Shiny Shelf


By Mark Clapham on 29 March 2012

‘Alcatraz’ (Tuesdays and a million repeats, Watch) is perhaps the archetypal post-’Lost’ TV series.

Produced by ‘Lost’ co-creator JJ Abrams, it adopts a lot of the basic structure and trappings of its predecessor, flipping between two time zones to unpeel a character’s back-story, while combining fast-moving and straightforward episodic A-plots with an underlying, slowly unfolding mystery.

The central concept of ‘Alcatraz’ is this: the 300-plus inmates in Alcatraz, along with the warders and staff, disappeared one day in 1963, and the US government covered it up by claiming the prison was closed and the prisoners transferred. In the present day, the criminals from Alcatraz are returning, unaged, and continuing their criminal careers. An unnamed agency of four people have to stop them.

It’s a simple enough pitch to be summed up in the title sequence, but also a very obscure idea for a big budget TV show and kind of pointless – beyond the time travel gimmick, we’re just talking about cops and criminals, so why bother with the Sci-Fi framing at all?

It’s also intensely predictable if you’ve seen any Abrams shows before: when characters are not what they seem it’s in entirely expected ways, the ‘twists’ are telegraphed so far in advance you wonder if they’re even supposed to be surprises. The first three episodes all end with ‘look, this character has turned up in a place we didn’t expect’ scenes of the kind that became a cliche in ‘Lost’.

So, in spite of the presence of Abrams and ‘Lost’ alum Jorge Garcia as a nerdish Alcatraz expert, as well as the fervent wishes of the marketing people, ‘Alcatraz’ isn’t ‘Lost’. It doesn’t have the initial impact of that show’s intriguing, huge budget pilot – in fact, the pilot is the worst written of the episodes so far, and falls far short of blockbuster action – nor the compulsive pull of its plotting. The characters are stock types for this type of show, and the majority of each episode is a straightforward procedural.

Nonetheless, ‘Alcatraz’ is entertaining, and very watchable in its own mindless way. While it lacks the big bangs of ‘Lost’ or even the first series of ‘Heroes’, it is slickly made entertainment that motors along. After the clunky pilot the thudding, exposition-heavy dialogue gets lighter and sharper, and builds an appealing central partnership between Sarah Jones (as former cop Madsen) and Garcia. The mystery isn’t particularly compelling, but there’s enough development to keep the show lightly intriguing.

It passes the time, basically. I expect the producers and network wanted to have a bit more impact than that but, you know – tough.

Three additional thoughts which didn’t really fit in the review so I’ve put them here instead:

1. Is Sam Neill – who ‘plays’ Hauser, mysterious boss of the mysterious agency hunting the Alcatraz time-travellers – ever going to wake up and realise he’s in a TV series?

2. The pilot for a TV series based on Brian Michael Bendis’ comic ‘Powers’ has recently lost its Deena Pilgrim, British actress Lucy Punch. The ‘Powers’ camp must be hoping for ‘Alcatraz’ to be canceled, because Sarah Jones is the perfect Deena, from haircut to attitude.

3. Anyone else think that the proliferation of fantasy shows is spreading these concepts a bit thin? Seriously, this is not the first big US fantasy/SF show of the last couple of years where the central mystery/phenomenon is the kind of thing that Mulder and Scully or Doctor Who would have wrapped up in a single episode.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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