Monday, January 16, 2012

Winter pilots: Alcatraz

Mondays at 9 -- Fox

J.J. Abrams name has a lot of cachet amidst the geek circles thanks to a largely remarkable track record of genre T.V. shows and movies that he's had a hand in creating, but let's be honest, it was Abrams' involvement with, and killer pilot for Lost that got him where he is.  Now, as a producer, his name is bandied about with more and more frequency and the quality/success levels haven't necessarily held up to expectations that Abrams' name elicits.  Undercovers last year fizzled quickly, and Person of Interest got off to a slow start but is finding its footing on some still-shaky ground.  For some reason, expectations are higher for Alcatraz, I guess because of the "mysterious island where weird shit happens" connection and the expectation of a grand mystery to explore (302 people disappeared from the prison in 1963 and now they've returned).  Unfortunately expectations aren't met... at least not at first.

Tonight saw two episodes air back-to-back (rather than a two hour pilot), which was actually a smart move on Fox's part, as the first episode is pretty dismal, while the second actually recovers the fumble rather than losing possession altogether.

The pilot fails by spending too much time on the story-of-the-week figure distracting from the mythology it's trying to build and the characters that it's centering on.  Once it finally succumbs to actually administering the set-up with some revelations (in the last 7 or 8 minutes), it rushes through them awkwardly.  There are some great concepts at play here, but they don't get the time or attention they deserve, likewise some of the character aspects aren't handled very strategically, such as the revelation that the man who killed Detective Rebecca Madsen's partner was her own grandfather, one of the inmates from Alcatraz. 

They spend so much time on Jack Sylvane's story, which comes across as a plot-of-the-week-type structure, that they don't really get the opportunity to develop the primary characters, certainly not their personalities or any distinguishing traits.  Madsen (Sarah Jones), meets Doctor Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia), author of multiple books on the titular prison (as well as a comic book series prominently promoted in his own comic book store) and enlists his help in unravelling the mystery of Jack Sylvane's reappearance, encountering and then recruited by the feds, led by Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill).  Despite these sweeping gestures, it still felt like a mid-series episode rather than a pilot.

The pilot is serviceable but unimpressive.  There's plenty of weirdness that is far too understated or not even called into question, all of which should be the meat that the series is hanging upon.  The direction and visual style of the pilot is lackluster, and Michael Giacchino's score in the first episode is overbearing, at times overwhelming and inappropriate for the scene.

The second episode, fares far better, hinting at a bigger world within the show, establishing a sense of community (under a dictatorship) within Alcatraz of 1960, and a sense of connection between the story-of-the-week each episode, as Jack Sylvane appears again, facing a whole lot of questions that he's unprepared to answer.   The connectivity of the show happens a lot earlier than other Abrams-produced series, like Person of Interest or Fringe did from the onset which I think is a learned lesson.   It can't be easy to launch into the major series arcs while still finding your footing as a cast, crew, writing and production team, but it's, I think, necessary in order to hook fickle viewers at this point. By acknowledging the obvious questions that the first episode hinted at but never took the time to address, the second episode is the lure that hopes to hook the fish.

It's not as immediately addictive as some shows, but it has potential.  Late in the second episode there's a nice moment between Madsen and Soto that hints at a charming partnership, like a weird cross between Castle and the X-Files (though it could stand a little more of the humour of those).  Both Jones and Garcia are appealing in their roles, but are hindered by a lack of recognizable character traits.  Garcia's Soto at least has a home base in a charming-looking comics shop, but Jones' Madsen has no place to call her own yet.  Their personal lives don't need to be a major focus, but glimpse early on would help provide a nice hint as to who they are.  Neill's Hauser is supposed to be hard to read, and Neill plays it well, with a bit of a mischievous glint in his eye.

What they do with the next episode could tell a lot about the direction of the series.  If it's just another "prisoner-of-the-week", then the show's more interested in establishing its formula than its underlying mythology.  If it really delves into the world of Alcatraz in 1960 via the characters of modern day (giving them, and not just the audience, more insight into what they're actually there to do) then it will show the level of thoughtfulness and consideration that was put into the show and its structure.  Of course, it could land somewhere in between and wind up being like the radically uneven first season of Fringe.  At the very least it's worth checking out again.