On The Bubble: Alcatraz

Posted on February 1, 2012

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A spooky show about the most famous prison in America, that stars Sam Jurassic Park Neill, Sarah Jones from Sons of Anarchy, and Jorge Garcia from Lost? Okay, you twisted my arm. Sign me up.

We Watched It

SFPD Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and her partner chase a criminal. The crook gets away. Her partner falls to his death during the chase. Later, she gets evicted from a murder scene by FBI Agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill). To spite him, she steals a piece of evidence from the scene and analyzes it. She finds the fingerprint of an Alcatraz inmate.

She consults with a local historian who’s an expert on Alcatraz, Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia). He tells her that the inmate was transferred when Alcatraz closed, and died in prison decades ago. However, the last time he toured Alcatraz while researching his book, he found a locked room full of files. Maybe there’s more information there.

They go to the island, find the room, and get gassed into unconsciousness. When they wake up, they’re in the clutches of Agent Emerson Hauser, who explains (eventually) that when Alcatraz closed, it was because all the inmates and guards mysteriously vanished one night. No one was transferred off the Rock. The guy that he and Det. Madsen are looking for is one of the guys who vanished.

There’s lots of flashbacks, and at the end of the episode, we find out that Hauser’s career in law enforcement started as a guard on Alcatraz. he was part of the shift relief that discovered the disappearances.

On the Bubble

It’s tough to sit in judgment on a show after only three episodes, but let me give it a shot. I’ll start with the characters.

Emerson Hauser is a dick. There might be reasons for his dick behavior, but the very format of the show keeps the writers and director from revealing those to us. So he’s just a dick. Worse, Sam Neill portrays him with two postures and two facial expressions. He stands up straight when dealing with people “in the know.” Everyone else gets a kind of cocked lean, like a stork. His expressions are the Grimace, most common, and the Sneer, which he unleashes when he enjoys ripping some hapless character a new one. Somebody (I’m looking at you, director Jack Bender) needs to kick his ass and expand Mr. Neill’s acting vocabulary (note that I had similar complaints about Tim Roth’s performances in Lie to Me, and he got better).

Rebecca Madsen is a cipher. Her partner dies, and she has no emotional response except to refuse to work with another partner. Sarah Jones is certainly easy to work with, and she’s a good enough actor to be more than just a porcelain doll. Every now and then, she manages to get across some rebellious spark at Hauser’s treatment. Madsen’s relationship with Dr. Soto is warm and friendly, without being romantic.

I want to like her, but the writing keeps tripping me up. I mean, in Episode 1, she finds out that her family has lied to her for her whole life. Her grandfather wasn’t a guard on Alcatraz, he was an inmate – and he was the criminal she was chasing when her partner was killed. Yet, she hasn’t questioned her “uncle” Ray Archer (Robert Forster, who is awesome, as always) about it nor has she questioned whether or not Uncle Ray was really a guard. I mean, there should be an angry, recriminatory, scene in that set-up, and we haven’t seen it. Also, if I were her, I would pull out all the stops to find Grandpa, including staking out Uncle Ray’s home and bar.

Of all the characters, I like Dr. Soto the most. I think I’m supposed to. That said, his character still has irritating qualities. These come from the writers, and not from Jorge Garcia, who is a treat to watch. Soto has two PhDs, and runs a comic book shop. He even has his own comic book. He’s written scholarly books, but based a criminology book on Gotham City and lost his credentials among academics. An episode deals with a child kidnapping, so he was kidnapped as a child. An episode requires him to drive in a car chase, so he’s a bad driver. Basically, he’s whatever the writers need him to be, and that’s usually something that slows down the professional investigators.

Now, about the episodes. We’re three in and there’s already a formula. We flashback to Alcatraz before the mysterious event. In the present, a crime happens involving a criminal from the flashback. Something about the crime reminds Dr. Soto of a criminal from Alcatraz. That makes it the responsibility of Madsen, Soto, and the rest of Hauser’s special unit to investigate. Hauser is grumpy and refuses to share information. There’s a montage of investigation in the present day, and flashbacks that show us how Alcatraz was Hell on Earth because of its sadistic staff.

At the last moment, Madsen gets the drop on the criminal. Then Hauser shows up out of the blue and shoots the crook before Madsen can get any meaningful answers. Madsen or Soto gets a closing scene. Hauser delivers the crook to an Alcatraz replica hidden under a forest, and there might be a scene with the Alcatraz doctor, who’s still alive and working in the black site. Fade to credits.

Even the “play along with us” game on the Fox site seems like cookie-cutter marketing from the trained chimps at Fox.

WTF?

Okay, folks, you read it here first: I only watched the first episode of Lost. It wasn’t intriguing enough because I didn’t care enough about the characters. So Alcatraz already has Lost beat by two episodes. That said, something needs to happen for me to keep watching. We need some more explanations. We need to see some more humanity from the characters. We need to see some expectations fulfilled, and we need to see them surprise us in ways that, in hindsight, are completely consistent.

Thoughts

If you’re watching Alcatraz, I’d like to know what you think. Am I way off base, or am I echoing your own opinions? If you watched Lost, feel free to tell me what an idiot I am for not giving it more of a chance. I’ve heard it before, but you’re welcome to tell me again.

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Posted in: television