Television Review: J.J. Abrams' Alcatraz Pilot Episode

Sam Neill and Sarah Jones investigate The Rock (no, not Dwayne Johnson) in Alcatraz,
  • Sam Neill and Sarah Jones investigate The Rock (no, not Dwayne Johnson) in Alcatraz,
Alcatraz centers on a cover-up involving the unexplained disappearance of 302 prisoners and guards from its namesake prison in 1963. Now the criminals are reappearing one by one in the present, and it's up to the Loose Cannon Cop Who Stumbles Upon The Conspiracy, the Shadowy Government Agent Who Knows More Than He's Telling and their peripheral crew to catch the convicts while figuring out how and why the whole thing happened in the first place. The Loose Cannon Cop (played with requisite attitude and surprising cleavage by Sarah Jones) has a personal connection to the disappearances, naturally; as the Shadowy Government Agent, Sam Neill prowls and speaks in a menacing gravelly monotone and generally plays the part from about five millimeters on the entertaining side of overkill. Robert Forster is perfectly gruff and loving as the Loose Cannon Cop's surrogate parent, Parminder Nagra (ER) is geek-gorgeous with the British accent, and Jorge Garcia quietly kills it, though he's helpless not to conjure the ghost of a certain favorite scene-stealer.

Overall, the performances are more than solid, as are the writing and directing. And the thug-of-the-week structure is a neat, if obvious, setup. The real problems with Alcatraz involve its lack of personality — unlike former Abrams productions, this one feels like a compromise, like Abrams-meets-[insert gritty cop show] — and the larger story arc. A lot of paranormal and sci-fi fans have been burned by this kind of intrigue; no one has been able to sustain it over multiple seasons AND bring it to a satisfying conclusion. Pairing an epic speculative-fiction mystery with a such a cliched week-to-week format may cost Abrams his fans in an attempt to draw in a wider viewership. After all, as any veteran TV cop can tell you, the intrigue never lasts, and once it's gone, there's nothing left but cleaning up the crime scenes and closing the cases — and there's far too much of that on TV already.

Mystery! Intrigue! Numbers! What might be time travel! A slightly subdued Hurley!

Yup … it's a J.J. Abrams show.

This time around, producer Abrams teamed up with a number of previous teammates (including Lost writer Elizabeth Sarnoff and director Jack Bender) and like-minded collaborators to apply his familiar blend of contemporary melodrama and the paranormal to the cop genre. Abrams has always excelled at bringing compelling characters and a uniquely infectious balance of real-world emotion and fantastical sci-fi to the small screen, and Alcatraz does deliver on those counts, albeit in a much subtler and more mainstream way than, say, Fringe.

Abrams has also always excelled at delivering the kind of mind-blowing pilots and debut seasons that capture the imagination and ensure a dedicated viewership. But when compared to the bulk of his more recent TV work, the first two hours of Alcatraz come off as decidedly mediocre — they remind the viewer that the guy who helped bring you Lost is also the guy who helped force-feed you Alias.


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