The latest heir apparent to the landmark show about mysterious happenings on a time-traveling island is Alcatraz, a show about mysterious happenings on a time-traveling island. Some of the cast is even the same. The premise is that Something Happened on the infamous prison island in 1963, just before it officially closed, whereby 302 inmates suddenly vanished. They are now reappearing in our time and a team of plucky heroes is on the case to hunt them down. No word yet when the polar bears will emerge, but one assumes they’re coming.
But seriously. Which one of us is the Kate?
It’s tempting to say that Alcatraz is learning a little something from Lost’s mistakes – namely that while you need a good mystery to keep people tuning in, audiences will only trust you for so long and so you’ve got to dish out some of the goods. And it doesn’t count if you just keep adding questions that you have no intention of answering. In that sense, Alcatraz does a fine job of helping us to feel like the story is going somewhere. By the end of the first episode, we know that there’s a secret cabal of men who have some nefarious plan for these reappearing criminals and we even know something of their backstory. We’ve been treated to an intriguing, albeit brief, view of a secret prison where the villains (or ARE they?) will be housed after being caught and we even get the sense of a much bigger story, what with the promised interconnections of our two lead characters.
It fizzles a bit, however, when after four or five episodes we’re stuck with the exact same formula each time. Mysterious psychopath from the past emerges in modern day San Francisco, the detective and her nerdy sidekick hunt them down and along the way manage the seemingly irrational and secretive behavior of their new boss. The big reveals don’t even pack that much of a punch because the story is formulaic enough that we know when to expect them. Also, some of the plot holes are big enough to build the Golden Gate Bridge through. To wit, why do none of these recently re-emerged criminals just hop the first bus to Mexico rather than stick around San Francisco to commit new crimes? Hopefully, this is only a case of networks needing a Dollhouse-style opening, one that doesn’t demand the mythology overtake the individual stories, thus letting new viewers on board.
The problem with that approach is, unless your television show has the words “law” and/or “order” in the title, most people don’t watch scripted television just to tune into the story, they also want to get to know the characters. Watching the growth and development of your leads is really where most television dramas get their mojo from. Ironically, that’s a lesson from Lost that the creators of Alcatraz haven’t quite picked up on yet. Although you can easily go overboard with characterization to the point where you make the audience forget if it’s watching a television show or reading someone’s diary, we’re far more interested in hearing about people than about things.
“I could do something that moves this plot forward, but then when would I find the time to stare wistfully out to sea and remember my past transgressions?”
I’m hopeful that Alcatraz pulls it together, even if some of the conceits in the show are a bit laughable. Parts of the show are total nerd-bait, including the notion that you can successfully live in San Francisco when you are paying off your school loans after two PhDs and your only income is running a comic book shop. The show is really at its best when it’s showcasing the cruel and bizarre inmate torture of the 1960s prison system and how the inmates, themselves not exactly sympathetic characters, deal with that torture. The potential for this show is significant, let’s just hope the network’s need to create another Lost doesn’t interfere with what the show should actually be.