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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

In sticking to formula, ‘Alcatraz’ flounders

Published: February 3, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

The two-hour pilot episode of J.J. Abram’s latest brainchild, “Alcatraz,” premiered on Jan. 16. Abrams is one of the most celebrated minds in modern science fiction, having created the incredibly popular “Lost.” With such an impressive track record, his fans had high hopes for the premiere of “Alcatraz.”

The premise of the show is interesting enough on its own: When Alcatraz Prison closed in 1963, it was not due to a lack of funding. Instead, the prison closed because all the prisoners mysteriously vanished. In the present, they suddenly begin returning; the years since their appearance seem to have had no effect. The show has set itself up as a chronicle of how these criminals are dealt with and will perhaps eventually offer an explanation of how and why their disappearances occurred.

The show stars Sarah Jones as police detective Rebecca Madsen and Jorge Garcia as Dr. Diego Soto, a writer who specializes in the prisoners of Alcatraz (Garcia has worked with Abrams before, having starred on “Lost”). Along with their enigmatic superior Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), a former prison guard with plenty of secrets and unknown goals, they must work to combat and round up these mysterious criminals; in Madsen’s case, deep personal connections to these strange events may also exist.

Though intriguing, the show does not appear to be particularly original. It bears a strong thematic resemblance to Abram’s previous shows, including “Lost” and “Fringe,” and uses an incomprehensible and impossible mystery to draw in viewers. While this has worked for Abrams in the past, it falls flat for those of us who have seen him do this many times before and were looking for something a bit more unconventional from him.

“Alcatraz” also draws elements from non-Abrams shows. It uses a writer-police team like “Castle” and depicts people vanishing and returning years later without having aged like “The 4400.”

Additionally, the writing feels stilted at times. Though the plot twists are designed to keep the viewer guessing, some of them seem contrived. Perhaps too many major revelations occurred in the first two episodes; it cheapens the shock when these plot twists are revealed so early into the show because we have no real emotional attachment to the characters yet. Additionally, certain portions of the show’s set-up are forced, including Madsen’s decision to choose a writer for her partner. While her partner may have immense knowledge about the criminals they face, he would be better off advising them from a home base rather than going into the field with no idea of what to expect and with no training.

Despite these basic flaws, the major issue remains that we have already seen several shows of its ilk. In comparison to Abrams’ previous shows, “Alcatraz” seems to be trying too hard to make what has already been done sound original again. For someone new to the world of science fiction, and particularly new to Abrams’ distinct brand of sci-fi, this show may well be a decent starting point. To someone entrenched in the genre, however, it feels like a simple restructuring of an overused formula that has lost its flavor due to oversaturation. Even Madsen bears a striking similarity to Olivia Dunham of “Fringe,” a similarly intense and emotionally distant blond agent with a dark, familial past.

The problem with “Alcatraz” is not that it’s inherently a bad show. It most certainly is not. “Alcatraz” is fast-paced, immersing and mysterious. Despite the fact that the show feels unoriginal, I still want answers to the questions it has raised. I appreciate the intriguing concept: Alcatraz Prison has always been a dangerous place ensconced in mystery that has aroused many imaginations. With that background, it’s a brilliant place to set a show like this.

Though interesting in concept, “Alcatraz” simply feels stiff and overdone. As a major fan of J.J. Abrams’ work, I wanted very badly to enjoy it, but it feels like a simple rehash of old ideas and concepts with a slightly new setting and spin. It remains to be seen if “Alcatraz” will find a way to bring something new to the table, or if it will simply serve as a placeholder for similar shows that are rapidly growing old. Hopefully “Alcatraz” will find a way to differentiate itself before its grace period ends.