Alcatraz manages to be a show where many things occur, and many people are involved in a variety of activities, and yet it manages to be about nothing, and stars no one. Pretty impressive for a new show.
Alcatraz opened strong, with a creepy Sam Neill voiceover and two guards walking into an empty prison in 1963. It’s unsettling, it’s shot reasonably well, and gives you a great what the fuck vibe. They jump forward to today, Alcatraz is a tourist spot, and a little girl wanders off into an area that’s clearly not where she’s supposed to be, and finds our first time traveling criminal. Ok, so far, so good. Nothing groundbreaking, but its solid. After the opening five minutes however, the show goes to shit.
So our first time traveler is Jack Sylvane. We find out he wasn’t much of a criminal until he was sent to jail for a small crime, and when a man tried to rape him, he became a murderer. The warden at Alcatraz shows himself to be a ruthless, petty little fuck, who screws Jack out of his visiting day with his wife. Like we will see very often with this show, no reason for this behavior is given. Was Jack being a particularly poor inmate? No idea. The warden plants contraband on a guy we find out wasn’t much of a crook at all, and no one ever asks, hey boss, why go out of your way to mess with this particular dude?
So ok let’s skip that for now, and let’s meet our main character, a cop played by Sarah Jones. Sarah and her partner are chasing an unnamed man for an unnamed reason, and they’re jumping from rooftop to rooftop, because cops do shit like that on a regular basis. They do the gimmick where her partner is hanging off the edge of the building, about to fall off, and she rushes out to grab him, only to have him slip through her fingers. We never do learn her partner’s name, because why would we want to form a connection with the dead man? The whole point is to show just how heavy her life is. Oh, my partner died, it was my fault, oh it’s all so heavy, now I’m gonna go cry in the shower. Ok, so they skipped that cliché, but I’m sure they’ll get to it eventually. Seriously, go back and watch that scene, they never tell us the guy's name!
The next cliché they hit comes seconds later, and this one bugs the absolute shit out of me. She’s called to a murder scene. The dick warden from Alcatraz, now an old man, has been murdered in his home. So she’s investigating, looking around, squinting at stuff, you know, cop stuff, and all of a sudden, the guy from Jurassic Park shows up and tells her the FBI will be investigating this murder. Of course, she acts as if this is the most outrageous thing that has ever happened in the history of ever, and jeopardizes her career and her very freedom by stealing a piece of evidence from the crime scene so she can investigate it herself. Let’s remember, this is an old man she never knew, never met, never even heard of, and she’s now put herself on the hook for evidence tampering. What the fuck?
This trope is used all the time, and it bugs the shit out of me. In real life, the NYPD has a homicide clearance rate of 59%. I looked that up. The NYPD might be the premier police force on the planet, and they solve 59% of their murders. What that means in real terms is that this woman would have at least one unsolved murder already on her desk, complete with a family that would like some answers, but instead of working on that, she’s going to run around like a jerk trying to solve a case that’s already being worked by competent professionals. The FBI just might be a building full of dicks, but that doesn’t mean they can’t solve a fucking murder.
The worst part about this trope is that it’s so unbelievably easy to use it properly. What you need to do is give her a reason to want to solve the case on her own. Was the dead man someone she knew? A family friend perhaps? Shit, make him her grandfather or something, that would be an incentive. Or, does she know the FBI agent working the case? Maybe he’s an ex-boyfriend who did her wrong, and she’d love to shove it right in his face. Now you get a free love interest!
But no, because Alcatraz is bound and determined to be a show free from the crushing responsibility that is character development. Instead of doing something interesting, she gets a computer, fingerprints her stolen evidence, and unleashes the power of Google. Well thank god, I hadn’t seen anyone do anything with fingerprints in a while. Oh wait…
Sarah Jones finds out the guy is from Alcatraz and she goes to find an Alcatraz expert. So Hurley from Lost has a new gig, and I’m happy about that, but they don’t really do much with him either. He owns a comic book store, that’s something I guess. So Hurley knows where there’s a storeroom with secret Alcatraz documents, and they hit the island looking for clues. They of course immediately find the clues (giant fucking boxes of clues in fact) with minimal effort, and are promptly hit with a canister of knockout gas.
I’m gonna tell you something that’s gonna blow your fucking mind. You ready? Knockout gas is not a real thing. I don’t care what movie you saw. In real life, there is one documented use of knockout gas, and the entire room of people died. Bad guys, hostages, everyone died. You ever have surgery? If you did, you were charged for an anesthesiologist. You know why? Because the human body isn’t supposed to fucking go unconscious, and if you do, for heaven’s sake a doctor better be staring at you the whole time or you might die. Ask Michael Jackson’s family, they’ll tell you a ton about it.
So when our intrepid heroes wake up, they’re in a secret base underneath Alcatraz. A more reasonable person than myself might ask, well if you’ve got a secret base underneath Alcatraz, why weren’t the clues our heroes found with minimal effort upstairs instead stored in your hidden subterranean fortress where normal people couldn’t get access to them, but these are the questions all science fiction fans promised we wouldn’t ask when we got involved in the genre. Apparently. Because they keep treating us as if we had.
Of course, you know what happens next, these interfering, lawbreaking assholes are recruited by the very secret agency they were screwing with. Because if I was running a secret government agency, I would certainly hire people who do the opposite of what I tell them. Yep. That makes sense.
Let’s talk more about our time traveling criminal, Jack Sylvane. We’ve found out that the only murder he’s ever committed was that of a man trying to rape him. However, since he’s been out, he’s murdered an old man who did him wrong 40 years ago, and robbed and then murdered a man he knows nothing about. Let’s take the first murder. Imagine hating someone. We’ve all been there. Now imagine you see him, and he’s old as shit. Imagine hating him so much that you murder him anyway. That’s powerful stuff. The level of pure hate just bubbling out of your soul to murder a harmless old man… damn. We never see that. We don’t see their conversation. We certainly don’t see the murder. I’m not saying an 8pm TV show should show brutal murders of the elderly. But you should definitely show us the confrontation, the conversation these men had before the act, no? Jack could talk about how he used to be a good man before the warden worked on him… And then they cut away and we hear a gunshot. That works, doesn’t it? Then the show might have some meaning. You could talk about the awful effects prison has on those who inhabit it, guards and prisoners both. But they don’t show any of that stuff. They just show people running around doing bullshit.
His second murder is even more perplexing. Up to this point, it’s looked like he’s got some outside help. He woke up with a boat ticket, money, and a key in his pocket. That’s pretty spooky. What they don’t ever show is him getting instructions from his mysterious handler. There’s a million ways you could do that, a phone booth rings as he walks past it, a note left attached to a key, something, right? Instead, we see this man, who has only ever killed people he had a damn good reason to, kill a man he’s never met in cold blood. He steals a weird key, so we at home can wonder, oh what does that key open up? Guess what, I don’t really care what it opens up. I bet it’s something stupid.
Bottom line, he gets caught, and he gets locked back up. That’s swell. No sense in having him be free, doing the bidding of his masters, that might lead to something interesting. Can’t have that. There’s a second hour where they basically repeat the mistakes of the first, so whatever, go watch it if you want.
The biggest lesson I took from this show is a simple one. Make sure you have a firm idea of what a character’s motivations are. If you write that someone is doing something, show us how he came to the decision to do so. If someone is about to do something evil, and they have a reason, by all means, let’s explore that. Any evil, when shown through the evildoers point of view, when understood and explained, can be great art. What emotions exist in a man’s heart that he should murder a man made innocent by his advanced age? The second hour features a sniper. There’s a classic true crime story from the 1950’s where a man drives himself insane over a short period of time, and goes on a shooting rampage. If you want to do a story about a sniper killing people for no reason, why not refer back to the classic? Show us his descent. Show us what broke him. Show us why he’s willing to do this awful thing. Don’t just show us his murders and have the cops forensics it all together. That’s been done, and it’s been done better elsewhere. Don’t be afraid to show a little passion, a little madness. Don’t be afraid to try a little harder Alcatraz.