J.J. Abrams' new series Alcatraz, debuting tonight, feels very much like an attempt to recapture the glories of Lost. It features yet another mystery on an island, and the return of Jorge Garcia. The show was created by a Lost writer — who was replaced during production. And there are lots of random little mysteries in tonight's first two hours. But it all falls a little flat.
It all leaves you wondering — is the Abrams era of television coming to an end?
Abrams used to be an unstoppable television hitmaker.Alias was a mega-hit for most of its run. Lost was water-cooler material right until its final episode, and Fringe's first season was a huge hit as well. But in recent years, Abrams' television work has felt a lot less bulletproof. He's scored huge success as a director, with Super 8 being an impressive hit on the heels of Star Trek. But he's failed to score another Lost on television.
Fringe has struggled since the start of its second season. Abrams' goofy spy show Undercovers vanished without a trace. Person of Interest has been described as a "bubble" show — although with its ratings going way up recently, that may no longer be true. And now, Alcatraz feels like the worst stereotypes of an Abrams show in some ways: geek humor, bland mysteries, a contrived set-up, and quirky but unengaging characters.
More to the point: every show that tried to copy Lost's "mystery-driven soap adventure" format has failed, including FlashForward, The Event, and several others before that. There's more wreckage from failed Lost imitators than a hundred crashed airplanes. And the more Fringe has focused on endless mysteries (Who are the First People?) the more viewers have tuned out of an otherwise excellent character-focused show. One reason Person of Interest has been so fun is that the actual premise is straightforward, and the show has been delving into it with a fair degree of integrity.
You know it's looking bad for J.J. Abrams when television luminary Maureen Ryan writes, "Every year, J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg put their names on a TV project or two. Is it time to start actively avoiding those shows?" And then goes on to enunciate more or less the same set of complaints about Alcatraz that I was about to lay out.
What's Alcatraz about? No major spoilers here, but basically, in 1963 all the inmates and guards vanished from Alcatraz, and it was covered up. Now, 50 years later, they're reappearing one by one. And all the inmates are committing crimes and settling old scores — and because they're presumed long dead, they're not in the system. They're untracable psychopaths from the past! It's up to a team headed by a cop (Sarah Jones), an Alcatraz expert with two PhDs who runs a comic book store (Jorge Garcia), and an untrustworthy dick (Sam Neill) to track these bad guys down. One at a time. Each episode will be another 1960s escaped convict roaming around 2011 San Francisco, while the show's underlying mysteries continue to pile up.
Without going into too much detail, those mysteries include: Who's sending these creeps forward in time? What's the agenda of this mysterious time-manipulator? What's with a mysterious object that's inside a safe? What's the deal with the cop's grandfather, who's one of the escaped convicts? Why is Sam Neill such a dick? What is he doing with the time-lost convicts he's rounded up and put in a new secret prison? What's up with Parminder Nagra's doctor character? And there are a few others that crop up.
So, first the good news and then the bad news. The good news is, the pilot had a lot of reshoots since everybody saw it last summer — and since the original creator, Elizabeth Sarnoff, departed the show. The reshot version of the pilot is a bit more fun than the original version, and the main character, Rebecca Madsden, is a bit more interesting this time around. The mysteries have been beefed up a bit. The whole thing felt less leaden than it did the first time around. (The original pilot was shown at Comic-Con and also released to critics last summer.) It definitely has potential, and I was genuinely curious about Parminder Nagra's character.
The other good news? Watching the show again, I'm really struck by how much it delves into the brutality and horror of life in America's worst prison — and the 1960s flashback sequences seem like they're going to be the heart of the show.
The bad news is, it's not enough. There's still precious little chemistry among the main cast. The idea that every week, we're going to be following yet another escaped Alcatraz convict, just feels kind of... wearying. Somehow, unlike Person of Interest, where there's a "POI of the week," this just doesn't seem like it'll be as much fun — maybe because the characters are less fun, or maybe because the "convict of the week" is always going to be a 1960s psychopath. Also, Jorge Garcia's "nerdy PhD who runs a comic book store and plays early 1980s video games" character feels like somebody threw a bunch of darts at a "nerd stereotype" board after taking too many muscle relaxants. I can't really buy into Sarah Jones as a tough cop — she just doesn't pull that off somehow.
And the mysteries? They feel a bit perfunctory, to be honest — the mysterious item inside the mysterious safe feels like another one of Abrams' "rabbit's foot" things. The time travel is a genuinely intriguing mystery, but it seems unlikely we'll get much insight into it any time soon. I think, if memory serves, a fair bit of the reshoots on the pilot involved layering in more mysteries and making the show less simple — but the end result is to add clutter.
But the larger point is — has J.J. Abrams' reign on television ended? Should it end? Or is it more the case that TV shows focused around a big mystery (with lots of little mysteries glommed on) should be a thing of the past? We'd love to see Abrams create something new — a show driven by characters rather than endless questions, like Fringe at its best. So far, Alcatraz isn't that show. But maybe it'll grow on us.
Alcatraz debuts tonight on Fox at 8 PM.