First Thoughts on 'Alcatraz'


To be honest, I sort of forgot about Fox’s new crime series Alcatraz for a few months last fall. I remember hearing that Lost’s Jorge Garcia was going to be on it, and then I got caught up in the fall TV season. Alcatraz (which, to be fair, is a crime series crossed with a sci-fi show) debuted last week, and after the premiere double episode and last night’s installment, we’re starting to get an idea of where this series is going.

I can’t say I’m hooked yet, but there’s a lot to like about the series. Between a solid cast and a willingness to dive right into some intense cases, Alcatraz is on track to carve a niche for itself on Monday night TV.

Alcatraz follows a team of investigators from the police and the government who have learned that the prison on Alcatraz wasn’t closed in 1963. Instead, as Sam Neill’s character Emerson Hauser intones in the first episode, the 300-odd prisoners and their guards spontaneously disappeared one night. Now, the prisoners are turning up in the streets of San Francisco, the same age as they were when they disappeared.

Neill’s government agent Emerson Hauser is joined by Detective Rebecca Madsen, played by relative newcomer Sarah Jones, of Sons Of Anarchy and Lone Star. Jorge Garcia, as I mentioned, picks up the other lead role as Dr. Diego “Doc” Soto, an Alcatraz historian and comic book artist. Together, they must track down the resurrected Alcatraz inmates, who seem bent on continuing the crime sprees that put them on “The Rock” in the first place.

Sam Neill is a real pro, so his mysterious government agent character comes across as a good mix of dedication and secrecy. I’m not sure how I feel about Jones’ Det. Madsen character – at the moment, she feels like your standard hard-nosed female detective. There’s an interesting subplot with Madsen’s grandfather that will be fun to explore, but other than that, Madsen is going to take some time to develop.

The instant viewer favourite here is Doc. Garcia brings all of the charm he had as Hurley in Lost and builds the Dr. Diego Soto character from there. Don’t make the mistake of seeing him as simple comic relief. Doc’s knowledge of the Alcatraz inmates and the prison itself is invaluable to the team, and his side-projects of drawing comics and running a comic book store just makes him even more interesting.

Each episode is named after the criminal the team is chasing that week. For example, last night’s installment was called “Kit Nelson”, after the deranged child abductor who resurfaces in Walnut Creek. It’s kind of a cool touch to name episodes in that way, as if each one were a case file the audience is opening.

I was fairly surprised by the writers’ decision to jump right into some intense cases in the first three episodes. We’re told that the men who disappeared from Alcatraz were the country’s worst criminals, and I believe it. These guys aren’t afraid to blow away large numbers of victims each episode, especially the villain of the second episode, Ernest Cobb. While the body count wasn’t as high this week, the character actor playing Kit Nelson, Michael Eklund, put in one of the creepiest performances I’ve seen on TV.

As you might expect, a show about 1960s prisoners reappearing in the present day means that there’s a number of flashbacks to the 60s during each episode. The 60s segments are used to explain the backstory of the episode’s villain and place clues that Det. Madsen and Doc will find during the present-day scenes.  The production values are high here – Bad Robot has evidently gone to some lengths to make the sets, costumes and atmosphere authentic.

The transitions between time periods are signalled by the sound of a prison cell rolling shut, similar to the distinctive flashback sound used on Lost. I don’t know how the frequent jumps between time periods will fare with viewers as a whole; some people tire of “time travel” shows after a while, if Lost is any indication. Maybe the stronger grounding in reality will help Alcatraz build an audience where Lost bled viewers.

It might sound like the show will just move on a linear path from now on, introducing a new inmate each week and tracking him down. Worry not: there’s more going on here. Emerson Hauser still has a lot of tricks up his sleeve, and then there’s the larger story arc about who’s responsible for the inmates (or “Sixty Threes”) disappearing in the 60s and reappearing in the present. It’s that part of Alcatraz that I’m the most curious about, and I think I’ll be tuning back in to see how it all plays out.

Alcatraz airs at 9pm on Mondays on Fox. Full episodes are free to stream for American viewers on the Fox website, and for Canadian viewers on the CityTV site.


Did any of you check out the first few episodes of Alcatraz? What did you think? Are you already hooked, or did they leave you saying “meh”? If you think you’ll follow the show, who’s your favourite character? Sound off in the comments section down below, and browse through my recent TV articles:


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