For a network with such a proven track record of abusing genre television and it’s loud and dedicated fanbase, Fox is certainly making a decent fist of making amends recently. Having gone to bat for the much loved, but not so much-watched Fringe to get a full fifth season with which to wrap its story up, and suggested that they’re prepared to give sci-fi frontier saga Terra Nova another shot despite high production costs and less than stellar ratings, they’re now looking to get in bed with J. J. Abrams once more, and Lost writer Elizabeth Sarnoff, who mines much of her mentor’s back catalogue with Alcatraz.
Much in the way of Fringe, Alcatraz purports to be a modern day procedural, with science-fiction overtones. Like Lost, the series once again centers on an island awash with lore and mystery, with a narrative structure that jumps back and forth between the now and the then in order to illuminate character. Bit-part actress Sarah Jones gets her shot as leading lady in the role of Rebecca Madsen, a San Francisco police detective haunted by the death of her partner for which she blames herself. But what’s a detective without a mystery to solve, right? Well this one is a doozy. In 1963, all 302 inmates and staff on Alcatraz inexplicably vanished, until now, when they are suddenly returning from who knows where with a seemingly hidden, yet sinister motive.
Any drama tying itself to such an iconic and storied institution as the notorious prison-turned-tourist attraction is going to pique an in-built curiosity. Yet so far the elected method of execution looks set to limit the possibilities rather than explore them to the fullest, most satisfying extent. Despite being presented as a feature length experience, the ninety-minute pilot split itself into two distinctly separate episodes, suggesting an escapee-of-the-week formula. Surely a drama built around a prison must take a much longer view of its inmates than to have their stories wrapped up and locked away within the comfortable confines of forty-five minutes each week?
We can only hope so, because the characters they have saddled us with on the law enforcement side are so far anything but compelling. In addition to looking like she got lost on the way to the CW, Jones doesn’t exactly command the screen with her feisty but bland girl cop persona. Jorge Garcia is essentially ‘Hurley’ with a PhD, in the role of Dr. Diego Soto, a criminal justice expert who specializes in the history of ‘The Rock,’ who so far serves the role of both comic relief and Basil Exposition. We would bemoan the lack of contrasting energy within the chemistry, but that would imply that Jones and Garcia have some to begin with. This show needs a Walter Bishop, badly.
More involving, if only slightly, are Sam Neill’s agency man – who seemingly has set up CTU San Fran in the bowels of the prison – and Parminder Nagra’s psychologist, who is the subject of the pilot’s big reveal, which we won’t spoil here. Neill is an icy, sinister presence, who clearly knows a great deal more than he is letting on, and for whom this is assignment is obviously very personal. What is perhaps most interesting is the underlying social commentary on the nature of incarceration. The escaped inmates are branded “the worst of the worst,” and yet all that we have so far encountered have suffered extreme torment and abuse at the hands of their captors, every one a sadist with a host of nasty personality disorders. Whether something a little less black and white, or, at the very least, deeper, emerges over the long haul remains to be seen.