Last night, the latest J.J. Abrams show, Alcatraz, premiered. To be honest, when I first heard about the show I thought, “Will this be another Fringe or Undercovers?” I haven’t watched everything that Abrams has been apart of, one of them being Lost, but you don’t really need to. Alcatraz is product of the “Abrams Paradigm.”
What is the “Abrams Paradigm?”
Take one law enforcer, current or ex, who is scarred from a tragic event that you learn within the first episode is connected to the overall plot of the show. This causes a feeling of predestination of the main character that fuels him or her into the show. Give the main character a partner that is significantly smarter and evens out the skill set of the pair.
Brains and brawn. Wonder Twin powers: Activate!
Throw this pair into an organization on the fringe of the US government that solves mysteries that rules and laws and those that enforce them can’t. Mysteries that are science based that are just at the grasp of human imagination.
Basically, if you’ve watched the pilot of Fringe or Person of Interest, you’ve watched the pilot of Alcatraz.
The details: In a prologue, we discover the facts about the closing of Alcatraz were not true. In fact, it was closed because one night, everyone there just disappeared with no evidence on how or why. Cut to the tourist filled Alcatraz of today where a little girl scoots away from the group and finds a man in on of the old solitary confinement cells. He gets tossed out by Ranger Smith and jumps onboard the ferry back to San Fran (thus solidifying the fact he is a time traveling inmate as a homeless person wouldn’t have a crisp new ferry tickets, locker key, and wad of money in his coat pocket).
Enter main character, Det. Rebecca Madsen, who flashbacks to the death of her partner during a chase of a criminal who kicked the partner off a roof. A criminal they haven’t been able to find since. She gets called to a murder scene. The victim is a federal agent, so she knows that she will be kick off the case soon, but this is an Abrams character, that won’t stop her. In fact, as soon as she realizes she will be kicked off, she gets kicked off by Emerson Hausser, mysterious “Fed” man. But not before she nabs a fairly large picture from the crime scene unhindered. The picture has one print that leads to a Alcatraz inmate, Jack Sylvane. But his recoded is classifed, so going to the tool of all detectives, Google, she finds an area Alcatraz expert, all around smart guy, and comic book creator and store owner, “Doc” Diego Soto.
After this point, not much happens chasing down Jack and apprehending him. There is thing of note, and that is Jacks killing of a man that has no relation to him, but did possess a mysterious key. I’m going to make an assumption that keys will be a big symbol through out this show. They get more close up shots than actors.
In the end, Jack’s caught, partnership proves useful to the “Fed Man” (I’ll keep using this till they say Hausser is a FBI agent since these days with all the federal enforcement shows, “fed” doesn’t have that de facto FBI meaning anymore), they get in on the little secret and we get the twist of main character serendipitous involvement-it was her grandfather, who is another time traveling inmate, who killed her partner.
Luckily, we didn’t get just the pilot, but we also got another episode after the setup. If anything this does better than those other two shows is that it is a great character developing episode. Many first seasons are plagued with un even character development. Lots factors add to that: Skillfulness of actors, writing, final editing, and it takes a while for everyone involved to figure out what the show is about. The second hour of Alcatraz didn’t suffer this disease, in fact, it was a welcomed change to a lot of shows in the last few years, especially in the crime drama genre. It is easy to get lost in the mystery of the week and forget there are supposed to be living breathing people it affects that we are watching. There are a lot of great scenes with Doc trying to, and usually failing, at getting used to crime scenes or watching people getting shot. There a few scenes with Rebecca having her own personal moments of emotion. This is a definite change, since I was afraid we were going to get another “Robolivia Dunham” when we were first introduced to her. And so, we can actually care about these characters. A high marker for any first season, let alone, first two episodes.
Now, being in the “Abrams Paradigm,” there is most likely going to be a heavy reliance of plot twists, or the appearance of plot twists, to drive the action. In both episodes, they were fairly lacking. Except for the twist ending of the second episode, all the others either felt underwhelming or generally vague. Right now, I don’t feel the urgency to figure out the meta-mystery of the show because I haven’t been given any solid clues to expound on. There is a moment in the second episode where Rebecca says to Hausser that she might have a better time finding the second inmate if she was told more about what was going on. She was voicing my frustration as a viewer with the show.
In the end, it a sort of success reversal using the same formula of Abrams’ two current hits, Fringe and Person of Interest: The characters are the strong point and the mystery is weak. Granted it is only the first two shows, but as the mystery is touted at the engine of the show, I’m surprised how much is held back. But it isn’t a bad show either. It’s just not the show I, and I’d guess others, weren’t expecting. Hopefully next weak, more will be revealed, if not, I have a suspicion it will join Undercovers in a few months.
What about you? What did you think? Are you already pondering what’s going on? Are you going to turn it on next Monday?