Alcatraz finale (spoilers)

Madsen vs. Madsen: (Source: Jerome Wetzel TV. Copyright 2012 by Fox.)

Alcatraz completed its first season on March 26, and while the finale didn’t make me an all-out supporter of the show, it did offer up a few elements that may bring me back for a second season should the show be renewed. There will be no attempt to avoid spoilers in this review, so you should only read if you have seen the finale or if you don’t care about spoilers.

  1. Factions – Based on how this season progressed, it would seem that Warden James has been planning . . . something. James has been subjecting certain prisoners to experiments with colloidal silver, a compound that ancient societies felt would aid healing. It seems the prisoner such as Tommy Madsen had a significant amount of silver infused into their blood. Warden James wanted Tommy Madsen to be the first. It seems James has had Madsen under observation for a very long time, prior even to his incarceration.
    But other prisoners, with Harlan Simmons the seeming ringleader, are standing against what Warden James is doing. This is an interesting idea, that the 63s are returning, and possibly at odds with one another.
  2. Nation-Wide Scope – With the reveal of tracking equipment set up by Warden James and the newly-introduced scientist Mr. K, we have been given the possibility that the show will widen its scope to tracking 63s across the United States. I think this is a great move that allows more storytelling potential.
  3. Rebecca Madsen is dead? – Oh, please, yes! I admit that I never warmed to the character. I felt she never progressed beyond stock-sexy-female-cop (and they never really pushed the “sexy” part that far either, merely hinted at it). She never had any chemistry with Doc Soto; she never developed a grudging-respect-but-still-strained relationship with Hauser. With the larger scope now in place, the task force no longer needs to be so closely tied to SFPD. I would like to see a new lead investigator (perhaps Ray Archer, who could have the strained relationship with Hauser while maintaining the personal connection to Tommy Madsen), someone who can actually do convincing police-work.

While these ideas capture my imagination, I still think the weakest part of the show is the present-day action. Alcatraz has two parts: character-driven science fiction (the flashbacks) and police procedural (present day). The writers seem to have a good grasp of the flashbacks, but the police procedural aspect suffers because no one seems to know how to write in the genre. Indeed, the only writer who has extensive (read: more than one) writing experience in police procedural is Jennifer Johnson, who wrote seven episodes of Cold Case (according to IMDB, at any rate). All the other staff writers have extensive sci-fi credentials. This could explain the success of the flashbacks. I think Alcatraz would benefit from an additional writer or two who are fans of character-driven science fiction, and who have solid police procedural credits. This could tie the flashbacks more closely to the present-day material, while giving us better investigations. The show has to work on both levels, it can’t just float by on one.

At this point, it seems Alcatraz is slated for cancellation. There has been no official announcement, but the viewing figures are less than half of what the show started with. The week-to-week decline in ratings was almost painful to see, despite not being a fan of the show. I’m not sure, at this point, if I’m pulling for the show or not, but I will give it a shot in the next season, should it get renewed.

Alcatraz: A Review

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image by Christian Mehlführer.

J.J. Abrams is a man who I have grown to appreciate despite initial dislike. Yes, I’m one of those people for whom buzz is something to view with suspicion and my initial reaction to Alias—without ever having watched the show, mind you—was cynicism. To this day I have only seen one season of the show, and while I now understand why it captured the viewers it did, I still find it less than enthralling.  My problem was with the lead, Jennifer Garner’s Sydney Bristow. I never connected with her, despite the character being well-written and performed. The bottom line was that I never cared about her personal struggles and felt the show was wasting time delving into her personal life. This was, however, the very thing which drew people to the show. It was unique and I could intellectually appreciate that.

Abrams finally won me over with Lost, which was—in its first season—an English major’s dream. It was a short-story cycle on television; it was a series of character pieces set in an over-arching narrative about survival and mystery. I was hooked faster than you could say “John Locke”. Despite my personal opinion about the show falling apart in the end, it was a brilliant piece of television and was compelling for six years. How many shows have done this?

Mr. Abrams and Fox have given us a mid-season replacement in the form of Alcatraz, and on the surface, this seems to be a slam dunk. Just like many Abrams-produced shows, there is a mystery at the core of this show. Here we have the revelation that all the prisoners of the infamous Alcatraz were not transferred when the prison was closed . . . they vanished. Now, in present day, they are returning. Young detective Rebecca Madsen (played by Sarah Jones) and Doctor Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) must track down the returning inmates and hopefully get answers as to what happened to these men and why they are returning. Their supervisor is Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), who seems to have more information than they do, but is just as eager for answers as his team. This show is a no-brainer. It must be amazing.

Yet, there is one major problem. I don’t connect with any of the lead characters. They seem to be nothing more than stock characters at the moment. They lack the depth that I grew accustomed to with Lost. The irony here is that the flashbacks of the inmates portray well-rounded, fully realized characters. The audience is exposed to them in all their unfortunate struggles and gruesome details, but our lead cast is bland and uninteresting. In the end, the villains are more sympathetic than the heroes, and this is a horrible mistake in a show such as this, for if we ever get to the inevitable prison-break (in present day), who will we root for?