By Aaron Broder
It feels a little unfair to review a J.J. Abrams show as early as I am doing with “Alcatraz.” Not to name names, but the shows he produces have a tendency to either take a while to warm up or slowly peter out–or both. But “Alcatraz” doesn’t seem like it’s going to be bucking any trends; so far it seems like it will fit pretty smoothly into the former category. The two-hour premiere (two separate episodes, really) that airs this Monday gives a slight glimpse into what might end up being a very compelling drama, but so far feels a little rote.
Let’s go down the J.J. Abrams checklist, shall we? A weird overarching mystery? Check. Apparently just before Alcatraz was shut down, all of the prisoners mysteriously vanished, and are returning in the present day, without having aged, creating the need for a special task force to take care of them. A “surprising” personal stake in the mystery? Lead detective Rebecca Madsen (played by Sarah Jones) finds out her grandfather, who she thought was a guard at the prison, was a prisoner–and she’d already unknowingly crossed paths with him. An adorkable nerd character thrown in for audience appeal? That’s right, Hurley from “Lost” is back with a fresh coat of paint as Dr. Diego Soto, and he’s even being played by the same actor (Jorge Garcia).
Characters we care about? No? Well, three out of four wouldn’t be too bad, if it weren’t for the fact that the fourth is so important. It’s too early to call the characters uninteresting, but the writers certainly haven’t been putting forth any effort to make me think otherwise. Madsen is the same policewoman archetype we’ve seen on every procedural from “Law & Order” to “Castle,” and recently losing a partner isn’t exactly a revolutionary spin on the trope. And there’s nothing really wrong with Dr. Soto, but that’s mainly because we don’t know anything about him. The one insight we’ve had into his personality is that he’s not sure he’s worthy of being on the task force–and considering they made this a plot thread in an episode where he did little to advance the case, I’m not inclined to disagree.
Even with the mythology being put into place, there isn’t enough to keep me coming back to the show. The murderers may be mysteriously un-aged Alcatraz prisoners, but when it comes right down to it, Madsen and Soto are basically just dealing with murders the way that any other cop show would. I’m not totally disinterested in the mystery–in particular, I want to know more about Lucy Banerjee (played by Parminder Nagra), a woman on the task force with a direct link to Alcatraz of 1963. But I don’t find myself caring about the two main characters at all.
Again, it feels unfair to judge a show so harshly so early on. “Fringe” was widely panned in its early days for similar reasons–formulaic plots, wooden characters–and it’s since grown to be some of the most compelling writing on TV both in terms of story and characterization. But it’s getting frustrating to have to wait like this for any sense of payoff in TV shows. I’ll revisit “Alcatraz” closer to the halfway mark of the first season and see if it’s picked up any, but in the meantime I’m not particularly interested in another procedural to add to the already endless list.