Monday, February 06, 2012

Alcatraz: The Story So Far...

Alcatraz’s fifth episode airs tonight, and the series started off with a bang, and ratings are still strong (it’s winning Monday nights, even against the Bachelor). But I’m really hoping to see something pick up this week, because while there are a lot of things I really like about this show, I’m starting to find a lot of things I don’t like. (Warning: Spoilers ahead for up to the fourth episode, which aired last week.)

If you’re not watching it yet, here’s what you need to know:
• In March 1963, two guards went to Alcatraz on the eve of its closing to escort the prisoners off the island and remove them to various other prisons. When they got there, the prisoners were all gone. They'd disappeared without a trace.
• Sam Neill’s character, Emerson, was the young guard, and has apparently devoted his life to following why they’re here.
• Suddenly, in 2012, they’re showing up in San Francisco (looking like they did in 1963), committing crimes similar to their original rap sheets.
• Sam Neill has put together a team of a blonde cop whose name I can never remember, and Doc, played by Jorge Garcia, who has written several books about Alcatraz, has two PhDs, and runs a comic book store.
• Before he met the blonde and Garcia, he was already working with Parminder Nagra’s character, who was revealed in the second episode to be a psychologist at Alcatraz back in the 1960s, which means not just the inmates, but the workers in the prison will be time-travelling to the present day.
• When they catch the inmates, Emerson puts them into a cell in a replica Alcatraz he’s built.
• The blonde detective discovered in the first episode that her grandfather was an inmate, so she knows he’ll be one of the ones they’ll be finding, and she spotted him in an early episode when he caused the death of her partner.
• In the first episode we saw Jack Sylvane, an inmate who was mostly innocent and just in the wrong place at the wrong time, who is now on a killing spree. During one of his kills, he goes to a man’s place and takes a key from him.
• Week two was Ernest Cobb, a Giovanni Ribisi lookalike sniper who takes people out with an Asperger’s precision, usually killing three or four to cover up his main target, a teenage girl. Before they caught him, he shot Nagra’s character, and she’s still in a coma.
• Week three was Kit Nelson, a child kidnapper who would take the kids home, treat them to his favourite things (outings, cherry pie), and then remove them to a bunker where he’d kill them 48 hours after kidnapping them. They found him before he killed the kid he’d kidnapped, but they had to kill him in order to do it. Emerson took him to his underground replica house and handed him off to a doctor with instructions to do what he does best. Reanimation? Not sure yet.
• Week four was Cal Sweeney, a bank robber who romances the bank tellers so they’ll turn off security cameras and get him into the back, where he pulls out people’s safety deposit boxes and steals personal belongings. However, unlike his original crimes, he now goes to the home of one person he’s stolen from to find out exactly why their one object was so important, and then kills them. He obtains a key and Emerson now has two of them.

What I love about Alcatraz:
• The flashbacks relating to the present day are building up a mystery about the warden, caretakers, and the prison itself.
• Jorge. He was great as Hurley, but he’s playing a different character here and has risen to the occasion.
• The Alcatraz replica. Brightly lit like the cells the Initiative had on Buffy to house the “hostiles,” it’s a creepy place where the inmates just stand around like little dolls in a dollhouse, waiting to find out what they’ll be doing next.
• The inmates of the week. Most of the stories have been pretty interesting, although Ernest Cobb is still my favourite. I like the idea of Doc tracking them down using his research of their past.
• Geri Jewell. Geri showed up last week as the sister of EB Tiller, the nasty deputy warden. I spent over a year working with Geri on her memoir, and she was delightful, hilarious, and wonderful. This is the first major role she’s had since then, so it’s awesome watching her on it.

What I don’t like:
• Abrams said this is going to be a non-serialized show, like Alias became in the fourth season, which made me unhappy. But that’s not the case. However, the problem with just adding a few serialized elements, which is what they’ve done with it, is that they’re making them seem insignificant and not worthy of exposition, and instead it just comes off as weird. They HAVE to start giving us something here, or it’s going to lose interest. And the inmate-of-the-week thing was fine for the first three weeks, but by now I really thought we’d have something.
• Those DAMN subtitles. Seriously, if they’re in Alcatraz, and the prison is actually running, I GET they’re in Alcatraz. Don’t tell me. And if the scene right before this was set in 1960, odds are it’s still 1960. And if they’re doing laundry, I bet I’m smart enough to grasp they’re in the laundry room. Showing me ALCATRAZ – LAUNDRY ROOM – 1960 is just condescending. Stop with the subtitles. For god’s sakes, we didn’t need them on Lost, and we don’t need them now. For a guy who helmed a show that demanded a LOT from its viewers, he doesn’t seem to be demanding two brain cells of the viewers of Alcatraz.
• The wooden dialogue, mostly the tough-cop crap that comes out of the blonde cop’s mouth. She’s all, “Listen, I know you’re having it rough, but the best thing we can do for her right now is to find this guy now!” No, actually… finding the sniper will not magically bring the coma patient to life.
• I get that Doc has two PhDs. And that he’s super smart. But here are two things my husband and I have been mocking: one, the way he can pull up anything on the giant underground headquarters computer. Blonde cop says, “Pull up the security footage of the bank” and boom, he not only pulls it up, he zooms in on what we need to see. AND… he does it all with two keystrokes. Genius!
• The second thing, and this goes for the whole show, is I hate how conveniently (and implausibly) they wrap up everything near the end. Last week he was all, “I lived in a building once that had air conditioning vents that came in from either side and if we go in through the vents I bet we could get into the bank and I bet the vents go out to” OH MY GOD ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! Insane. I’ve lived in a lot of apartment buildings, too. I couldn’t tell you how the damn vent systems worked. But I guess if you have a PhD in history, that makes you an expert in electrical and heating systems.

I haven’t recognized many of the writers of the weekly episodes, and I’m thinking if you’re going to launch a big new series, you’d pull out some big guns at the beginning. I’m hoping Abrams is about to do just that. Remember David Fury’s fourth episode of Lost? We were already hooked, but when that one happened (I’m referring to “Walkabout”) there was no changing the channel.

Do that, JJ. Give me one of THOSE episodes. Let’s improve this dialogue, show me some more interaction of the inmates we’ve already met (I want to see Cobb and Sylvane talking, or the warden trying to pit Sweeney against Nelson). I get what you’re doing, and it’s very good, but now let me see what’s going on in Alcatraz. You’ve built up four baddies, and now it’s time to show them interacting.

And clearly, in the present, there’s something going on with the inmates that’s not consistent. Cobb and Nelson committed crimes they’d done the first time around. But Sylvane, this guy who was supposed to be innocent, is going on a murderous rampage that’s completely unlike him. He stole a key and didn’t know why. He was killing people and practically apologizing, like he was being controlled. Same with Sweeney. He was a bank robber; now he’s a mass murder who revels in the kill, and again is led to a person with a key. Why? Who is compelling these people? Are you just going to build up a mystery and not give us anything at all? People complained about Lost not giving answers, but they hadn’t begun dropping hints of a mystery this early in the game (at least, not obvious ones at that time). But this is getting a little frustrating.

After all, they disappeared in 1963, and the action has all been set in 1960. Clearly something big is going to happen in that interim three years, and that’s where the story is beginning. So let’s start showing us where it’s going to go.


LT McDi said...

As I recall Willow Rosenberg could pull up vast amounts of very unlikely information just using a school computer so why should the bigger computer underneath Alcatraz be an issue.

I agree about the's stiff and needs some work. They could vary the "con of the week" structure

But I am not expecting Lost...there will never be another out of the park "reveal" like Locke pushing himself back to show us his wheelchair. To be blunt the only other reveal that equalled ,was Jack's end of season 3 "We have to go back"

Alcatraz looks to me more like a chess game with the the 63s being moved here and there. Chess can be slow.

Was the Sylvane character an actual innocent man...or was the crime he went to jail for no where near as serious what he was committing in the present. And isn't that part of the story.

I remember watching a John Cleese interview about Fawlty Towers and they asked him his favorite episode.

He described one event in just one episode where everything...script, actors, setting all touched in just the right spot for a really hilarious perfect comedic moment.
Just one time out of twelve hilarious episodes did Cleese feel he hit that perfect funny moment.

So far Alcatraz is telling a darn good tale and that's just fine.

Fred said...

I agree with what you wrote, Nikki. If Alcatraz doesn't come off with a great episode, it may be too tempting for the serie's executives to tinker yet further with the show. That's already happened, which is why, despite Elizabeth Sarnoff's name still being associated with the show, she isn't actually there anymore.

We must remember Fringe began as stand-alone episodes, but later moved itno a build up of the myth. The strategy may be to try an gather together an audience that have someting invested before moving into the long, myth related story. Despite the well written epsiodes of Lost, the show underwent a slow decline in audience committment, largely due to the demands of attending each week and remembering plot lines from much earlier.

I don't blame Abrams for all the dumbing down on Alcatraz (see your comments on keying). I suspect this is just an executive decision, and not the producers. I've always been amazed how many people can't follow plot lines, or grasp the digetic elements in a movie. So it doesn't seem so condescending to me that they are overusing keying--indeed, its almost become a signature since Fringe.

While I'll live with stilted dialogue, I am pleased to see they are exanpding the stock set of characters and developing the ones we are familiar with. My biggest worry is the fracturing of audience. Audeinces that might consider Alcatraz may be drawn away to HBO of FX or somewhere else quality programming is being shown. At the same time, niche audiences for programs such as Pickers or Hoarders provide the model for future television, namely, cheaply produced, limited lifespan, culturally topical. Against such a trend, programs like Alcatraz may be fighting a losing battle.

KathyT said...

When the 3rd episode opened with the inmate sneaking into the home and covering the child's mouth, I turned the channel and have yet to go back to watching the show.

Page48 said...

With Bad Robot securing a new pilot order every week, I think JJ's pool of writers will (has) inevitably become diluted.

I've just re-watched the first five episodes of "Alias", and I'm mopping my own adrenaline up off the floor. This is how JJ Abrams made a name for himself a decade ago, but now, for whatever reason, the idea of flying out of the gate the way "Alias" did seems to be off the table.

"Fringe", "Undercovers", "Person of Interest", and now "Alcatraz" have all suffered from slow starts. Even now, "Fringe" can't do 2 serialized eppies in a row without slowing things down with a string of COTW speedbump episodes, where mythology takes a back seat.

The weekly formula wears thin quickly, and I think "Alcatraz" has plenty of room to get more ambitious.

"Alias" made JJ a star. "Alcatraz", in its present form, has yet to show a whiff of that kind of clout.

Colleen/redeem147 said...

I watched the pilot, and it was 'meh.' I tried to watch another episode (3?) and wandered off. It's really not my show.

Ah,well. Walking Dead is back this week.

Austin Gorton said...

I dunno, Nikki, I think you might be a little too harsh on a show clearly still finding its legs. I mean, I don't necessarily disagree with anything you said, but I think I'm just more forgiving of those problems at this point.

I feel like Alcatraz is pretty much in the same spot Once Upon a Time was in when its fifth episode aired, and that's a show that's in the same position as Alcatraz for me: tons of potential, but still finding itself. The dialogue is, indeed, pretty rote and/or wooden (but that's true of OUAT as well), I wouldn't mind if the show took a breath and answered a question or two before introducing more, and I'm still waiting for the big game changing episode a la "Walkabout" (for both shows).

But in the meantime, the stuff we've been getting has been, if not great TV, entertaining TV, and that's enough to keep me watching for a bit longer.

For god’s sakes, we didn’t need them on Lost, and we don’t need them now. For a guy who helmed a show that demanded a LOT from its viewers, he doesn’t seem to be demanding two brain cells of the viewers of Alcatraz.

I feel like that's probably the network, or Abram and Co. trying to get out ahead of the network. Like Fred said, an awful lot of people who watch TV seem to have issues with things like that, and network TV needs those people to survive. Sadly, the fact is, we'll probably never see a show as smart as Lost on network TV again, cuz "smart" doesn't draw a big enough crowd to survive on the networks these days.

one, the way he can pull up anything on the giant underground headquarters computer. Blonde cop says, “Pull up the security footage of the bank” and boom, he not only pulls it up, he zooms in on what we need to see. AND… he does it all with two keystrokes. Genius!

That's pretty much all TV/movies involving one person who is smart about anything and a computer though, isn't it? I mean, it's ridiculous and mock-worthy, but can you really ding this show for it when TONS of shows do it?

Sorry if I'm coming across overly-defensive. It's not like I love this show terribly or anything, I just feel like it deserves some more time to work out its kinks. I also think I was expecting something MUCH more COTW (like Person of Interest), so the fact that they at least pay lip service to the mythology every episode remains a pleasant surprise for me because I was expecting none at all for several episodes at a time.

But my biggest issue surrounding the COTW elements thus far has been the fact that almost every con has an MO triggered by a childhood incident, putting the show in danger of turning "childhood trauma" into its version of Smallville's kryptonite being the explanation for the existence of a new super-powered bad guy for Clark to fight every week.

From some of the psychologist's comments back on Alcatraz in the last episode, it sounds like this might be intentional, but its still worrisome if the show is going to fully embraces that idea.

Linda said...

I'm still watching it, but I have to agree with Kathy/Cookiedough about the violence against kids and families. I draw the line there too. I can't easily watch it. First there was the shooting spree at the amusement park, then the kidnapping/potential murder of the child taken from his bedroom, then last last week there was the bank manager pleading for his life because he had a family and other gratuitous violence throughout the episode. I understand that these inmates were convicted of the most hideous crimes in the first place, but would rather have more mystery and intrigue involved in locating them and less violence, and please no children involved!
I didn't see yesterday yet, but I plan to stick with it just a little longer.

myselfixion said...

Coincidentally, I am reading a book called "Memory's Ghost". On page 24 there is a reference to "Sweeney Astray", a old Celtic poem translated by Seamus Heaney in which the character Sweeney has lost his memory and is in search of it. The book is about Mr. M. who had his memories removed surgically, accidentally, and the search for the seat of memories in the brain. Fascinating stuff. I think that this show is just getting started and that we LOST fans will be treated with hidden gems and intrigue that we loved for 6 years. I also think that "out of the park" reveals are not only possible but necessary for this kind of show. I love it!

deeannjay said...

Hi Nikki.

Sorry if this question has already been posed in comments under a previous post, but do you have any idea what Santiago Cabrera's involvement in "Alcatraz" will be? I know he was originally signed up to the main cast to play Rebecca's fiance, Jimmy Dickens. However, he only appeared briefly in the pilot on 16 Jan and I have read in reviews that this character had a much bigger part in the version of the pilot that was shown at Comic-Con last year and also there are rumours that he is now going to be a recurring character rather than series regular. Have you heard anything about tbis? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Subtitles cater to the masses...;) What could be condesending to you could explain alot to someone else..:) Keep up the good work!