First Thoughts on FOX’s ALCATRAZ: CBS Would Have Called it FRINGE: SAN FRANCISCO

Alcatraz (2012) – Episodes 1 and 2: “Pilot” and “Ernest Cobb” – Original airdate: January 16, 2012 – Starring Sam Neill, Sarah Jones, Jorge Garcia, and Parminder Nagra.

The comparisons to FRINGE are obvious even without the Bad Robot connection, so let’s start there. Like FRINGE, ALCATRAZ has cops working for a secret division tracking weird things. There’s a blonde woman cop at the center, a male sidekick with expertise in the appropriate field, and an older guy who knows more than he lets on with a non-white assistant. They’ve got a newfangled lab in an oldfangled building. Michael Giacchino provides the music. They cast a relative unknown for the female lead, they grab someone from a previous hit TV show to play the sidekick, and get someone from a big geek movie to play the know-it-all, difficult to work with older guy.

It’s a curious decision to build FRINGE 2.0 when FRINGE 1.0 struggles for ratings, but then, this is FOX, and they do love their clones. I’m pretty sure Seth McFarlane recently bought Hong Kong because of this.

ALCATRAZ has plenty of differences to FRINGE, of course. For instance, it takes place on the OTHER side of the country. I mean, yes, it’s another liberal-minded coast city, but Alcatraz prison has nothing in common with Harvard University.

At all.

The one major difference between the two shows is that it’s taken the characters of Broyles and Walter and combined them into Sam Neill. Neill plays Emerson Hauser, who was a young guard at Alcatraz the night everyone disappeared and now works for the FBI, waiting for the “63s” (his codename for the vanished inmates and guards) to return. He’s built his top secret lab in the basement of Alcatraz and he’s got a room off to the side where he’s got pictures of everyone that went missing.

The wall is important because blonde cop Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) recognizes her grandfather, Tommy Madsen, on the wall of inmates. This is a big deal because Madsen thought her grandpa was a guard at Alcatraz and not a prisoner. It’s a double big deal because she realizes that it was her grandfather who was responsible for the death of her partner. It’s such a big “coincidence” that Rebecca accuses Emerson of wanting her involved in his little secret op, but Emerson is all, “I didn’t. You’ll have to prove yourself to me every single day.”

Thanks for clearing that up.

Rebecca doesn’t want a partner because, well, because her partner fell off a building when chasing the guy who turns out to be her grandfather. She needs a partner, though, because this is a TV show, and so she gets stuck with Hurley. Or, as he’s known here, Dr. Hurley. I mean, Dr. Soto, who both runs a comic book shop and writes books about Alcatraz. It’s Doc who knows a back entrance to a secret room beneath Alcatraz that leads to them getting gassed by Emerson, which leads to them getting on his special team. So … win one for breaking and entering and win another one for getting gassed.

Where ALCATRAZ really differs from FRINGE is that while there’s an ongoing mystery here, this is much more a police procedural than a grand narrative. Think of it as FRINGE for the CSI crowd. Each episode has one of the 63s doing something in the present, the Not Fringe Division catches them, and then Sam Neill takes them to a fancy new super prison hidden in the woods that’s all white and clean inside, except with cells that look like Alcatraz cells.

The super prison has to be in the woods because Madsen and Doc don’t know about it. Why? Because Emerson Hauser is a bad ass.

ALCATRAZ strikes this weird greying of sympathy between the good guys and bad guys. I mean, yeah, Madsen and Doc are the good guys, but there’s a purposeful blurring of morals. Take the criminals. Jack Sylvane is a mostly sympathetic character in the past. He committed a crime, but ends up in Alcatraz because he killed an inmate in another prison. The associate warden keeps giving him a hard time and denying him visitation rights with his wife. So in the past, it’s the warden and the guards who seem like a dick. Yet, when Jack comes to the present, he’s not sympathetic at all. He kills the associate warden, then kills some cops, beats up a guy, and kidnaps his brother. Now, his brother did marry Jack’s wife when Jack was locked away, so I’m not saying he didn’t have it coming, but, you know, it doesn’t make Jack overly sympathetic.

On the whole, ALCATRAZ is just sort of there without being either compelling or off-putting. It will totally go into the “I’ll watch it when I’m bored and there’s 4 episodes stacked up in the Hulu queue” category. Maybe it will catch on, maybe it won’t. The disappointing thing, for me, is that the procedural stuff is infinitely more interesting than the whole, secondary “mystery” part of the show. How are these people getting to the present? What really happened? How important is Rebecca’s grandfather? Are they really gonna pay Robert Forster to appear in one scene every other episode?

I don’t know and right now I don’t really care all that much. I hope the show improves, but right now it’s just a show that’s finding its way that’s going to get a shot in my Hulu queue because of the inclusion of Hurley and Sam Neill more than anything else.

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2 thoughts on “First Thoughts on FOX’s ALCATRAZ: CBS Would Have Called it FRINGE: SAN FRANCISCO

  1. I gave watching ALCATRAZ a pass even though it’s got Sam Neill and Jorge Garcia. I guess I’m just tired of the networks trying to create another ‘Lost’. If it turns out ALCATRAZ clicks, I can catch up via Hulu or Netflix.

  2. I think that’s a wise strategy, Derrick. There’s just no chemistry here, yet, and the premise, by itself, isn’t enough to make this a must watch. It’s not a total disaster, but I’d much rather watch Sam Neill for an hour rather than splitting time with Madsen and Doc Soto.

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