J.J. Abrams’ production company Bad Robot has had quite the prolific run recently—Person of Interest, the return of Fringe, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, next year’s sequel to Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, and now the trippy sci-fi drama Alcatraz, which premiered this previous Monday on FOX. Unfortunately this new series isn’t as compelling as Fringe, with which it shares many similarities with as well Bad Robot’s most popular series, LOST, nor is it as inventive as the Jim Caviziel-starring Person of Interest. As disappointing as it may sound, Alcatraz feels like Bad Robot phoning it in, culling aspects from their other series, as well as actors (Jorge Garcia plays an Alcatraz expert), even going so far as to cut and paste a Michael Giacchino score, certain threads of which sound almost exactly like themes from his earlier work.

Alcatraz tells the story of the titular prison, and more specifically a group of prisoners and guards that vanished under mysterious circumstances in 1963. Now, nearly fifty years later the prisoners are returning, without having aged, and wreaking havoc in modern day San Francisco. Buried deep within the clichés and contrivances are the seeds of an intriguing show, but as it stands right now viewers are better off watching one of Bad Robot’s other projects. The general premise of Alcatraz is solid, even if it recalls other shows such as The 4400, but premise alone isn’t enough to make a television program great. Look at what happened to The Event, for example.

Lack of originality aside, Alcatraz’s real problem lies in its characters. More than cinema, great television hinges on great characters. These are people we need to feel obliged to follow week after week, so if they don’t grab us in the first episode, chances are we won’t be back to follow the rest of their adventures. Though Alcatraz centers on three primary characters, its protagonist is Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) a plucky Frisco detective that like much of the rest of the show, feels like a diluted version of Fringe’s Olivia Dunham and Alias’ Sidney Bristow.

Jones seems like a generally capable actress, but it’s hard for me to take her seriously as a detective. Her portrayal as the “hot girl cop” seems almost tongue and cheek in its blatancy; her excessive makeup and low-cut, cleavage-tastic shirts make her seem less like an actual person, and more like a foil to Garcia’s awkward Diego Soto- essentially a less dumb version of his LOST persona, Hurley. If it weren’t for his college degree and intelligence, Soto would be indistinguishable from Hurley- he’s fat, nerdy, works at a comic book shop and is chock full of pop culture references. The character was clearly written for him, but unlike Michael Emerson’s Finch on Person of Interest, Soto comes off as nothing more than a personification of Garcia’s actual personality.

Garcia is still giving it his all, and still displays the same level of earnestness that made Hurley such a likeable character. The real problem is with Detective Madsen, a truly flat excuse for a character. Not once in the two hour premiere did I find myself feeling one iota of compassion for her, not when her partner plummeted to his death or later on, when she discovered his murderer is in fact her time-traveling grandfather. I find her prettiness distracting, and don’t really understand why the creators opted for such a cutesy character, especially as they’ve done such a good job crafting strong female characters in the past.

Sam Neill’s Alcatraz guard turned clandestine federal agent- the ridiculously named Emerson Hauser- is the most compelling character, and probably the only reason to tune back in for the next episode. He’s eccentric and morally ambiguous, and unlike the other two characters, has a personal connection to Alcatraz and the supernatural phenomena that occurred there. Neill is always a delight to watch, though I do wish the writers would give him some better material to work with.

The cast of Alcatraz.

Another odd aspect of Alcatraz is the show’s procedural format. The premise lends itself more to a serialized narrative, but if the first two episodes are any indication, the show will follow an “escaped prisoner of the week” format, and since 302 prisoners disappeared in 1963, the show all but declares its intention to surpass the 300 episode mark. Person of Interest’s ominous Orwellian supercomputer allows for a story that is more episodic than other Bad Robot shows, but Alcatraz would benefit from a faster pace that in all likelihood, it won’t have.

Pacing is bogged down by somewhat unnecessary flashbacks that delve into the lives of the missing prisoners. A novel idea, but again it harkens back to LOST, a show that Alcatraz really should be making pains to distance itself from, as it too involves a mysterious island and stars Jorge Garcia. Though there is some potential here, in the first two hours the flashbacks fall flat on nearly every level. Instead of taking cues from the true history of the infamous prison, the creators instead decided to essentially rip off the tone and characters of The Shawshank Redemption, particularly with the manipulative, conniving warden.

The flashbacks are also bizarre in that they attempt to endear the viewer to the prisoners, but as Hauser continuously points out, only the worst of the worst criminals were sent to Alcatraz, so these are rapists and serial murderers the show is desperately trying to get us to empathize with. The first hour tells us that centric prisoner Jack Sylvane was sent to the Rock on a technicality- he robbed a general store that also doubled as a federal post office, an incredibly far-fetched contrivance that doesn’t really give the viewer any additional sympathy for the guy when in the present day he’s going around murdering cops and executing people.

The second hour is even stranger. It centers on Ernest Cobb, a sociopathic serial killer that snipes victims and is generally antisocial. Flashbacks do little to make us feel anything about Cobb either way- the first time we’re introduced to him he’s assassinating teen lovers on a Ferris wheel, so it’s hard to hate him more than we already do, or alternatively like him. In other words, these flashbacks are somewhat redundant, and since they don’t delve into Cobb’s troubled home life and his hatred for his sister, and instead tell an unnecessary tale of Cobb conniving his way into solitary to avoid a talkative neighbor, they seem even more out of place. The show would have been better off using this time to build upon the personalities of its principal trio, especially as Madsen is so cold and boring, rather than forcibly shoving a flashback mechanic into its narrative to remind viewers that it comes “from the creators of LOST.” Hell, it even uses a sound cue to designate when it’s transitioning in and out of flashbacks, just like its predecessor did, only this time it’s the sound of a clattering cell door.

Overall, Alcatraz has some interesting ideas that could be built upon in future episodes, but it feels so run of the mill that it isn’t really worth anyone’s time, even the most diehard J.J. Abrams fan. There’s better, more compelling fare from Bad Robot on TV already, and a quick look at IMDB shows that each of Alcatraz’s upcoming episodes are named after whichever prisoner they will be focusing on, proving that this show, right out of the gate, is stuck in a rut. Stick with Fringe and Person of Interest—there’s really no need to return to the world of islands, flashbacks and overweight, well-meaning nerds with long curly hair.

Culture Alcatraz Premiere Review