Monday, February 6, 2012

Giving Up on Alcatraz

Mrs. Speculator and I try to follow one simple rule when evaluating new TV shows—we give the show four episodes to sell us and then discuss whether it has interested us enough to keep it. When it comes to genre shows, we regularly have consensus, and this latest offering from Fox and J. J. Abrams is no exception.

The premise sounds like what I often hear salesmen refer to as "elevator pitches": a short pity description meant to capture the viewers' imagination. For Alcatraz, the premise is that all the inmates and workers at Alcatraz federal prison disappeared and are now showing up again, unaged, in the present. The best elevator pitches lead to some exploration on the part of the audience, whereupon they find out the breadth and depth of the thing they have been told about. Unfortunately, Alcatraz seems to be missing breadth and depth, giving Mrs. Speculator and I unpleasant flashbacks to Lost, serious enough that we can't keep going.

The first episode of Alcatraz indicates that the travellers, as I'll call them, return to the place where they were when they disappeared; in that episode a traveller wakes up in a cell in the solitary area, but the door is now open and he escapes out to a return ferry and then on to San Francisco proper, where he takes up the crime spree that got him incarcerated in the first place. Looking back on it now, I should have realized that this was an indication of how weak the writing is for the show—imagine if you knew that unexpected people were showing up on Alcatraz and then dispersing out into the city, how would you go about managing them? How about making sure only people with return tickets on the ferry are allowed to leave the island without interrogation? Instead, the series depends on secret governmental forces not being as smart as that and allowing the returnees to roam freely. Worse, we find out later that the prison workers have been returning too and are helping the secret governmental forces round up the "bad" travellers…but apparently no one thought to ask them about their return trips.

This kind of eye-rolling writing isn't limited to the broad strokes of the show but also down to the details. Jorge Garcia, Lost's Hurley, plays Dr. Diego Soto, a comic store owner who holds degrees in history and some other unnamed field. His specialty is Alcatraz, and he has perfect recall of the smallest details of all the prisoners and some of the workers who were at Alcatraz, down to prisoner ID numbers. So he acts as the source for important information for Sarah Jones's Detective Rebecca Madsen as first determines that a traveller has returned and then begins to chase them down. So, when Soto hears on the police band radio that a child has been kidnapped in a fashion similar to that of one of the travellers, he immediately picks up his cell phone and calls Detective Madsen to pursue the kidnapper. Except he doesn't; instead he does whatever it takes to get to Alcatraz Island from his comic book store, which I imagine involves some driving and then some ferrying, including perhaps waiting for the ferry, to look for her and find her in the secret governmental forces' secret hideout in the basement of Alcatraz and THEN tell her that a serial child kidnapper/killer is on the loose. This lack of decisive action is exacerbated by the later revelation that Dr. Soto himself was kidnapped as a child and feels tremendous empathy for the child they seek…but apparently not enough to call or text anyone.

I think I may have mentioned before that the laziest writing tool I know, and the one I most despise, is having otherwise smart/brilliant characters do really stupid things.

Soto and Madsen work for the crotchety Emerson Hauser (played by Sam Neill), the leader of the secret governmental forces. After meeting him, we discover that he's a no-frills sort of secret government guy—if it doesn't have to do with the job of getting the returnees back in prison (or killing them as it turns out), it has no place in his life. Pretty much all of his time on the show is spent either threatening to dump Madsen and Soto from his secret team—although as best the show makes out, they are the only people working for him outside the secret governmental forces' lair somewhere deep in a forest (Seriously)—and harassing Soto for his perceived flaws, such as never learning to drive. In fact, the show really only gives Madsen a single reason for continue to accept Hauser's abuse, and it's a flimsy one at that: it turns out that Madsen's grandfather is also a traveller and is responsible for the death of Madsen's partner (procedural cliché #1). Soto goes along with the abuse because he can, although each week we get to see him act particularly squeamish at crime scenes. These little character nuggets are what pass for character development on the show, little gotcha moments where some stupendous surprise is revealed to heighten the audience's waning interest. For example, it's revealed that Hauser actually worked on Alcatraz as a guard but was not present when the travellers were taken. We find out in the first episode that one of his assistants actually was a psychologist who was taken from Alcatraz when the disappearances started. But nuance in the characters and chemistry between them? They don't exist—they're all just collections of clichés in service of a show that strives to be weird.

It's no help that the show seems set on a formula each week that is monotonous despite how the writers attempt to fill the pattern with more and more strange stuff. Each show consists of the team chasing the traveller in the modern day juxtaposed with scenes of the traveller's life in Alcatraz before he was taken, filmed in black and white. About halfway through each episode, a character nugget is revealed as the team investigates, and then the traveller is captured and taken away to the forest lair…which happens to be an exact duplicate of Alcatraz, except all in white. The dual storyline in each episode unfortunately reflects the same stunt used in Lost which over time went from any interesting story-telling technique to a crutch to an impediment to moving the overarching plot forward. And that comparison is waving huge red flags for Mrs. Speculator and me. As does each episode of Alcatraz ending with a special reveal, reminiscent of the splash page at the back of the stereotypical comic book, something to make the audience gasp and force them to wait impatiently for the next episode. In Lost, such reveals included uncovering the Hatch and finding a map to the island. On Alcatraz, the reveals have thus far included the existence of the secret governmental forces' forest lair and the collection of keys that is growing larger but the purpose of which no one knows.

The lack of character development, the repetitive formula that includes flashbacks, and the surprise ending each week is too reminiscent of Lost, and Mrs. Speculator and I feel like we were burned enough by that show that we don't want to start down that path again. Despite repeated promises that Lost had a definite end in mind and interviews with writers debunking certain theories, the end of Lost a dramatic letdown, leaving way too many questions unanswered. The press for Alcatraz has not been so loud—we have no idea if the writers have a plan in mind—but even if they claimed they did, I'm not sure we would believe it. One reviewer describes all the reveals and movement of the show as "mystery for the sake of being mysterious" and I find that a wonderfully apt description. Perhaps the point of shows like Lost and Alcatraz is just to go along for the ride and not worry about such mundane things as plot and character…just get immersed in the story. But we can't. Watching such shows has to pay off somehow—good story-telling usually. But Alcatraz seems bereft of any depth at all and we've got more important things to do with our TV time. I'll pay attention to show synopses in the next few weeks, and if they seem about to do something interesting, we'll maybe give it another shot. But I don't see it happening.

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