Review: Alcatraz (Fox) 1×1-1×2

A bad copy of Lost and Fringe from JJ Abrams


In the US: Mondays, 9pm ET/PT, Fox
In the UK: Acquired by Watch

A year ago, JJ Abrams had two shows on the air: Lost and Fringe. Lost, of course, was a story about a mysterious island that could cause people to travel through time; Fringe, which is still running on Fox, sees a group of federal agents (and a civilian weirdo), investigating strange crimes and criminals operating at the fringes of science.

If you were going to predict JJ Abram’s next show, only in wildest cynical pastiche would you have come up with Alcatraz, a show about a mysterious island that causes people to travel in time while a group of federal agents investigate strange crimes and criminals.

Yet here it is on Fox. It’s even got Hurley (Jorge Garcia) from Lost as one of the leads, as well as that nice Sam Neill from Jurassic Park. The basic plot: the Alcatraz prison wasn’t actually shut down because of lack of money, but because every single person in the prison, warden and prisoner alike, disappeared one night back in the 60s. Now, one by one, they’re popping up again, not having aged a day, and the government wants to find out why and stop them from committing any more crimes now they’re free.

And to nobody’s surprise, it’s not even half as good as Lost or Fringe. Here’s a trailer.

From executive producer J.J. Abrams (FRINGE, “Lost,” “Star Trek,” and the recent blockbuster “Super 8”) comes ALCATRAZ, a thrilling new series that follows a unique trio investigating the mystifying reappearance of 302 of Alcatraz’s most notorious prisoners and guards, 50 years after they vanished.

When San Francisco Police Department DET. REBECCA MADSEN (Sarah Jones) is assigned to a grisly homicide case, a fingerprint leads her to a seemingly impossible suspect: JACK SYLVANE (guest star Jeffrey Pierce), an Alcatraz inmate who died over 30 years ago. Given her family history – both her grandfather and surrogate uncle, RAY ARCHER (Robert Forster), were guards at the prison – Madsen’s interest is immediately piqued. When the enigmatic, knows-everything-but-tells-nothing government agent EMERSON HAUSER (Sam Neill) tries to impede her investigation, she becomes doggedly committed to it.

Madsen finds herself working with an unlikely partner, Alcatraz expert and comic book enthusiast DR. DIEGO “DOC” SOTO (Jorge Garcia), to help piece together the inexplicable sequence of events. The two discover that Sylvane is not only alive, but he’s loose on the streets of San Francisco, exacting decades-old revenge and leaving bodies in his wake. And strangely, he hasn’t aged a day since 1963, when Alcatraz was ruled by the iron-fisted WARDEN EDWIN JAMES (Jonny Coyne) and the sadistic ASSOCIATE WARDEN E.B. TILLER (Jason Butler Harner).

Detective Madsen and Soto must team with Hauser and his associate, LUCY BANERJEE (Parminder Nagra), to stop Sylvane’s vengeful killing spree. By delving into Alcatraz history, government cover-ups and Rebecca’s own heritage, the team will ultimately discover that Sylvane is only a small part of a much larger, more sinister present-day threat. Because even though he may be the first, it quickly becomes clear that Sylvane won’t be the last to reappear from Alcatraz.

During the course of the investigation, Madsen and Soto will learn that Hauser has been awaiting the prisoners’ return for nearly 50 years. Soto will witness his life’s work – the history of Alcatraz – come alive, while he and Madsen fight to keep the country safe from history’s most dangerous criminals.

ALCATRAZ is produced by Bonanza Productions Inc. in association with Bad Robot Productions and Warner Bros. Television. The series is executive-produced by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk (“Lost,” “Fringe” and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”), Jennifer Johnson (“Cold Case”), Daniel Pyne (“Fracture”), and Jack Bender (“Lost”), who also serves as a director. Elizabeth Sarnoff (“Lost”), Steven Lilien (“Kyle XY”) and Bryan Wynbrandt (“Kyle XY”) co-created the series. Danny Cannon (“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “CSI: Miami”) directed and executive-produced the pilot.

Is it any good?
The show operates at two levels: the mystery of why the people of Alcatraz disappeared, why they’re coming back, who’s helping them in their ‘missions’ and what interest/involvement the mysterious government organisation Sam Neill is part of has in them; and the weekly procedural in which our heroine (Sarah Jones) and Hurley from Lost (it’s basically the same character) track them down and incarcerate them again, while learning precisely nothing useful about the first level of the show.

The mystery itself is okay. It’s largely told in flashbacks and is largely undefined. It’s going to be five seasons at this rate before we learn anything truly useful – or are even tempted with something that we’d really like to know about: a true mystery, rather than an ersatz mystery created purely to make us keep watching, in other words.

The procedural is pretty boring. It’s a bunch of criminals with thin motivations, who tell us nothing useful, and are chased around then easily found. There’s no magic spark here at all. Jones and her character are as mono-dimensional as Olivia was in Fringe‘s early days. Pseudo-Hurley isn’t anywhere near as entertaining as Hurley, even if he does throw out comic book references every five minutes.

The two levels do occasionally get knitted together and draw a little inspiration from Lost‘s storytelling methods. We see the criminal from the first episode in the flashbacks of the second episode; Jones’s father (Robert Forster) and grandfather are all linked in somehow; there are mysterious objects and events that don’t make sense until later; there’s even a top-secret underground bunker. And if you think the music sounds a little familiar, well, guess what it’ll remind you of.

The whole thing feels like a less classy version of both Lost and Fringe, strung together by people who are trying to take the best elements of both and synthesise a new version, without really understanding what makes the other two shows work. Alcatraz isn’t awful and there is a little something compelling about it. Nevertheless, it’s just very generic. Avoid getting suckered in by it.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

    View all posts