Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Is Everything You Know About Alcatraz an Elaborate Hoax?

If it seems like all I do is watch TV, it seems that way because, lately, that is all I've been doing. But, you know, in the freezing cold winter of Nebraska, I challenge you to find anything else to do. I tuned in to the premiere of the new series from J.J. Abrams (Lost, Fringe), Alcatraz

I was unsure about whether or not this would be a good series, because I've seen the Alcatraz movie and know the history of the legendary prison. Add to that the fact that there have already been more than enough "prison break" shows on television over the years. But for this telling of the story of Alcatraz, all of that history is being changed. This is not your parents' Alcatraz show.

The series is set in the present day, where the Alcatraz prison is a tourist destination. While on a tour of the prison, a little girl sneaks into a restricted area and finds a man sleeping in one of the solitary confinement cells. The man, startled and confused, quickly gets his bearings, steals someone's jacket, and boards one of the tourist boats to travel to San Francisco. We later learn that this man was an Alcatraz prisoner in 1963, and should be about 80 years old. The problem is, he looks exactly like he did in the 1960s. He has not aged a day.

The prisoner then tracks down the old warden of the prison (who is now quite old) and kills him. He left a fingerprint; and the police have no idea how the fingerprint of a man, who supposedly died in the 70s, could be found at a crime scene in 2012. Despite the case being taken from her jurisdiction, Det. Rebecca Madsen (played by hot newcomer, Sarah Jones), stays on the case due to her personal connection to Alcatraz (her uncle and grandfather both worked there).
She finds the supposed most renowned expert on Alcatraz, Diego Soto (played by Jorge Garcia, "Hugo" on Lost), working in a comic book shop. She recruits him to help her figure out this mystery. Despite being pressured to stay away from the case, Madsen and Soto continue investigating until the federal agents in charge relent and bring them in officially.

The Feds reveal that the official story regarding the closing of Alcatraz is bogus. In fact, the prison was closed because one day, out of nowhere, all of the prisoners and guards just disappeared. They literally dropped off the face of the earth. This is shown in the form of a flashback, also, where it is revealed that the newbie guard who witnesses the empty prison is now federal agent, Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), who is in charge of the current investigation.

Hauser tells his new team that these prisoners have been randomly returning, without aging, or knowing specifically what happened to them. However, since these were the worst of the worst prisoners in America, their return is very dangerous. But Hauser is keeping a few details hidden from Madsen and Soto. Namely, that when a prisoner is re-captured, he is brought to a secret prison underneath the old Alcatraz.

So, that is the basic jist of the show. As with most J.J. Abrams productions, things are not always as they seem. There are many unanswered questions about what happened to these prisoners and guards, in addition to the true motivation behind Hauser's investigation. He is definitely not being completely forthcoming with his new colleagues. Another hallmark of J.J. Abrams is the use of flashbacks in the storytelling (this was huge in Lost). There is no shortage of them in Alcatraz. Through use of the flashback, we can see what the lives of the prisoners were like back in the 1960s: the abuse, the taunting, and a window into the crimes committed by them.
The show seems interesting based on the two hour premiere, but I can't yet tell if this will become a show I will tune in to week after week. I do have a few issues with what I have seen so far. First and foremost, I don't want to seem sexist, but there is no way Sarah Jones, the actress, could ever be a cop. She's too small, and there is no way she could handle the average street criminal. I am, however, willing to suspend my disbelief because she is so cute, and looks great running down the street, gun in hand, ready to shoot someone. Another issue is that I cannot look at Jorge Garcia without seeing Hurley/Hugo from Lost. I think I will always identify him that way. Not his fault, of course, but that is what happens when you star in one of the most successful television series of all time.

Another issue I have is the sometime referral to Alcatraz as "the island." Yes, I know Alcatraz is on an island, so technically, it is correct to call it that. But in a show created by and starring people from Lost, it draws too much attention to the old show to keep talking about "the island." They sometimes called it "the rock," which is much better, and more appropriate.

I am anticipating that there is still much we do not know about what happened to the folks at Alcatraz: who "took" them and why, what is the true nature of Emerson Hauser's investigation, and why it was so essential to have Rebecca Madsen on his team. For me, one unanswered question, so far, is why they need an expert on Alcatraz when the entire story of the prison he knows and has written extensively about, is a lie. Is there another reason a civilian like Soto was so easily brought into the fold?  

J.J. Abrams is very good about laying down a predicate for a show before revealing it is actually about something else entirely (see Lost). So, the premiere was good enough to make me want to give it another week or two, but I am reserving the right to change my opinion of the show as the "big reveal" is actually revealed.

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