TV Review: Alcatraz (POTENTIAL SPOILERS)

Sam Neill, Jorge Garcia, and Sarah Jones in Alcatraz TV Series

For a show that boasts J.J. Abrams as producer and the mythical powers of “Lost” on full force behind the cameras, the two-hour pilot that FOX premiered of “Alcatraz” earlier tonight sure is a mess. A generic and underwhelming — but mostly just underwhelming — mess. Doubly disappointing is that the show has gone through extensive re-tooling (including reshoots and rewrites of the scripts) since its Comic Con premiere last year, plus creative reshuffling that resulted in one of the show’s co-creators fired — ahem, I meant, let go due to “creative differences”. So why is it that the two hours of “Alcatraz” we got tonight was so dreadfully uninspired? What up with this, J.J. Abrams?

Alcatraz is the famous prison just off the shores of San Francisco that was shut down in the ’60s because it simply became too much of a money pit. That’s the official story, anyway. As it turns out, the island prison affectionately known as The Rock was shut down not because it became too expensive to maintain, but because, well, all the prisoners (along with the guards) just up and vanished one cold, dark, foggy night in 1963. And now they’re back — in present-day San Francisco! (Ominous music, please.) And since these were some rough and tumble hombres back in the day, they’re still pretty bad boys now, so yeah, catching these mysteriously time-traveling baddies is the order of the day. And hey, finding out just who/what is sending them forward in time (and how) would be kinda nice, too. I mean, time-traveling. Wow, right?

Sam Neill and Sarah Jones in Alcatraz TV Series

Enter tough San Francisco cop Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones). When we first spot her, Madsen loses her partner to a mysterious bad guy who leaves him (her partner) hanging off a roof. The partner, uh, doesn’t make it. Now a loner cop, Madsen catches a new case that involves a mysterious killer name Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce), who, it is eventually revealed, is one of those time-traveling Alcatraz convicts who is now in the present day (not having aged a day, to boot) going around killing people. Sylvane alternates between knocking off old grudges (like the douche bag prison warden who screwed up his life) to doing the bidding of some mysterious benefactor (the people who sent him through the time-jump, we presume, though we’re never told either way). Unfortunately Sylvane doesn’t seem to remember a thing, and although he’s not the first, he might be a pretty big cog, since according to IMDB.com, Pierce as Sylvane is due to re-appear in as many episodes as leading lady Sarah Jones.

In order to catch Sylvane, though, Madsen has to team up with a comic book/sci-fi geek with a couple of fancy degrees played by Jorge Garcia (of “Lost” fame). Besides being a swell guy, Garcia’s Diego Soto is also an expert on all things Alcatraz, having written a book on it. That, uh, seems to be the full extent of his raison d’etre. Soto teams up with Madsen, at first to investigate Sylvane, but eventually becomes her partner. Because, you know, an overweight smarty pants whose only real contribution to the whole “solving murderous cases involving people who have time-traveled from the 1960s for mysterious reasons” is that he, uh, wrote a book on them. A book that he carries around, mind you. Which begs the question: why don’t they just carry the book around and cut out the middle man? Don’t get me wrong, I think Garcia is pretty fun as Diego Soto, but making him Madsen’s running partner (you know, out in the field, where guys with guns are killing people pretty much every episode) because he’s an expert on Alcatraz was incredibly, well, asinine. Add to that the whole backstory about Madsen losing her partner and now not wanting a new one. So the first partner she decides she really wants is the one that she’ll probably have to keep from dying on every single case? Like I said — asinine.

Jorge Garcia and Parminder Nagra in Alcatraz TV Series

Of course, it’s not just Madsen and Soto on their own. They initially butt heads with a mysterious federal agent name Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), who definitely knows more than he’s telling. (Don’t they always?) Eventually, perhaps tired of Madsen butting into his business, Hauser brings Madsen and Soto onto his team. A team that apparently includes himself and … a woman name Lucy (Parminder Nagra). Throughout the two hour premiere, we see some faceless guards at Hauser’s incognito prison in the woods and some tech geeks who are never seen again. But yup, it’s apparently been just Hauser, who, according to the show’s timeline, is in his ’70s, and Lucy, all this time. You would think the Government would be more concern about a bunch of bad guys time-traveling to the present day to kill people, that they would put more resources on this than just a grouchy old dude and a lone woman who looks like she’s never left the office, but then you wouldn’t be the writers of “Alcatraz”.

So yes, in the first two hours of “Alcatraz”, it’s essentially ex-cop Madsen, old guy Hauser, office manager Lucy, and an overweight comic book geek. Honestly, folks, I kept thinking Hauser will eventually introduce Madsen and Soto to the rest of their high-tech, highly trained, and highly competent “time traveling fugitives catching” team, only there is no “rest of the team”. Which is kinda odd, but sorta explainable. I mean, the less people know about these crazy time-traveling killer convicts the better, right? Oh sure, in the second of the two-hour premiere, the team chases a sniper who is gunning people down all across San Francisco. But don’t worry — the ex-cop and her civilian partner who can’t stand the sight of blood are on the case! Yeah. (By the way, highly-trained cop Rebecca Madsen? Next time you pick up the bullet casing recently used by a sniper to kill three people, maybe you shouldn’t rub your hands all over it like it’s a new toy. Just a thought.)

Jeffrey Pierce in Alcatraz TV Series

Needless to say, color me disappointed in “Alcatraz”. The show has had plenty of time to get its shit together, and the fact that tonight’s two episodes is what they’ve come up with doesn’t exactly leave me with a lot of faith that things will get better in the coming weeks. The writing is shockingly average, with the sniper in the second hour seemingly used purely as a con-of-the-week filler episode with no obvious connections to the show’s overarching mythology (i.e. whoever, or whatever is behind the time-traveling shenanigans). On the plus side, while she isn’t exactly super convincing as a tough, no-nonsense cop, at least Sarah Jones doesn’t look like a fashionista with a gun strapped to her hip like some of her fellow prime-time TV “cops”. Compared to her fashionably dressed crime-solving peers, Jones looks more like a tomboy with a gun, which, you know, is at least more realistic. It’s too bad she’s not all that interesting, despite the show’s attempts to connect her to the Alcatraz cons. All of this, I hear, were tacked on post-Comic Con to give Madsen more pathos.

In fact, the pilot’s most interesting character is Jack Sylvane (guest star Jeffrey Pierce), mostly because it appears the writers can’t quite decide if Sylvane is the show’s future male lead, or if he’s just a rabid killer with a gun. On the one hand, we’re supposed to sympathize with Sylvane one moment, only to watch him gun down some strangers and two cops on the street the next. Which leaves Sylvane a very enigmatic part of the puzzle, and honestly, if I were to watch future episodes of the show again at all, it would probably be just to see how the writers ended up handling this character. I am ridiculously fascinated by what they intend to do with Sylvane, because based purely on the pilot, I have absolutely no idea.

So yeah, at least that’s one question the show’s hooked me on! As to that whole time-traveling cons stuff? Beh. Madsen and Soto could barely bring themselves to care enough to ask in the two-hour premiere, and I have to say that I feel the same way.

Alcatraz TV Poster