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Doin’ Hard Time on Another Mysterious Island

  • Alex Wainer Contributing Writer
  • 2012 31 Jan
Doin’ Hard Time on Another Mysterious Island

The prison drama is a venerable genre going back at least to early classic films like The Big House (1930), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), and Brute Force (1947). Often the most violent films of Hollywood's classic era, they tended focus either the incorrigible criminal or the system that further brutalized him. 

In more recent films, Clint Eastwood attempts an Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Tim Robbins crawls his way out of the Big House in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and Madea Goes to Jail circa 2006. (For a big list of prison movies, try this site.) Audiences have long had a fascination with the people on the other side of the prison doors where society consigns the worst of its citizens. 

Understandably, with its need for ongoing sympathetic characters, television hasn't spent much time behind bars; I can think of only one series, Prison Break, that was all about doing hard time. But now, with Fox's new series, Alcatraz, the prison drama takes a daring leap—into the past.

The very definition of high concept programming, the series is premised on the revelation that when the notorious prison was closed down in 1963, the violent prisoners weren't really transferred elsewhere—everyone on the island in San Francisco Bay disappeared.  Worse, they are reappearing in the present day to resume their murderous ways on an unsuspecting public.  

That's the discovery of police detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones, looking about ten years too young for a such a seasoned officer) when, during a murder investigation, a fingerprint is connected to an Alcatraz inmate thought long dead. She meets Dr. Diego Soto (Lost's Jorge Garcia) who literally wrote the book on the prison's residents and they go to the island, now a tourist attraction, to look for clues. 

That's when they stumble upon a secret government unit headquartered deep in the prison's bowels, Batcave-like, with modern equipment and headed by a permanently sour FBI agent, Emerson Hauser, played by the redoubtable Sam Neill in a somewhat mannered performance. Hauser, we soon learn, was a young prison guard the night the disappearance occurred and has apparently been on the case every since.

He explains the astounding facts to the pair and Rebecca convinces Hauser that she and Soto can help him in his quest to capture the now reappearing convicts. The series soon reveals itself as one of those shows that tries to hook its audience on a deep mystery that likely won't be fully revealed or resolved for years, should the show last that long, while keeping it hooked with individual episodes focusing on a single prisoner each week. So, yes, viewers may be forgiven for thinking that, with it's flashing back and forth between the present and the now in vogue Mad Men era of the early 1960s, this feels like a show composed of used parts from other shows.

So far that's what's happened in the first episodes. In the pilot, Jack Sylvane, the inmate whose prints Rebecca identifies, wakes up in a room on Alcatraz in the present day and finds his way off the island, seemingly assisted by unknown enablers, and it's his murderous actions that put the detective on his trail. 

The actor playing him, Jeffrey Pierce, was so leading man handsome, I figured he couldn't be a real killer, but soon enough, he's shooting cops and others on his revenge list. Several times the episode flashes back to Sylvane's prison days where we learn a few things about his background and see the brutality of the administration, including Deputy Warden E. B. Tiller, one of his present day victims and an old friend of Hauser. 

Sylvane seems as much a victim as bad guy and when Hauser's unit finally brings him in, rather than taking him to a standard Federal facility, Hauser escorts him to a bunker deep in the woods whose doors lead to a gleaming, high tech prison where, without a hearing or other legal process, he is returned behind bars. What gives?

The following two episodes are named for their respective antagonists, "Ernest Cobb," and "Kit Nelson." Cobb is a compulsive sniper who follows a ritual when claiming his victims, at least eight innocents whom we watch get shot through the telescopic sights of Cobb's high powered rifle as he fires unseen from a great distance. 

It was at this point that I began to feel how brutal and brutalizing the new show was. In flashbacks to Cobb's days on Alcatraz, the reclusive inmate was intimidated by the Warden Edwin James (Jonny Coyle) and forced to mingle with the other prisoners. Kit Nelson is a child killer, who at Alcatraz was despised and badly beaten by other prisoners and whose present snatching of a boy triggers alarm in Soto, who himself had been abducted as a youth. As in Lost, Garcia's character is the audience surrogate, although a character with a Ph.D who owns a comic book shop may be a little too much pandering to the desirable fanboy base.

The mythology of Alcatraz naturally raises the question of how the prisoners disappeared from 1963 to begin appearing in the present and there are hints of some dire conspiracy that Hauser and others are privy to which Rebecca and Soto are not. This is a now pretty standard formula for such series, the very gradual  revelation of more puzzle pieces which may or may not  continue to fascinate and compel audiences to keep watching. 

If episodes continue with the killer-of-the-week pattern, it will take a startling run of three hundred episodes or thirteen seasons, an awfully ambitious project for any series. That's a lot of torturing, serial killing, and blood to endure in a broadcast series for what so far has offered only slight compensation in intrigue, suspense and compelling characters.

*This review first published 1/31/2012

**Watch Alcatraz Mondays on FOX