Although the official word would have you believe all inmates at Alcatraz were transferred when the prison was shut down in 1963, the truth is a bit more complicated. Roughly three hundred of those housed on the Rock mysteriously vanished, reappearing in 2012 and returning to their lives of crime. A San Francisco cop (Sarah Jones), an expert on the island’s history (Jorge Garcia), and an FBI agent (Sam Neill) team up to find the escapees, return them to captivity, and solve the mystery of exactly how and why they vanished in the first place.
Griping about Fox canceling a series has become something of a national pastime, and while there is occasionally reason to question the network’s tactics, there are times when the execs’ decisions seem logical. Any show that loses more than half its audience over the course of a baker’s dozen episodes probably isn’t long for this world, and that’s exactly what Alcatraz did.
This latest attempt to reel in the audience that kept the faith with Lost was sacked before it was able to answer any of the big questions it raised, and anyone who blames Fox for pulling the plug too early isn’t thinking clearly. Viewers quickly lost interest in the show and occupied themselves elsewhere, and it’s not hard to see why.
Alcatraz takes the formula of a standard police procedural and gussies it up with supernatural/science fiction elements. It’s a mix the writers never get a grip on, which leads to repetition, which leads to boredom. Most episodes follow the same pattern: one of the escapees turns up, begins committing the same crimes for which he’d originally been imprisoned, and the show’s heroes track him down and lock him back up. This is intercut with flashbacks to that prisoner’s time at Alcatraz, and the mystery surrounding what went on back then (which at times seems like something left over from an episode of The Wild Wild West) is simultaneously revealed and made more complex.
This story could possibly have worked as a four- or six-hour TV movie or miniseries (although even a much shorter version would need a new cast; Jones is terrible, and Neill [whose presence is a bane to television shows] is the bad sort of hammy), but why anyone thought it could fuel a weekly series is beyond me.
One of the goals of any episodic show is to generate enough episodes to make it to syndication, and there’s no way this one could have been stretched to that point. It’s tedious in the extreme at thirteen episodes, so sixty-five or seventy would have been deathly. The “capture the bad guy” stuff is old by the second episode, and the constant teases about the weird stuff the warden and his cronies had going on back in ’63 are annoying, stringing the audience along simply for the sake of stringing the audience along. If the show actually was working to something, it wasn’t doing it fast enough, nor did it make whatever was coming seem worth the wait.
You’d think having to pen only thirteen episodes would have allowed the writing staff to avoid clichés, but the plots here are as lame as what you’d expect to see in a procedural series that has been on for six or seven seasons. A supporting character is shot and critically injured in the second episode. One of the main characters is held hostage by the bad guys a few episodes later. And another main character makes an extremely stupid mistake, losing the show’s main villain and getting seriously injured in the process, which leads to what was meant to be a season-ending cliffhanger (said cliffhanger can be seen coming a good thirty minutes before it actually arrives) but instead turned out to be the end of the series. (The action sequence that leads up to the cliffhanger involves a car chase, a car crash, some gunplay, and an explosion, all of which somehow manages not to attract any gawkers. Hard to believe the budget didn’t allow for at least a couple of extras.)
But here’s the kicker when it comes the lameness of the writing: one episode plays like some sort of misguided paraphrase of The Green Mile. Given that it deals (or dealt, anyway) with escaped criminals, the show quite naturally supplies a story in which an innocent man tries to clear his name. The episode echoes the plot and particulars of that Stephen King tale in numerous ways, and the only people who could watch it and not be reminded of The Green Mile are those who haven’t read the book and/or seen the movie.
Even piece of promotional material for Alcatraz played up the involvement of J.J. Abrams, one of the show’s executive producers. It’s unclear how big a role Abrams actually played, but it probably wasn’t much. More likely than not, this is just a case of Abrams helping out friends and collaborators, using his clout to get the show into production.
Aside from Abrams, the biggest name in the behind-the-camera credits is Elizabeth Sarnoff, a longtime television writer who wrote for Lost and Deadwood. Sarnoff effectively left the show before the premiere, retaining her credit as an executive producer but playing no real role in the day-to-day creation of the episodes. It’s often not a good sign when a showrunner bails early on, and I don’t know the reasons behind Sarnoff’s exit and don’t want to play any sort of guessing game, but whatever was going on in the production offices appears to have worked its way into the final product, as Alcatraz never comes together.
The series is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio; the 1080p transfers have been encoded with AVC, and the thirteen episodes are housed on two 50GB discs. The present-day sequences have a look that’s not stylized in any way, while the flashbacks have a slightly soft, slightly desaturated appearance. There’s a good amount of detail in both schemes, and colors are rendered quite well. Blacks are surprisingly strong, exhibiting little of the wavering you often find in digital photography. Banding and moiré are noticeable on several occasions, and some of the faster bursts of movement in the action sequences cause the image to go flat and plastic.
The show’s sound mix isn’t terribly active, so the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix isn’t given a whole lot to do. The front-heavy audio only expands to the rears to open up the music (not surprisingly, Michael Giacchino composed the theme) or provide the odd discrete effect. Dialogue is the main thing here, and it sounds very good. Effects and music are bolstered by a low end that has a solid presence.
French and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks are also included; English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.
All of the following are presented in high-def:
Alcatraz: Island of Intrigue (10 minutes) is a promotional piece comprised of cast/crew interviews and snippets of Alcatraz history.
Deleted scenes (15 minutes) are included for several of the episodes. These were obviously cut for time, so there’s not much too them.
Closing things out is a gag reel (3 minutes).
The small group of hardcore adherents the show managed to generate will likely get their money’s worth here, but everyone else should just keep pretending the show doesn’t exist.