Alcatraz: Review: Series 1 Episodes 1 & 2

The promos for Alcatraz began running in the US months ago. They were short, dark and intriguing. They revealed few hints as to what the show would be about, but it looked like it might be a ghost story. Ghosts on Alcatraz! Hey, that’s a cool concept. And Sam Neill as a regular – great idea. He has the kind of persona that guarantees gleeful malevolence, a factor that would hopefully keep the interest and the energy level up.

But as the premiere date got closer, the promos got longer, and it seemed pretty clear this was not going to be a ghost story. Sam Neill’s character was saying stuff about prisoners from the island “coming back” – and they haven’t aged a day since 1963.

Suddenly I’ve got a bad feeling about this. People coming back who haven’t aged a day since they disappeared? Where have I seen that before?

2004. 4,400 people abruptly appear on a beach in the Pacific Northwest. They’ve been missing since…well, they all disappeared at different times over the past 60 years. But they’re all back now – and they haven’t aged a day since they disappeared.

Yeah. It’s The 4400. Which was a show I really liked.

Now I wasn’t looking forward to the pilot of Alcatraz nearly as much, but I decided to give it a chance. And here’s what the audience discovered after viewing the one-hour pilot and the first regular episode (which aired together as a two-hour event):

When Alcatraz closed in 1963, its inhabitants weren’t transferred, as the historical accounts would have it. They disappeared. The public doesn’t know this; apparently there was a big government cover-up. But now some of the prisoners reappear and start shooting people. Enter Rebecca, a spunky female cop with emotional baggage (her partner recently was killed by a mysterious somebody that she’s still trying to track down). In working a case that seems to have Alcatraz connections, Rebecca’s path crosses that of Sam Neill’s character, Hauser. He tells her to back off. She doesn’t, of course. Instead, she enlists the aid of an author, Doctor Diego “Doc” Soto, who’s researched Alcatraz. The author, played by Lost’s Jorge Garcia, is also a comic book store nerd who can be counted on to toss topical fannish references into the dialogue (this stereotype has become very popular on television). Together, Rebecca and Doc work themselves so deeply into Hauser’s mystery that he offers them the chance to work with him. And of course they say yes.

Similarities to The 4400:

* The missing were all taken somewhere – to what end, we know not. At least, not yet.

* They’ve been sent back to present day with a purpose. And it doesn’t seem like a good purpose.

* The government (or the quasi-government? Who does Hauser work for, anyway?) wants the returnees apprehended and locked away.

Differences from The 4400:

* The prisoners and personnel from Alcatraz don’t come back all at once. No, they’re coming back one at a time.

* The returnees don’t seem to have supernatural powers. At least, none that we’ve seen so far.

* Instead of a male government agent with a connection to one of the disappeared (The 4400’s Joel Gretsch character), there is a female cop with a connection to one of the disappeared. That would be spunky Rebecca, who has all the prerequisite cop skills you would expect, but who seems awfully young to have all those skills (the fact that her dad was a cop who let her pore over his case files does not really provide the requisite exposition that the writers were hoping it would).

I wonder if the show is going to play fair with the audience, slowly connecting clues and spinning out a complicated storyline that evolves into an engrossing whole (as with The 4400 or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) or if it will turn into Lost.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved the pilot for Lost. It was fresh story telling, well directed and precisely edited. The first few minutes were better than anything I’d seen on television in eons. I liked most of the first season, too. I was intrigued by the plotting, and truly curious about all the twists and turns. I thought, “These writers seem really sharp. They have the whole thing plotted out. They know where they’re going.”

And then there was the second season, when I realized that they didn’t. That they were just tossing mysterious ingredients into the pot and hoping that the end result – whenever it came – would satisfy the clientele.

I can’t make any predictions at this point, but I’ll bet you can guess what I’m thinking…

Paula M. Block


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