Alcatraz: “Jack Sylvane” & “Ernest Cobb”

Hard Time


Fox, Mondays, 10 PM

“Jack Sylvane”

Written by Elizabeth Sarnoff & Steven Lilien & Bryan Winbrandt

Directed by Danny Cannon

“Ernest Cobb”

Written by Alison Belian

Directed by Jack Bender

“This is Alcatraz. No one forgets” – First Guard

So. Here we are again: a mystery island, underground bunkers, and Jorge Garcia. Reruns of Lost? No, this is JJ Abrams’ newest excursion into weird TV, Alcatraz, which is supposed to be a police procedural with a time-travel twist. I’m not sure these ingredients are going to work this time around, because they’re in a different context. First of all, despite its reputation, Alcatraz is not all that spooky in real life. I’ve been there: it’s sunny, windswept, and rapidly disintegrating. The flowers (planted and tended by inmates) are spectacular, as are the views. In order to get the right mood for this show, the producers had to build three separate versions of it: a spooky 2012 version, a slightly less tattered 1963 version, and a shiny new (underground) 2012 version. Second, there is no chemistry, zero, between Garcia and his co-star, Sarah Jones (Sons of Anarchy). No disrespect to either actor, but there’s not even a partnership vibe there. Third, did the world need yet another police procedural? Really?

“This is Alcatraz. Things can always get worse.” – Warden Tilley

We begin in 1963, the year Alcatraz prison was closed. Number 2024, Jack Sylvane (Jack Pierce, The Double) ticks off Warden Tilley (Jason Butler Harner, Chase), and gets sent to solitary on the day he expected a visit from his wife. Next thing we know, he’s waking up in that cell fifty years later, in the middle of a tour, looking exactly the same. Sylvane does the only sensible thing; he keeps his mouth shut and his head down, and gets off the island, but not before discovering money, a ticket and a locker key in his pocket. Who put them there? Why? Where has he been for fifty years? Not only do the writers not tell us, Sylvane doesn’t even ask himself these questions. Any sympathy we might feel for Sylvane evaporates quickly as he beats a locker attendant, shoots an old man (Tilley) and two cops, then kills an unarmed man who is acceding to his every demand. Naturally this draws some police attention, and we meet San Francisco detective Rebecca Madsen (Jones), who recently lost her partner while chasing a suspect over rooftops. She runs prints from a crime scene and finds that her suspect has been dead for fifty years. Seeking more information, she tracks down Alcatraz expert and comic store owner Dr. Diego Soto (Garcia). They find their investigation hampered by the interference of nasty-tempered FBI agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill, Ice) and his assistant Dr. Lucy Bannerjee (Parminder Nagra, ER). Persevering, Madsen turns to non-departmental sources, such as her crusty uncle Ray (Robert Forster, CSI:NY). Eventually, they track down Sylvane, and Hauser carts him off secretly to the underground replica of Alcatraz, presumably to serve the rest of his sentence. By that time, I didn’t care what the future held for Jack Sylvane, but I was very curious about where he’d been for the past fifty years.

 “You built the bat cave under Alcatraz?” – Soto

The heart of this otherwise ho-hum Prison-Break-meets-Chase episode is the obvious question: what happened to Jack Sylvane? Why hasn’t he aged a day since 1963? Hauser reveals that the question is even better than that: apparently all the guards and all the prisoners present on Alcatraz Island on March 20, 1963 disappeared and were never seen or heard from again. In Sylvane’s case, at least, a fake death certificate was issued. Detective Madsen’s first question should be, okay, but what about the other 301 missing people? She doesn’t really focus on this question, however, which is stupefying. Soto is fascinated, as any normal person would be, but people keep shutting him up. Hauser and Lucy claim to know nothing, but then huddle in corners and whisper. We are soon introduced to what I could not help but call the Castle, after Chuck’s underground secret headquarters. Apparently Hauser and Lucy got their hands on every file, every keepsake, every physical detail of what was left behind in 1963, and now combine those (X?) files with a high-tech hub where they can do the usual police procedural-fu that allows TV to oversimplify the investigative process every week. And I’m cool with that, because by now police procedure bores the heck out of me. I would rather see Hauser et al start building a cyclotron or something in the basement, so they can find out what really happened to the other 1963 folks (“Sixty-threers”). In what’s supposed to be a mind-boggling reveal, Hauser hints that there will be more of the Sixty-threers returning from limbo (or Mars, or wherever), looking not a day older, and it will be their task to track them down.

“The worst criminals this country has ever known are coming back.” – Hauser

The second episode looked and felt very different from the first. To begin with, Detective Madsen shed her practical, professional wardrobe from the pilot and started wearing the usual standard attire for female TV cops, which is to say she looked like a tart. No one who has had to operate in San Francisco in the summer would dress so lightly. Our villain-of-the-week (this is already a boring concept, in only the second episode) is one Ernest Cobb (Joe Egender, Criminal Minds), a Giovanni Ribisi lookalike who likes to kill people with a scope-mounted rifle. Set loose in San Francisco, he starts picking off people at random, in the chilling fashion made all too familiar in Dirty Harry. Madsen and Soto do a little profiling, figuring out where Cobb will strike again, only to discover that he’s there before them. He takes out a member of the team, and Hauser and Madsen finally corner him. Again, the criminal investigation is far less interesting than either the flashbacks to the twitchy, neurotic Cobb in jail, or the recurring question of what happened to him and the others in 1963. So desperate are the writers to keep from answering this all-important question, they actually have Neill’s Hauser snarling “Stop talking!” to Madsen when she is questioning a suspect.

“Is anyone else’s head exploding right now?” – Soto

What worked on Lost is not going to work here. Alcatraz Island lies within sight of one of the great cities of the world, between two busy shipping lanes. It is not some uncharted tropical rock no one has ever heard of. Isolation was the key to Lost, it drove the paranoia underlying most of its stories, ratcheting up the suspense quotient for the audience. But when you can see cable cars, people and tour boats from the island, there’s little or no sense of danger. Thus one major feature that made Lost great is already compromised. Second, there is the idea that over three hundred people, people with families and friends, disappeared in 1963 and no one noticed. There are only so many coincidences that we can accept, and I doubt the families of the missing, not to mention the law enforcement of the time, could have missed the fact that all these people allegedly died or went missing at the same time. Third, there are ridiculous lapses in procedure: Madsen handles evidence without gloves. She carries “department issued” picklocks. Sylvane is shown in prison wearing not only a belt but a belt buckle – a violation of prison safety procedure. Madsen questions a gun dealer in San Francisco about a gun he sold two days ago – despite California’s widely known five day waiting period. Anachronisms abound: one warden in 1963 tells his guards to “give us some space”.

“This isn’t a comic book world, is it?” – Soto

There were some mildly interesting elements to these two stories. I found Cobb’s neuroses amusing (whoever heard of a con who wanted solitary?). Pierce and Neill both bring a searing intensity to their roles, despite clunky dialogue. I loved the few moments we got of Robert Forster; I am hoping that, if nothing else, a show with flashbacks that go back 50 years will provide more work for older actors. I love the fact that Madsen and Soto are not two pretty people hiding their sexual attraction, but two brainy types solving a puzzle. Jones is no Gillian Anderson, but she has the potential to develop Madsen into the kind of sardonic, smart investigator Scully was. I liked the reveals at the end of each episode that totally inverted our view of two characters. And of course, the real mystery of this show is how they always manage to find curbside parking in San Francisco.

“How is it you seem to accept everything that’s happening as if it weren’t the biggest thing ever?” — Soto

The only really interesting facet of Alcatraz, the one that will bring me back next week, is the time-travel (or whatever) angle. And the writers are clearly aware of that: both episodes end in a twist that marries the present with the past, hinting that there are even more intriguing mysteries waiting behind the scenes. No doubt the idea is that we will be sucked into weekly viewing because we want to figure out the puzzle. The trouble is that Abrams has gone to this well too often: six years of obsessive number-puzzles, flashbacks, reveals that didn’t reveal, and convoluted plot lines primed Lost viewers for a spectacular ending – that fizzled. My first, weary question about Alcatraz is: am I going to have to take notes on every episode of this show? Will I find myself confused within a few episodes because I didn’t remember the lock combination Hauser used in the pilot? There’s only so much intense engagement with a drama that I want to invest in every week. Call it “Lost fatigue”.

“You’ve been waiting for this.” — Madsen

Alcatraz debuted at 10 million viewers, for a 3.3 rating in the 18-to-49 demographic. That’s for both episodes, which means that the first hour intrigued enough viewers that they stayed tuned for the second. By contrast, Fox’s other big opener this year was Terra Nova, which bowed in 6% lower than Alcatraz. Maybe audiences prefer cons to dinosaurs. These numbers still put Fox behind CBS (How I Met Your Mother, 10.1 million viewers) and NBC (Betty White’s 90th Birthday, 13.8 million), but they are certainly respectable for a new show looking for an audience.