Thinking back to my initial screening of Fox’s Alcatraz last July during Comic Con in San Diego, I remember feeling more or less on the fence about the drama. But in retrospect, I need to factor in the conditions in which I screened the pilot. It was Preview Night at SDCC and I’d spent a good portion of the day on airplanes and in airports, having boarded three different planes over the course of the trip from the East Coast to the West Coast. I was also in the final stages of recovering from a fractured leg, which had me hobbling around on a crutch, thus adding to my travel-exhaustion.
Those factors, added to the fact that the pilot was squeezed in with three other screenings in a back-to-back foursome of new shows, needed to be taken into account when recollecting my original thoughts on the series. So when I sat down recently to re-screen the first hour of Fox’s new drama series, as well as the second episode, which is also scheduled to air tonight, I did so with as open a mind as I could possibly have, deciding Alcatraz deserved a fresh look. I’m glad I did because there’s definitely potential with this series and the second hour sold me on it even more than the first. It’s for that reason that I’m really glad to see that Fox is airing two episodes back to back tonight. Those intrigued by the first hour are likely to find even more to appreciate about the series in the one that follows.
Co-created by Elizabeth Sarnoff, Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt, with J.J. Abrams among the executive producers, Alcatraz is sort of a combination of a crime procedural and a Fringe-like mystery-thriller involving long-lost Alcatraz inmates and guards who are somehow resurfacing decades later looking just as they did back in the ’60’s when they were last seen.
The series premiere introduces us to police detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), a woman who is assigned to a homicide case which may involve a former Alcatraz inmate. Being the granddaughter and surrogate niece to former Alcatraz guards, Madsen feels a connection to the case. She ends up working with Dr. Diego “Doc” Soto (Jorge Garcia) on the case and the two soon discover just how bizarre the situation is when they track down the inmate (played by Jeffrey Pierce) and realize he’s exactly as he was back in the ’60’s. This is the first real glimpse of what is clearly a bigger picture, which involves Sam Neill’s character Emerson Hauser, a government agent who knows a lot more than he’s willing to reveal to Madsen and Doc.
From the first two hours, it looks like Alcatraz will merge the typical detective procedural with the overall mystery involving the San Francisco prison and the resurfacing inmates. The first two episodes include frequent flashbacks to reveal the circumstances connecting the episode’s featured criminal to the prison decades ago. Those are interspersed with the investigation in the present day portion of the hour, which includes whatever crimes the featured inmate is currently committing, putting themselves on Hauser’s radar and thus, making them Madsen and Doc’s target of the week.
Hints of a bigger picture and purpose are offered to us, behind the backs of Madsen and Doc, which has me thinking the line between good and evil may be blurred in the series. Perhaps it’s more wishful thinking than it is direct conclusions drawn from the first two hours of the drama, but I’m sort of hoping we’ll learn that some of the perceived bad-guys are not so bad, while some of those who technically existed on the right side of the law aren’t quite so good. I feel we’re given enough of an indication of that in the premiere to consider it a reasonable theory, but we’ll have to wait and see how things progress moving forward.
Unlike shows like House, Bones and another recent addition to Fox, The Finder, I suspect Alcatraz will fall closer to Fringe in what it demands from its viewers. I say this not only because of the supernatural/sci-fi element introduced in the pilot, but also because, while the formerly mentioned shows each balance stand-alone episode arcs with bigger-picture season and series-stretching plots, each are also shows that casual viewers can jump in and out of, watching as frequently or infrequently as they like without getting lost, whereas Fringe seems like the kind of series that requires more of a commitment. Those who want to be able to follow the show probably need to watch every week or risk missing crucial plot and character developments. Something tells me Alcatraz will work similarly, but from the first two hours, there’s a good chance the reward of interesting and exciting developments and reveals could be well worth the weekly price of admission.
Alcatraz premieres tonight (Monday, Jan. 16th) at 8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT on Fox.