Alcatraz: “Pilot”/“Ernest Cobb”
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Alcatraz: “Pilot”/“Ernest Cobb”

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Alcatraz

“Pilot”/“Ernest Cobb”

Season 1, Episode 1
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Alcatraz

“Pilot”/“Ernest Cobb”

Season 1, Episode 2

This TV season, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Will Harris, who’ll review the show week to week, and Phil Nugent talk aboutAlcatraz.

Alcatraz debuts tonight on Fox at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Will Harris: He’d probably claim there’s no correlation whatsoever, but as a critic, it’s hard for me to dismiss the fact that, of the four previous shows to which J.J. Abrams attached his name, the ones that I’ve enjoyed the most—and, as it happens, the ones that have developed the most obsessive fanbases—are the ones for which he’s taken the time to show up and help promote during the Television Critics Association press tour.

Lost? Fringe? Present. Undercovers? Person Of Interest? No sign of the guy.

Abrams was at the TCA tour to promote Alcatraz, however, so if you accept that the above observations are more than mere coincidence, then this is good news. Very good, even, when one takes into consideration the man’s success the last time he tackled a series involving an island.

The whole concept of an ostensibly inescapable prison located on an island has always been incredibly cool to begin with, but it takes a turn into potential awesomeness as soon as the voice of Agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) kicks off the proceedings: “On March 21, 1963, Alcatraz officially closed due to rising costs and decrepit facilities. All the prisoners were transferred off the island. Only that’s not what happened. Not at all.”

Y’see, a funny thing happened on March 20, 1963: A couple of guards hopped off the boat to make a transfer, only to find their island counterparts nowhere to be found. Nor, for that matter, was anyone else to be found in or around the prison. Everything appears to be perfectly intact, however, except for the complete and utter absence of the 302 people who’d been there, who remained MIA until… well, now, actually. Flash forward to Alcatraz 2012, now a tourist attraction, and one of the missing inmates—Jack Sylvane (#2024)—suddenly reappears in his cell as if nothing has happened, and as if that isn’t unlikely enough, he finds that he has a ticket back to the mainland in his jacket pocket, along with a wad of cash. Clearly, whoever or whatever is responsible for his return from wherever the hell he’s been has prepared for future contingencies. Curiouser and curiouser. If it’s a bit too convenient that he happens to find his own picture in a handy history of the prison, at least it’s a moment, along with a quick flashback to 1960, which serves to set up a plan of action for Sylvane: get revenge on E.B. Tiller, former assistant warden at Alcatraz.

What we see during the course of the first two episodes of Alcatraz is a blend of the intriguing and the formulaic. San Francisco Police Department Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) stumbles into investigating a murder committed by Sylvane, gets thrown off the case by the intervening Hauser, and decides to keep investigating, anyway, recruiting the assistance of famed Alcatraz expert Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia). The two prove to be a successful team, naturally, and by the end of the pilot, they’ve helped to capture the convict, and their efforts on Sylvane’s case—along with Madsen’s direct connection to one of the missing Alcatrazians—results in the two of them working with Hauser on a regular basis and discovering that there’s more to this whole situation than meets the eye.

Are the procedural elements a bit too heavy in Alcatraz? Perhaps for some, although I’m already sufficiently intrigued by the mysteries offered up during these first two episodes that I’m willing to be somewhat lenient. One needs only look back at the first season of Fringe to see how that series started out being far more traditional in format but ended up a mythology-heavy effort that’s still blowing fans’ minds several seasons on. Given the number of missing prisoners and guards, it’s easy to fear that the show could fall back on focusing on the Missing Alcatrazian of the Week, as it does in tonight’s installments, but there are enough bread crumbs being laid out already that I’m ready to follow them for awhile and see where they’re headed. Mind you, it doesn’t hurt that an old pro like Neill is in the mix, nor does the fact that he’s joined by Robert Forster, who plays Madsen’s surrogate uncle and a former Alcatraz guard. The whole thing strikes me as a bit of mysterious and entertaining fun, with the potential for some really dark stuff to go down.

Phil: For me, Alcatraz goes right to the heart of a question that feels especially relevant now, in these days of Thundercats reboots and the like: how dumb can something be at its core before the effort that a hard-working, straight-faced team of entertainment professionals have put into selling it just becomes embarrassing? The show’s alternate-history revelation about the real reason Alcatraz ceased to be a functioning prison just feels dopey and contrived to me, and I don’t think it has the kind of resonance it would need for it to support the kind of jerry-rigged mythology that the series obviously intends to eat out on. Maybe they’ve got something wild set to spring further down the road, but they’d better spring some of it fast, because right now, the premise just feels like an excuse to have the heroes chase down a different convict every week, while dropping hints that something much bigger is going on behind the curtain.

It doesn’t help that, instead of having any fun with the silly side of this material, the producers have opted to try bullying viewers into taking it seriously by keeping things heavy and humorless. Sarah Jones, who gave a memorable performance as a pregnant fugitive last year on Justified, hasn’t been given much to work with except for the anchor of her family and career tragedies, and Sam Neill is stuck with one of those “keeper of the secrets” roles that make it impossible for him to ever loosen up; he has to play his cards close to the vest, because even the writers probably haven’t decided which cards they are. The one bright spot is Jorge Garcia’s character, an overeducated comic-book fan whose vast knowledge of and enthusiasm for the prison’s history make him what can only be called an Alactraz nerd. That’s a funny idea for a character, and Garcia fills it with as much warmth and likability as it can hold. I just dread the possibility that this show becomes enough of a hit to create real-world Alcatraz nerds, because that would spoil everything.