J. J. Abrams returned to television on Fox this week with Alcatraz, a crime thriller that manages to be surprisingly mundane, given the premise and the creative team behind it. The pilot informed us that 1963, 256 prisoners disappeared from Alcatraz, along with a group of guards. In the present day, they’re back for revenge, ruthless, not having aged a day, and unstoppable by ordinary law enforcement officers; who would think to suspect someone in their 80s for a series of brutal homicides?
Abrams is infamous for labyrinthine plotting complete with endless series of double and triple crossing storylines, and he promised a more straightforward storyline with Alcatraz. He may have gone too simple; from the premise, the show weakly suggests that a special task force was forewarned and is on a mission to round up the escaped prisoners, restoring safety and justice to the streets of San Francisco. Boom, we’re done, apparently.
Each episode is intended in some senses to act as a standalone capsule, featuring a different prisoner whom the characters need to track using historical information and modern forensics techniques. This is also a departure from the traditional Abrams approach, which requires viewers to tune in for every episode if they don’t want to be hopelessly lost; in multiple interviews leading up to the two hour premiere, he mentioned that he’d learned some lessons from Lost, Alias, and Fringe; clearly he wants viewers to be able to come and go without losing track of the plot after complaints about how hard it was for fans to follow.
Alcatraz attempts to set up tension with atmospheric staging and music, but I quickly found myself getting bored with the premiere, which settled into a fairly predictable crime drama routine. We have a perky blonde detective with a troubled past teaming up with a uniquely skilled civilian—Jorge Garcia as one of the few brights spots in an otherwise dull show. There’s an enigmatic older man leading the team and concealing knowledge, a picturesque assistant, and of course a case of the week.
There’s nothing to make Alcatraz stand out so far from among other offerings in the field; the show hasn’t even taken advantage of the lovely setting of San Francisco, perhaps because it isn’t actually filmed there. Vancouver may be enticing for film crews, but it’s no San Francisco. Thus far the characters are prosaic, and while the premise is cute, it’s not quite enough to pull me in as a viewer unless the weekly episodes are interesting, and I’m not going to remember to check in every week to see if they are. It’s a bad sign when I’m already doing something else with the show on in the background at the pilot stage.
The show also reveals the ongoing fascination with the prison industrial complex in the United States. Initially I thought it might be critical both of Alcatraz and the larger prison system, especially with the scenes of historic Alcatraz where the show included depictions of abuse and solitary confinement. However, when the entire show is predicated on the idea that prisoners must be rounded up and put back in prison, it’s hard to present an enlightened and balanced critique of the prison system; especially since those prisoners are being buried in an underground complex somewhere deep in the redwoods without benefit of trial.
Crime dramas are nothing new, and in almost all cases, they align viewers firmly with law enforcement, and cultivate grey areas; we are encouraged to support activities of dubious legality like planting evidence, for example, or to think that misleading detainees to force a confession is ethically acceptable. Very few shows bring us the flip side of the equation, creating sympathy for people on the other side of the justice system. Breaking Bad and Dexter are probably the highest profile examples airing at the moment, and it’s notable that both are on cable, not network.
I certainly don’t expect insightful social commentary from Abrams, who has never made it a big part of his shows and certainly doesn’t claim to do so. It would, however, make an interesting creative decision to push at the boundaries of the prison system and flip the paradigm, and I hope that Abrams develops this potential more as the series progresses. That underground bunker could be key to a larger discussion about the black boxing of detainees and what is done in the name of public safety, leading viewers to wonder what’s really going on in the world around them.
It’s hard to determine where the show will go from here; pilots are sometimes rocky and it can be unwise to judge the direction of the entire series on the basis of two hours. Things may look up as Alcatraz progresses, or they may not. If it maintains its current level of mediocrity, I think the show may be short-lived, because even a die-hard fandom can’t prop up a series of lackluster quality.
If Abrams can work some challenges to the system into Alcatraz, I might be tempted to stick around and see how it unfolds. As it stands now, even Jorge Garcia can’t entice me.