March 27, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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ALCATRAZ was a show–pardon the use of past tense:  the series still has a pulse, but recent ratings make it an increasing longshot for a repeat sentence–that just never found its groove.  Convoluted but obvious, original and yet impersonal, the show was rarely terrible and never essential.

The series was, as they say, “troubled.”  Original showrunner Elizabeth Sarnoff (who had worked on producer J.J. Abrams’ Lost and who created Alcatraz with the team of Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt) was replaced during production by Jennifer Johnson, with little explanation of what the problems had been.  Johnson co-wrote tonight’s season finale (which was a “2-hour event” only by virtue of the fact that FOX aired 2 episodes back-to-back) with fellow-Executive Producer Daniel Pyne and with Aaron Lipstadt directing.  The hour crystallized where the show had gone wrong.  
Alcatraz had the virtue of a premise that was complicated but comprehensible:  for some unexplained reason, inmates of the famous prison who were believed dead or vanished in 1963 started appearing in contemporary San Francisco without having aged a day, and went back to committing crimes.  A task force led by the somewhat mysterious Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) and Dr. Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra) was after the “63s,” and in the course of the show’s pilot, they recruited tough cop Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and geeky writer Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) to the team.  
There were, of course, layers to be revealed over the course of the season.  Hauser turned out to have been a guard on Alcatraz in 1963, where he had known Lucy, who was herself a non-evil (as far as we know) 63.  The prison warden Edwin James (Jonny Coyne) and his medical henchman Dr. Beuregard (Leon Rippy) had been running experiments on the prisoners’ blood that were somehow related to their ability to time-jump.  And Rebecca’s own grandfather was a particularly vicious 63 who had killed Rebecca’s partner.  Clues led to a secret chamber under the prison with a door that could neither be unlocked nor cut open.
And yet none of this mythology was ever particularly satisfying.  Because the structure of the show was set up as a time-jumping-criminal-of-the-week procedural, the pieces of the overall story were never sustained, and most of the episodic plots were either dull (bank robbers) or overly bizarre (a homicidal violinist who used his victim’s hair as the strings for his instrument).  There was never the sense of a mystery being gradually solved, just haphazard shards of a not-very-interesting puzzle.
A bigger problem was the flatness of the central characters.  Jones’ Rebecca seemed like someone who might be cool if you ever got to know her, but the show never let her do more than bark out orders and look frustrated.  (She was like Anna Torv in the first season of Fringe, before the show came up with inventive doppelgangers and other gimmicks to free her from her FBI restraints.)  Neill and Nagra suffered from the fact that their characters had so many secrets we could never really know anything about them, and while Garcia was lovable–I mean c’mon, he was Hurley–he was little more than comic relief.  (The great Robert Forster, as Rebecca’s uncle, was so rarely visible that he barely counted as a regular.)
In tonight’s episode, the team tracked down Rebecca’s grandfather long enough to get the key for the secret chamber, which turned out to reveal, of course, yet more mysteries to be explained.  Meanwhile, the show chose the worst possible season finale cliffhanger ploy:  the seeming death of the one character who we all know isn’t going to die, destroying any possibility of suspense.  (Although now we’ll probably never know for sure.)
Bad TV shows aren’t always extravagantly awful; sometimes they’re just uninvolving and a little dull.  Alcatraz has probably served out its last term on TV screens, and its viewers have likely been paroled.

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."