TV review: ‘Alcatraz’ lacks the J.J. Abrams signature suspense and charm

By Holly Coletta

TV review: ‘Alcatraz’ lacks the J.J. Abrams signature suspense and charm

Fox’s “Alcatraz” has all the makings of another J.J. Abrams pop culture phenom: tough chick protagonist, mysterious island, governmental shadiness and lighting that makes everything automatically spooky and suspicious. But something just doesn’t quite click with the procedural paranormal drama, despite a pretty-good cast, production team with an established degree in awesome and intriguing premise.

All history buffs and their moms know about Alcatraz, the infamous rock island in the San Francisco Bay area that served as a federal prison until the early ‘60s, when Robert F. Kennedy ordered it be shut down due to skyrocketing costs and erosion. Abrams and his creative team, including fellow “Lost” writer Elizabeth Sarnoff, took the mystique of the prison and added a time-traveling touch – according to the drama, the prison was shut down after the prisoners (and some guards) just up and disappeared one morning, leaving no clues except their untouched personal belongings in shoe boxes in the basement.

Flash-forward 50 or so years to tomboyish detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and her seemingly run-of-the-mill bad guy chase . . . until the bad guy turns out to be a dead ringer of a former Alcatraz prisoner. Like any good Abrams heroine, Madsen just can’t let things go, and soon enough she’s teamed up with an Alcatraz mega-nerd/expert (Jorge Garcia), the mysterious and fancy-suited Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) and his even more mysterious PYT assistant, Lucy (Parminder Nagra).

The premiere consisted of back-to-back showings of the first two episodes, and it was just enough to convince audiences that “Alcatraz” may have some sort of secondhand “Lost” charm, or at least a chance at honing an uncanny ability to survive near ratings death multiple times, “Fringe”-style.

While “Lost,” “Alias,” and “Fringe” turned some viewers off due to brain-twisting plotlines, “Alcatraz” keeps its overarching mystery obvious, almost too much so. Sure, the big mystery of how these inmates are reappearing, un-aged, in the present day is interesting, but not so much as alternate dimensions or Matthew Fox screaming, “We have to go back!” The show follows a “one baddie per episode” sort of formula, which may work for a while, but there’s no telling whether angry inmate no. 23 would still hold audiences’ attention, especially amidst all the repetitive shots of the prison cells.

“Alcatraz” runs the risk of moving too slowly. That, coupled with the lack of insight into any of the characters’ personal lives, leaves the drama in a weird purgatory-like state, where it seems to kinda want to be “CSI” and isn’t sci-fi enough to be “The X-Files.”

Jones’ Madsen is the usual Abrams heroine, a tough Olivia Dunham type with Sydney Bristow-sized daddy issues, but there’s nothing about her that seems particularly charming, and girlfriend’s been given the worst haircut since the disaster Stana Katic had to sport in the first season of “Castle.”

Sam Neill makes a welcome return to pop culture relevancy, but his stone-faced Hauser is too much of an Abrams-style “good guy who’s maybe actually evil,” something that Ron Rifkin and Michael Emerson already did – and much better. Hauser is boring and two-dimensional, and it’d be better for everyone if he started catching dinosaurs from the island instead of prisoners. Nagra is another obviously mysterious character, as her Lucy barely gets enough screen time for audiences to memorize her name before she’s shot and put in a coma.

Garcia is the show’s main draw – he’s the go-to guy for wisecracks and manages to be charming, even though he’s essentially Hurley, his character from “Lost,” except now he’s obsessing over a different island and doesn’t have as much trouble talking to women. Garcia doesn’t seem to mind being the token comic relief though, and his genuine enthusiasm makes corny lines such as “So you put the Bat Cave under Alcatraz?” almost bearable.

The characters are cool, but they’re hardly complex – an oddity in an Abrams creation. The villains have been unlikable throwaways so far, and the weird flirtation between Rebecca and Garcia’s Doc is hardly up to par with the usual excellent romantic pairings and love-hate banter. There’s a good television show hidden somewhere, past the somewhat stilted writing.

Despite its flaws – characters that feel recycled from Abrams chronicles past, too many shots of slamming cell doors and a general need of fine-tuning – “Alcatraz” isn’t horrible. At its best, it stands a chance of eventually meeting cult status like “Fringe” and at its worse, well, at least it’s better than “Undercovers.”

Speakeasy Rating: C

“Alcatraz”

Fox

Mondays, 9 p.m.

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