Crime never sleeps, but it does jump forwards in time. At least, that's the premise of Alcatraz, the latest J.J. Abrams head trip that debuted on Fox last night. Present-day San Francisco is in for an invasion of escaped convicts, bringing their brutal 1960s ways to our more civilized namby-pamby era. Because the Kennedy era did serial killers and vengeful wackos right.
Last night's premiere was like prison food: solid, but a bit lacking in flavor. Spoilers ahead...
There are really two ways to look at Alcatraz: as a mysterious bundle of WTF, or as a weekly study of crime and punishment, and the ways in which prison does the opposite of rehabilitating people.
If you choose to see Alcatraz as a show about mysteries, I'm afraid you might be a bit bored. The mysteries, at least thus far, are kind of dull. And many.
1) There's the over-arching mystery of why exactly all of the convicts and guards at Alcatraz disappeared in 1963, only to reappear in the present day without having aged. Who's bringing them here and supplying them with gear and information?
2) There's the mystery of Emmerson Hauser (Sam Neill), an Alcatraz guard who escaped the time-jump and is now rounding the convicts up — and who seems to know rather a lot more than he's saying.
3) And the mystery of Lucy (Parminder Nagra), Emerson's doctor colleague who apparently was around in the early 1960s, looking exactly the same.
4) Then there's the mysterious key-shaped item that our first escaped convict, Jack Sylvane, takes from a safe belonging to a dot-com millionaire.
5) There's the fact that Jack Sylvane was having tons of blood drawn for no reason, and then someone claiming to be Rebecca's grandfather (inmate #2002) tells Jack that there's something worse "below the hole," and that something terrible is coming to Alcatraz. And there's Hauser threatening to have "Dr. Beauregard" jog Jack's memory.
6) Plus, how does Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) have two PhDs and a string of well-regarded books on Alcatraz's history, but his main source of income is owning a comic-book store? (Actually, I believe that one.)
I have a feeling I'm forgetting some of the mysteries here, in the brief summary above. Feel free to suggest more in the comments.
But then there's the other aspect of the show, which is that we get sort of a window into the fact that Alcatraz was a brutal hellhole, where bad men were made worse. (Or in the case of Jack Sylvane, a reasonably decent veteran who'd made some mistakes.) Right now, at least as of the first two episodes, the flashback sequences are the most interesting parts of the show, by far, and the most sympathetic character in the first two hours is Jack Sylvane. By a long chalk. (And this theme is nicely underscored by the "closing cell door" sound effect and graphic whenever one of these flashbacks end.)
So Jack Sylvane is a World War II vet who made some mistakes and had a string of bad luck. He robbed a grocery store to feed his family, and because it sold stamps it was technically a post office, which made this a federal crime. He over-reacted to someone trying to molest him in the shower, and killed the guy - - which landed him at Alcatraz, where he was systematically fucked with by deputy warden E.B. Tiller, who put him in the hole and wouldn't let him see his wife on visiting day. (E.B. apparently stood for "Evil Bastard.") And then there's the aforementioned blood-drawing.
In the present day, Sylvane wants to find his brother, who married his wife after he was locked up. But first, he takes revenge on Tiller, who's now an ancient retired fed. And he does a job for the people who brought him to the present, fetching the afore-mentioned key thingy.
Sylvane's story is affecting, because he's not just a man torn out of his own time, he's also a member of the living dead. His life was supposed to be over when he went to Alcatraz, and he was basically supposed to disappear. His wife was supposed to mourn him, and everybody else was supposed to forget him. Jack wandering around, a free man, is weird for reasons beyond just the fact that he hasn't aged in 50 years.
And then in the second hour, we get to know Ernest Cobb — who, unlike Jack Sylvane, is a straight-up psycho. Cobb has a Twilight Zone-esque desire to be left alone. He went so far as to shoot a guard in the leg at his old prison, so he could get transferred to the Rock and get a private cell. But even with a private cell, he's not free of other prisoners' attempts to socialize, so he keeps having to go further and further to get some solitude at long last. And this time, it's the warden himself, Edwin James, who takes a perverse delight in screwing with Cobb.
The opening sequence of episode two, where Cobb is brought naked into the prison while the prisoners jeer at him and the guards attempt to play up his humiliation, is downright weird and unsettling. Cobb is led out to meet the warden, outside, still stark naked — as E.B. Tiller says, the night air does wonders for your Johnson. But enough about the Vice President. Whatever your biggest weakness is, or whatever makes you craziest, Alcatraz will find a way to push on it, making you crazier and more psychotic than when you went in.
It's really an interesting spin on the notion of prison as anti-rehabilitation — the age-old theme that prisons often turn one-time offenders into hardened criminals. Here, we sort of get our faces rubbed in the notion that Alcatraz's inhumanity is a big part of what makes these men so incredibly dangerous when they get out into our nice, civilized world.
Apart from the convicts, and the flashbacks to 1960s Alcatraz, the most interesting part of the show is probably Sam Neill's Emerson Hauser, who's a product of Alcatraz and its final guardian. Re-watching the two-hour pilot a second time (or a third time, in the case of the first hour), I'm struck anew by quite what a bastard Hauser is. And I have a feeling that one of the main pleasures of this show will be watching him headbutt people and shoot people in the hand and snarl at people and generally act like a vicious maniac. He's clearly enjoying this role a lot, and there will probably be a "Sam Neill bastard moment of the week" aspect to future episodes.
Meanwhile, Sarah Jones is not quite working for me as Detective Rebecca Madsen, the show's ostensible main character. She just seems too... perky. See the clip reel up top, where she watches her grandfather murder her partner, has a freak out as she tries to wash Julie's blood off her face and neck, and chats with her "Uncle" — a former Alcatraz guard who raised her after her parents died. Rebecca's character is apparently supposed to be dealing with a lot of dark shit. She's traumatized by her partner's death, her grandfather is A) not a guard but an inmate B) still alive and C) her partner's murderer, and she's up to her neck in blood. But she just doesn't seem convincingly bothered by any of this. Probably in future episodes, when the show tries less hard to establish her dark side, it'll work better.
And then there's Jorge Garcia — there's been a lot of talk about how he's not playing Hurley from Lost, this is a totally different character. Because, of course, this character would not obsess about the mechanics of time travel (as Hurley did) or drop lots of nerd references into ordinary conversation (as Hurley did) or say "whoa, dude" (as Hurley frequently did.) On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with this character being "Hurley with special Alcatraz knowledge," and Garcia sometimes makes great comic relief. Like when he declares that dim sum has too much weird shit. Or when he says he's getting a "Second Amendment Contact High" from being in a gun shop. On the other hand, the lectures about video games and comics? And the awkward "don't look, it's a girl" moments with his comic-store assistant? Could be dropped.
All in all, Alcatraz works way better if you just ignore the giant heaping of "OMG what's with the special key that was in the hidden safe" mysteries, and focus on the little parables of crime and punishment. So far, this show's at its best when it uses time travel to illuminate the lasting effects of hard time.