When I started doing web journalism as a hobby, I never thought it would lead me to a cell deep in the bowels of an infamous maximum security prison. But last week that is exactly where I found myself.
Of course, this was the kind of prison stay that included catered food, open bars – both on the cells and in the mess hall – and a screening of Fox’s new J.J. Abrams produced supernatural procedural Alactraz. Hit the jump for the whole story including some brief thoughts on the pilot and pictures from the event.
After a sunset ferry ride to the Rock, cast, crew and press set up shop in the shower room for red carpet interviews. However, due to technical delays, the actual press line didn’t start for almost an hour after the appointed time. As a result, I was able to wander around the prison unsupervised. There were gates here and there and some off limits areas but by and large I was able to do whatever I wanted.
As a guy who spent countless nights engaging in urban exploration at a shuttered school for the mentally handicapped just outside of his college town, this was a unique opportunity and a pretty great thrill.
The cellblock floors were appropriately decrepit and there was a legitimately creepy atmosphere to the complex. But at the same time, there was also a queer sense of hyper-reality. Alcatraz was certainly a horrific place to be for many decades, but today it carries the mood of a demented theme park. It looks like a prison, it feels like a prison, the workers even dress in the style of prison guards; but it’s not a prison.
Elements and period details that were once designed to dehumanize inmates have been turned into kitsch: the mug shot booth is a gag, the metal dinner trays are a cute detail, the warden’s stern tone is ironic, the tiny cells are little more than sets for eye-catching profile pictures.
This sense of confused reality continued into the premiere screening where the audience watched a digital projection of Cell Block D while sitting in the real Cell Block D. Except, it wasn’t the same location because the show didn’t actually film at Alcatraz. I sat in the back of the real room, watching a shot of a fake version of the room taken from almost exactly my vantage point. A photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy…
As the series begins, a young girl wanders away from her Alcatraz tour group and discovers a mysterious stranger sleeping in one of the prison cells. We quickly discover that the man isn’t an overexerted tourist, but rather a real prisoner displaced in time.
In short order, the prisoner (Jeffrey Pierce) hunts down the guards who abused him forty years prior. He shoots the warden in cold blood. Demands a mysterious key from another man. And so on. It’s kind of like The Crow, with less Halloween makeup.
After Pierce leaves a fingerprint at the scene of a murder, a young detective (Sarah Jones) still reeling from the death of her partner, joins forces with a quirky Alcatraz historian (Jorge Garcia) to figure out how a man with a decades old death certificate is still committing crimes. The unlikely duo follow the clues while they fight to stay one step ahead of the Feds, lead by a sinister G-man (Sam Neill) who may hold the key to the whole mystery.
Alcatraz has a handsomely produced pilot, a talented cast, a compelling premise and the beginnings of an interesting mythology. Like Lost, the show hops between timelines and centers on an impossible-to-escape island. However, the two shows are not actually that similar.
Whereas Lost was a character study, Alcatraz seems more reminiscent of The X-Files monster of the week formatting. Each episode focuses on the hunt for a different inmate who awakens in modern day San Francisco while also slowly revealing the how and why of the time jumping.
It’s a clever idea, but even with an extra six months to rework the pilot and the first few episodes, there are still significant problems. Lost worked because the island’s supernatural mysteries were the icing on the cake. Viewers came back week after week to see what happened to Locke, Sawyer, Jack, Kate and the rest. By the end of Lost’s first episode viewers had an emotional hook for almost every single member of the ensemble cast. Alcatraz doesn’t match this feat.
With the exception of Garcia, who imbues his character with a great deal of personality and stands out because of his atypical-for-the-genre physicality, all of the players are fairly stock. Jones is the primary protagonist, but her first scene does nothing to establish her as a person. Instead, she appears in an action scene where she is the third most important element. Her first real dialogue is a pat discussion with her superior about picking a new partner. Neill’s G-man is equally blasé. He is a tough, gruff Fed who demands control and cannot be trusted. His first beat is entering a crime scene and demanding that all the local police leave, “This is my crime scene now.”
Too, it feels as though the reshoots might have gone too far in simplifying the complexities of the set up. Every time we see Alcatraz in the 1960s there is a totally unnecessary titlecard explaining the temporal shift. The exposition is often very direct and on the nose. By the time we see the same flashback for a third time and then have a character look into the camera to explain exactly what it means, the show began to feel like it was talking down to the audience.
That said, the ideas and tricks on the edges of the episode are very engaging. The slow reveal of character connections and hidden details imply a larger world for the story that I am excited to discover. And the final scene, set inside what appears to be a new Alcatraz Cell Block D, left me eager to see episode two.
There is a great show somewhere in Alcatraz. The procedural elements could make it easily digestible to the casual viewer while the macro-mystery invites obsessive rewatching and note taking for those who like to look deeper. Add to this the groovy alternate reality game that Fox plans to run for the whole of the first season and you have an interesting recipe. But without a real human core to hang the ornate plotting upon, I don’t know exactly how deep this rabbit hole can go. What’s here is good enough to warrant a few weeks attention; if the characters come into their own by episode six, Alcatraz could be obsession worthy.
Alcatraz premieres tonight on FOX.
Finally, thanks to FOX for providing us with images from the event.