Alcatraz finally starts getting better

The biggest problem Alcatraz has had, since the beginning, is one of setting. For a show about America's most notorious prison, the show has been spending a lot of time in a bland, nondescript city that is supposed to be San Francisco but could be Anytown U.S.A. Meanwhile, the show has teased us with flashback scenes set in the prison in 1960, which have been sometimes quite startling and bizarre.

The big question hanging over Alcatraz's head has been whether the present-day sequences would ever start living up to the flashbacks. And with the two episodes that aired Monday, the show made a huge step in the right direction.

Spoilers ahead...

In general, Monday's episodes gave us some cause for hope that the show is going to start getting past the limitations of its "inmate of the week" problem. In particular, they both shook up the formula in different ways, and there seemed to be a smidgen of hope that the present-day segments are going to start having a real sense of setting of their own.

So here are the causes for optimism from Monday's two back-to-back episodes:

  • The Setting. Sure, the second hour was still set in sunny "I can't believe it's not San Francisco," with all of its nondescript streets. (Although we got a random reference to the Bay Bridge being a parking lot, which seems accurate.) But at least the second hour gave us a couple places besides the inner sanctum at Alcatraz that felt like meaningful locations: there's Rebecca's apartment, and Ray's bar. (I don't know why this show isn't having more scenes set in Ray's bar, which seems to be where a lot of the key relationships on this show ought to be playing out. Plus, bars are always fun on television.)

    Alcatraz finally starts getting betterAnd meanwhile, the first hour actually gave us a spooky cat-and-mouse thing inside Alcatraz itself, in which the old prison started to seem as real and scary a place in the present as it does in all those flashbacks. To the extent that the show has used present-day Alcatraz as a setting at all, it's been as the friendly happy place where our heroes go to trade repartee and discuss their progress on the case of the week. But Alcatraz works a lot better when it's a hellhole, as we can see in the first hour of Monday's two-hour event thingy.

    Setting is really, really important on television — the most memorable TV shows are the ones which gave us a few places that felt like you could spend time there. Cheers being an obvious example — the bar is as much a character on the show as Sam or Diane. Thus far, Alcatraz has a great sense of setting in its flashbacks, but nearly none in its present-day scenes. Monday's episodes seemed like the first, tentative steps towards fixing that.

  • Alcatraz finally starts getting better

  • The Cases. We still basically had a couple of "inmate of the week" stories, but they were varied enough that they didn't feel quite as "rinse repeat" as your standard "1950s bank robber comes back and starts robbing banks" story. In the first hour, the Ames Brothers come back — but they're working with a former guard, and they have a goal that goes beyond resuming their old crime spree. It turns out their famous, almost-successful escape attempt of 1961 wasn't about getting away, but about getting at some gold hidden under the prison. And they're still at it. Meanwhile, in the second hour, a kidnapper from the 1950s strikes again — but his victims turn out to be the husband and daughter of his former underaged girlfriend/accomplice/victim, who stole his money.

    Neither of these cases felt quite as predictable as the ones from weeks past — and more importantly, they both tried to use the "time-traveling prison inmates" notion in a fresh, interesting way. They both had actual stories to tell. In previous episodes, the inmate's unfinished business has largely been separate from the renewed crime spree — the former inmate has a loved one who's still alive, or an old trauma that's still bothering him, and there's some psychobabble on the way to solving the case — but this time around, the unfinished business was the center of the story, which automatically makes it a bit more interesting.

  • The Characters. The most interesting character on Alcatraz continues to be Warden James — and hooray for the hint that he might, indeed, be back in the present day looking the same as he did back in 1960. Let's hope that's true, since the show already wasted one opportunity by killing off a geriatric Deputy Warden E.B. Tiller in the pilot. Monday gave us more of Warden James' grandiloquent speechifying, including his attempted church sermon as well as his wacky "some plans are scribbled in pencil, but yours was dipped into the inkwell of greatness" homily. And then, in the second hour, there are the weird hints that he and Tiller have had a falling out — they previously seemed like the best of friends in the "E.B.'s birthday dinner" episode, but now they're sniping over whether people can adapt to Alcatraz, or just find their place in the natural order.

    Alcatraz finally starts getting betterBut meanwhile, a few other characters are starting to get fleshed out a bit more. Rebecca Madsen continues to be kind of a weak protagonist, but she makes a bit of progress in Monday's episodes. Once again, she gets to be the total badass, realizing that Donovan, the "Park Ranger" she finds in the prison is actually a '63 who's in on the Ames Brothers' scam, and then beating the crap out of Pinky Ames during the whole prison melee. More importantly, though, we see in the second hour that she's been having nightmares about her granddad, Tommy Madsen, watching her sleep — and he actually is watching her sleep. When she finds out that Hauser is having her uncle Ray watched, to see if Tommy turns up, her reaction is to be completely okay with it. Her uncle's privacy is absolutely no big deal, compared to rounding up her evil grandpa.

    The other really interesting character, though, continues to be Ray Archer himself — who's also the show's most underused character, at this point. After Ray's big episode a month ago, it was kind of sad to see him vanish from the show for a few weeks. But now he's back, and both Past Ray and Present Ray are getting some interesting moments. Past Ray single-handedly foils the Ames Brothers' attempt to break into the Alcatraz dungeons and get the hidden gold — and it turns out to be part of a scheme to get in with Warden James, on behalf of Tommy. Present-day Ray, meanwhile, wants Rebecca to be off Hauser's taskforce, and thinks she's getting too obsessed with Tommy — and we still don't know why the brothers have had a falling out.

    Oh, and meanwhile, we find out that some of the inmates, like Tommy, have miraculous healing properties, and it's somehow connected to the bloodwork that was done on them. But Dr. Beauregard claims he has no clue what happened to the blood after he removed it — he just decanted it, and then what happened after was not his department. (Says Wernher Von Braun.)

  • Alcatraz finally starts getting better

  • The Themes. And finally, there was some interesting thematic ground being trodden in the flashback scenes in Monday's episodes. The first episode teased us with questions of "faith vs. spirituality," with Pinky Ames suggesting that faith is just another word for wanting a reward for good behavior. The chapel at Alcatraz is a key part of the Ames Brothers' plan to get at the hidden gold — that's where they steal the Warden's keys, and that's where Herman Ames stages his outburst, laughing at the Warden's sermon and getting both brothers tossed in the Hole, on purpose. The Warden really seems to want to believe that some of the men in Alcatraz are getting religion — but then we see him cradling his gold bars and practically making love to one of them.

    And then in the second half, there's a weird sort of Darwinism-vs-destiny debate between the suddenly antagonistic Warden James and Deputy Warden Tiller. Kidnapper Sonny Burnett tries to buy protection from this week's Alcatraz crime boss (how many crime bosses did Alcatraz have, anyway? It seems like there's an inexhaustible supply) and fails, because his 14-year-old girlfriend stole the money he hid. Instead, Sonny gets the crap kicked out of him, and the two wardens debate whether he can ever adapt and learn to fight back. This sets up a weird sort of Rocky-esque training arc for Sonny, where he does a million pushups while E.B. Tiller lectures him on being the tiger and showing no mercy — all so Tiller can prove a point to James. In the end, when Sonny blinds this week's crime boss — which is worse than killing him — Tiller tells James this proves that you can push a man too far. (And Sonny, incidentally, has found a clever twist on the "You'll never live to see another day" thing. "See," geddit?)

  • All in all, these two hours weren't going to revolutionize the medium of television or anything, but they were definitely a big step forward. You can see why the show was so keen to air them back-to-back — even after car-racing delayed last week's episode, they still chose these two episodes to air together — because they're a reasonably good showcase of what this show is capable of, when it stretches a bit.