January 16, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Disclaimer:  Network pilots now in circulation are not necessarily in the form that will air in the Fall.  Pilots are often reedited and rescored, and in some cases even recast or reshot.  So these critiques shouldn’t be taken as full TV pilot reviews, but rather as a guide to the general style and content of the new shows coming your way.
ALCATRAZ –  Midseason Monday 9PM on FOX:   If Nothing Else Is On…

In this season of paired projects (Grimm and Once Upon A Time, The Playboy Club and Pan Am), it makes sense that we have two series produced by JJ Abrams:  CBS’s fall Person Of Interest and FOX’s midseason ALCATRAZ.  Of the two, Alcatraz has by far the more potential, but it’s a ragged piece of work that’ll need quite a bit of improvement before it hits the air.

Alcatraz posits the idea that in 1963, when the Bay Area maximum-security prison was shut down, the inmates were not transferred to other facilities–instead, they vanished off the face of the earth.  The mass disappearance was kept secret by the government, and only now, almost 50 years later, the criminals are beginning to reappear, not having aged a day and on mysterious missions to kill contemporary people for reasons even they don’t understand.  Spooky!  And worthy of the co-creator of Lost (Alcatraz is written by Elizabeth Sarnoff, a Lost producer, along with Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt, both junior writers on Kyle XY).  So far so good.
Alcatraz loses its grip when it tries to build a series structure around the premise.  For the millionth time, we’re back in the storyline where a gritty local detective (Sarah Jones as Rebecca Madsen) starts investigating the murder committed by one of the reemerged convicts, and despite being warned off by mysterious federal agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), she doggedly pursues the crime, until she proves herself instrumental in tracking the killer down and by the end of the pilot, she’s been added to the task force.  Naturally there’s a quirky expert (Jorge Garcia–hi, Hurley!) and a intense techie (Parminder Nagra), and naturally there are vague hints that Rebecca and her uncle (Robert Forster) may have more connection to what’s really going on than they realize.  It’s all terribly routine, and the rudimentary dialogue doesn’t add anything to the pilot’s by-the-numbers plotting, not to mention the problem of balancing between the time spent with our heroes and with the guest star villain, who’s part time traveler and part cipher.
The casting is also lacking.  Jones is very pretty, but not exactly ideal as an up-from-the-streets cop, while Neill’s done this kind of untrustworthy authority figure countless times, most recently in Happy Town and Daybreakers.  Garcia has earned a giant amount of audience goodwill, but they might as well have called his character (a professor who creates his own Alcatraz-themed comic books) Hurley and be done with it.  Nagra, who was a solid part of the latter-year ER ensemble, gets little to do.  In the pilot, none of them mesh into much of an ensemble, and the direction by Danny Cannon, a CBS procedural veteran, has a minimum of visual panache.  

Alcatraz won’t air until 2012, when House will move to 8PM on Mondays and the show will take the medical drama’s slot, so there’s plenty of time for some heavy polishing.  Few new series have as original and enticing a premise as this one; now they just need to find a format and style that will keep the show from feeling like hard time.

Read more about TV’s new shows at THE SKED PILOT REPORT.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."