Three episodes in, Alcatraz splits me right down the middle, just like…a prison hallway. Bad similes aside, “Kit Nelson” both intrigued, with its titular character’s behavior, and bored me, with everyone else’s behavior. This is a very oppressive series overtly lacking genuine mirth and humor. I’m fairly certain the Soto character draws comic books, beyond myriad other accolades, just to balance off all the child murder this show has to offer. Whatcha got against children, Alcatraz?
The episode opens with a man comfortably walking into a house, up the stairs and into the bedroom of two brothers. He stands over one boy, Dylan, somewhat protectively. Then in a nice twist, he covers the boy’s mouth and says he’ll kill his brother if he screams. The man is Kit Nelson (Michael Ecklund), a kidnapper/child murderer who killed three 11-year-old boys prior to his arrest and stint on the island, where he received constant yard beatdowns from other prisoners. Nelson’s M.O.: He takes the boys on a Friday, leaving a chrysanthemum behind, then brings their corpses back home on Sunday. This couldn’t possibly be steeped in his past, could it? The fuck, you say.
Soto, whose “Doc” nickname I’m adamant about never saying again, hears about Dylan’s kidnapping over a police scanner, and instantly finds the relevant 1960s newspaper clippings referring to Nelson’s crimes. He literally steps over to a filing cabinet, pulls out a folder, and immediately flips to the correct page, spouting off extra information he acquired unofficially. I realize he’s given a lot of his life to this research, and maybe that cabinet drawer was labeled “kidnappers/child killers/embezzlers,“ but it’s completely convenient storytelling. Not the last instance of it, either.
Basically, what follows is cat and mouse chase between Rebecca/Soto and Nelson/Dylan. (Judging from character named episode titles, I don’t foresee predictable plots being eschewed for inspired ones. Its heart is a cop drama. Now which guy in the first episode’s name is Pilot?) Nelson reverts to old tactics of making Dylan do things he and his brother did as children, namely fishing, miniature golf, and eating cherry pie. Soto seeks out diners serving cherry pie, and is in one at the exact same time Nelson and Dylan are. Withhold your gasps, I’m blazing through this. This rescue attempt is botched, but one cancelled Amber Alert and a bomb shelter search later, the good guys win, and Dylan is returned home. For a switch-up, the final standoff ends with Hauser shooting Nelson through the head. I guess not everyone is essential to unlocking the mystery.
Already, Alcatraz has become a serialized James Patterson novel, co-written by John Doe from Se7en. The nitty gritty details for the prison and criminals are pretty spot-on. Before we know Nelson is going through the motions, he takes Dylan to a lake and rents a boat for two hours. The stakes were high, so the scene’s tension stood out, even if Dylan’s (lake) placid face didn’t change for the entire episode. He throws Dylan into the lake before jumping in himself, and they play a “game” where he makes Dylan push him underwater for as long as possible. Nelson pops up out of breath, coughing up water, and right before the commercial break, he says, “Your turn.” Don’t get me wrong, there is a high level of cheese factor here, but Ecklund oozes perverse intensity. His performance is entirely too realized and off-putting, which is exactly how it should be.
I’m thankful for the time spent developing these prisoners, because Detective Rebecca Madsen can join the detective woman from The Killing in a game of Russian Roulette. As much as I like Jorge Garcia, I long for more commercials to replace the Soto/Rebecca scenes, the majority of which serve as exposition or cloying heartfeltness. Granted, they may stick out due to the complete heartlessness of Nelson, by the solitary light of a match, describing the lurid details of strangling his 11-year-old brother. (For those keeping score, that was Nelson’s watershed moment.) But still, the villains should only be as interesting as the protagonists, not vastly superior to them.
But I’ll cut some slack here, because almost every show of this kind deals with cops and their tag-alongs in this way. There is time for these characters to grow on me. What doesn’t grow on me is early onset repetition. For a while, we’re drilled with information about lakes, mini-golf, and cherry pie. Then we get a prison-convo between Nelson and his father where the father tries to Bond Villain a confession for his brother’s murder, blatantly listing “swimming in lakes, miniature golf, and cherry pies” as things they did. It was comical to say the least. It’s the second time that a strict time window was given to capture the crook. Kidnapping theory already states the first forty-eight hours are the most important, so it being a plot point wasn’t necessary. It’s shit like this, along with Rebecca’s car skidding to a halt in a parking lot, that makes me think FOX will never produce subtle drama. Too much is invested in the genre, rather than the realism of the story.
For its haphazard big picture, the smaller moments are where this show lives and breathes. Hauser’s longing stares when he sees coma-ridden Lucy’s things in the lab. The guards looking away as Nelson gets his face smashed in. The disgusting cuts on Nelson’s smashed up face, though his teeth and ability to speak unbelievably go unharmed. Dr. Beauregard smoking in the autopsy room. The vengeful warden taking Nelson’s wheelchair away after leading him far from his cell. When Nelson and Dylan are in the diner, Nelson switches the pie plates after the waitress lays them down. It’s completely meaningless, but speaks to the eccentricity of the character.
Compare this to the following phone conversation, where Soto’s methods of clandestinely alerting Rebecca of Nelson’s presence reach Three Stooges levels of slapstickery. I could do nothing but gawk at Dylan’s amazing aim as he smashed the bomb shelter light bulb with his shoe. The entire existence of this bomb shelter, as being built by a company that Nelson got checks from in the 60s, seemed like a “where do we go from here?” decision. But Jorge Garcia walking up to a hatch in the ground was not Lost on me.
I’m still not very excited about watching Alcatraz, because it’s nowhere near as mysterious and conspiracy-ridden as I thought it was going to be. But I know there will be several redeeming pathological moments that most shows fail to deliver, especially other shows on FOX. But regardless of those moments, mark my words: Alcatraz will fail if it doesn’t eventually feature Sam Neill cackling, as in the end of In the Mouth of Madness. Now that had some interesting repetition in it. See you next week.