and there's obviously time for the writers to make us care about the investigators. But this is the second weakest pilot of a JJ Abrams-affiliated show, behind Undercovers, and I was expecting something far more compelling and exciting.

written by Steven Lilien, Bryan Wynbrandt & Elizabeth Sarnoff (1.1) & Alison Balian (1.2) / directed by Danny Cannon (1.1) & Jack Bender (1.2) / 16 January 2012 / Fox