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Searching for Character in Abrams’ ‘Alcatraz’



On Monday, Fox aired its mid-series premiere of the J.J. Abrams-produced television series, “Alcatraz.” The show is the latest Abrams creation that attempts to balance the genres of character-driven serialized drama and crime procedural. This seems to be the unattainable combination of loyal fans and good ratings that networks and show-runners are looking for today. “Alcatraz” doesn’t appear to be this thrilling combination.

The show proposes that in 1963 everyone on the San Francisco island prison of Alcatraz mysteriously disappeared. The criminals slowly show up in the present day to continue their crime sprees, but they haven’t aged a bit.

After finding the fingerprints of a presumed dead Alcatraz prisoner at a crime scene, Detective Rebecca Madsen (played by newcomer Sarah Jones) finds herself mixed up with a secret organization devoted to finding these criminals, capturing them and discovering what happened at Alcatraz. To help track down the prisoner, Rebecca enlists the expertise of comic book writer and Alcatraz expert, Diego ‘Doc’ Soto (“Lost’s” Jorge Garcia). The enigmatic Emerson Hauser (played by the brilliant Sam Neill) leads the secret organization and investigation into the mystery at Alcatraz and is not particularly happy to have a meddling police detective and socially awkward comic book geek at his side. The three form an unusual team.

Though the show is naturally inclined for success, it does not fully achieve its potential. The premise is unbelievably smart and unique and the cast consists of revered characters and actors (Garcia’s Hurley from “Lost” and Sam Neill). But ultimately, television fans should expect more from admired writer/producer J.J. Abrams.

“Alcatraz,” though similar in tone and style to Abrams’ other successes, lacks important elements essential to stand above today’s TV clutter. The most obvious problem with “Alcatraz” is its characters. Television, more than film, is a form of storytelling very reliant on the complex evolution of characters. However, the characters on “Alcatraz” completely lack chemistry and personal depth. This is especially true with Rebecca and Diego, the show’s two main leads. The attempt to pair a tough, determined police detective with a goofy, yet brilliant comic book geek is not particularly original (see ABC’s “Castle”), nor is it very successful (once again, “Castle”). Diego spews comedic relief in the form of pop culture references and aversion to violence, something that feels heavily repeated by the end of the two hours. Rebecca seems equally one-dimensional, focused solely on catching the escaped convicts and locking them up.

Abrams has no excuse for such lazy character construction, as many good examples of television magic can be found in his wildly addictive ensemble drama “Lost” and the emotional, supernatural procedural “Fringe.” Both shows are fan-favorites due, in large part, to their complicated, endearing and relatable characters.

The mystery story also falls flat in the show’s introduction. Unlike “Lost,” which hooked viewers in the first 10 minutes, “Alcatraz” gets a slow start.

The show does reveal some intriguing plot points however: the fact that Rebecca’s grandfather was not an Alcatraz guard, but a prisoner, and how Emerson and his partner were suspiciously present on the island in the 1960s.

“Alcatraz” did not lock me in from the first episode, or even from the first second. However, I am too devoted to J.J. Abrams to give up on the show just yet.

Who knows, maybe in the next episode Rebecca and Diego will suddenly be multi-dimensional and the anti-aging, time-traveling island mystery will unravel at an interesting pace!

A girl can dream.

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