Alcatraz: Season 1 Review

  • Created By: J.J. Abrams
  • Starring: Sarah Jones, Jorge Garcia, Sam Neill, Parminder Nagra, Johnny Coyne, Jason Butler Harner, Robert Forster
  • Fate: Cancelled
  • Think: Law & Order + History Channel + time travel + Lost-style flashbacks.
  • Tagline: 302 Vanished. 3 Must Find Them.

“On March 21, 1963, Alcatraz officially closed. All the prisoners were transferred off the island. Only that’s not what happened…not at all…”

- Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), Alcatraz Intro

     Alcatraz wasn’t given a tremendous amount of advertising before it aired in the Spring of 2012 as a mid-season replacement, but with Lost alum names like Jorge Garcia and J.J. Abrams and Heroes stars Robert Forster and Santiago Cabrera attached to the project, it was impossible for the show to escape my notice. Casting aside, I was also intrigued by the history-based premise: presumed-dead prisoners from the infamous Alcatraz prison return to the present day and continue committing crimes. I think time period television pieces are neat when done right, and the show promised many visits to the 1960s in the form of flashbacks, a technique that Abrams does very well.

  • What Happens (Minimal Spoilers)

     Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) insists she join up with mysterious FBI agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), where she learns that prisoners from Alcatraz prison are appearing in present day, not having aged a day since 1963. With the help of Lucy (Parminder Nagra), a colleague of Hauser’s, and Dr.Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia), an Alcatraz author and expert, they attempt to track down these reappearing prisoners and recapture them. The task is completely top secret, and the four of them (plus their mysterious staff) are presumably the only people in the world who know this is happening.
     When the prisoners find themselves in present-day America, they don’t lay low, but revert back to committing their favorite crimes from their pre-prison days, which leads to many innocent people becoming injured or dead. (It doesn’t really make sense, but it makes for a better TV show.) Luckily, the terrific trio has access to Doc’s historical data about each inmate, which they use to track each one down.
     Meanwhile, there is a definite lack of trust between Madsen and Hauser, as he refuses to tell Rebecca any more information regarding the Alcatraz mission than is necessary. But she and Soto begin to uncover some mysteries on their own, including information about Rebecca’s Alcatraz prison-guard grandfather, the reason her uncle demands she stop working with Hauser, the rationale behind involving Lucy in the “round-up” project and Hauser’s connection to Alcatraz.
     Each episode focuses on a single prisoner and alternates between the present-day tracking of the prisoner and the prisoner’s time in spent in Alcatraz prison in the 1950s and 60s. We learn more about each inmate’s personality, crime of choice and relationship with the other prisoners in the jail.
     And with each episode, we come a bit closer to learning the reason behind the impossible reappearances and who may be behind it. Unfortunately, while we come close, we learn neither of these answers in the first season, which has now officially become its only season.

  • Why Is It Being Cancelled?

    The series was cancelled due to low ratings. The first episode received high viewership, but ratings dropped with episode 3 and continued to drop ever since. The finale didn’t even get a “finale bump,” a phenomenon that occurs when those who stopped watching the show tune back in for the finale, increasing the ratings for the final episode.
  • Is There Hope?

I have seen nothing to suggest that the series is being picked up or even being looked at by another network. Doesn’t look like we’ll be finding out the mystery of Alcatraz anytime soon.

  • Should You Watch?

    The highlight of the show, at least for me, was learning the story of each prisoner. It is so easy to portray a criminal or murderer in a television show as a heartless, evil person who has become a villain for no apparent reason. In Alcatraz, the story behind each inmate is interesting and unique. Some prisoners are good people who made terrible mistakes, some have been scarred from childhood and some are downright clinically disturbed. One prisoner was even innocent and was framed (or was he?). Each is portrayed wonderfully by the guest-starring actors. I wasn’t expecting the inmates to be given such strong characters and stories. I was pleasantly surprised with this aspect of the show.
      The show’s episodic nature that features a new 63 in each episode is very successful, and Abram’s signature use of dual plot-lines (present-day and the flashbacks) is effective in presenting the stories of each inmate. Giving each criminal a different crime of choice (sharpshooting, poisoning, kidnapping, bank robbing) also gives our heroes a new challenge to confront each week. In the 1960s timeline, it is interesting to watch Warden James (Coyne) and Deputy Warden Tiller (Harner) interact in the prison, as their opposing views often lead to prisoners having to make a decision on who to trust. Music is composed by Michael Giacchino, so it goes without saying that it’s very well-done. Editing and timing are done well and the show’s portrayals of the Alcatraz prison island and its jail cells are very impressive.
     But Alcatraz isn’t without its faults. The present-day timeline isn’t as strongly written as the story in the 1960s. I like the concept that each inmate left behind a box with a few possessions, which our heroes use as clues to find out who the inmates were and where they might appear next. However, every crime committed in the city that they choose to investigate always happens to be caused by a “63” (slang for “an Alcatraz escapee who appears in the present day), which is a little too convenient at some times. The plot twists aren’t particularly genius and the explanation given for the ageless inmates is so predictable it’s almost disappointing. The show also fails horribly at igniting a romance between Doc Soto and the attractive medical examiner (Jeananne Goossen) and doesn’t really utilize Garcia for comic relief as much as I believe he was meant to be. (It certainly isn’t anyone else on the show.) I was also disappointed to see that Santiago Cabrera was cut from the series after making a single appearance in the pilot, despite appearing in promotional photos and promos.
    While the show is mostly well-casted, the detectives don’t really show different sides to their characters at all during the season. Rebecca is a stern-faced, young detective always asking questions; Hauser is always stubborn and mysterious, Garcia’s character is almost identical to his character “Hurley” from Lost, and Lucy isn’t interesting at all, due to her lack of emotion and irrelevance to the plot. With the exception of the unpredictable Warden James, each character is very predictable and remain somewhat uninteresting for the majority of the season. The actors playing the 63’s are the ones that really “steal” the show.
     So, if you’re looking for compelling mysteries and remarkable character growth, you may wish to look elsewhere. But, ultimately, I think Alcatraz is worth your time, if only to watch the inmates’ flashback stories and the impressive performances by the guest actors portraying each 63.

(from left to right) Deputy Warden Tiller (Harner), Warden James (Coyne), Doc Soto (Garcia), Det.Madsen (Jones), Emerson Hauser (Neill), Jimmy (Cabrera), Lucy (Nagra), and Ray Archer (Forster).

  • Best Episode

1x11: “Webb Porter”
     This delightfully terrifying episode centers on an inmate (portrayed by Rami Malek) who has an odd obsession with women’s hair. Meanwhile, in Alcatraz, his doctor helps him find a cure for the constant ringing in his ears - music therapy. The episode will have you hating the man for his murdering spree, yet rooting for his humanity to prevail over his insanity. Writers Steven Lilien & Bryan Wynbrandt have created a truly fascinating character. The episode is directed by Jack Bender, who was a director on Lost and directed the series finale.

  • Worst Episode [Minor Spoilers]

1x13: “Tommy Madsen”
     Oddly enough, the worst episode of Season 1 was its final episode. We are finally given a proper introduction to Rebecca’s grandfather. However, as he appears in many previous episodes (including the first), the “reveal” of his existence in the present isn’t really exciting to see anymore. The return of Lucy to consciousness isn’t really a relief, as her absence from the present-day plot easily improved the episode quality. Finally, the cliffhangers we are left with aren’t really game-changing, as a season finale’s cliffhangers should be. The whole episode makes you begin to see why FOX didn’t pick up the show. I believe that if Alcatraz had a really powerful finale, as it could have, FOX may have given it a second chance.

Jones, Garcia and Neill.