sun 21/07/2024

Alcatraz, Watch | reviews, news & interviews

Alcatraz, Watch

Alcatraz, Watch

With little that's new, JJ Abrams's latest is a fair stab at freshening up the familiar

'Alcatraz': Dr Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia, left) and Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones, right) have eyes for Sam Neill's shadowy Agent Hauser

Contrary to what he said in 1963, US Attorney General Robert Kennedy did not close Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Although the last inmate appeared to leave the San Francisco Bay island fortress in leg-irons on 21 March 1963, the prisoners and guards had vanished into thin air, leaving it the Marie Celeste of prisons. The cover-up worked. But now, one-by-one, without having aged, the prisoners are back, blazing a trial of murderous mayhem across modern-day San Francisco.

Mixing crime, conspiracy and the fantastic, JJ Abrams’s new series is made from familiar elements. Alcatraz isn’t Lost. Like its Abrams-produced predecessor Fringe, it is episodic and populated with stock elements. The off-the-shelf includes a wilful cop, an oddball expert, the mysterious government agent and hidden forces at play. Whatever producer Abrams does, Lost’s sprawling obliqueness will always cast a shadow. It’s his millstone. As is this particular island for filmmakers: we've had its birdman, the escape from and The Rock (as the island is known).   

Neill plays like a lizard, his movements sinuous, his gaze unblinking

Even so, Alcatraz is a fair stab at freshening up the familiar. As vulpine government agent Emerson Hauser, Sam Neill is the trump card. Naturally, his shadowy department exists beyond the fringe and has been lurking in the sub-basements of Alcatraz waiting for the return of the vanished. Neill plays like a lizard, his movements sinuous, his gaze unblinking. Of course, he might be sleepwalking.

Agent Hauser quickly comes into conflict with Sarah Jones’s Rebecca Madsen, a wilful and committed San Francisco detective. Her partner has just died during a rooftop chase. The pair were following a mysterious figure. She clearly remembers what he looks like, but no records of the murderer turn up. The next murder victim is a former governor of Alcatraz, which brings Hauser into view. He dismisses her from the crime scene, but she lifts a framed photo which bears the fingerprint of an prisoner who’d been stuck in Alcatraz since the Fifties. A prisoner who was supposedly dead.

Looking for guidance, she finds Jorge Garcia’s Diego Soto in a comic store. In Lost, as Hurley, Garcia played a schlub with depths. Here, he’s got a doctorate, has written multiple books on Alcatraz and knows everything about the prison. But he hadn’t known about island’s vapourised inhabitants. He’s still typecast as a schlub.

Coincidences and discoveries rack up. Hauser was one of the two policemen who discovered the island had been vacated. Allowing for the idea that he would have been 18 – young for a cop – in 1963, that’d make Neill’s character at least 67 now. He's looking good. On one of his visits to the prison, Soto found a forgotten room filled with intruiging documents. He didn’t write about them? Madsen’s parents had died, but she was brought up by a man she thought had been a guard at Alcatraz. It turns he was a prisoner. Hauser operates – along with ER’s Parminder Nagra as his assistant Lucy Banerjee – from those secret subterranean rooms. The former governor’s killer turns out to have been under instructions from an unidentified source.

Its UK debut on a niche channel underlines that expectations were diminished

It's easy to see where Alcatraz can go – one returnee from mists per week and each episode piling on more coincidences to reinforce the conspiracy. Alcatraz is fun and Neill compelling, but Jones and Garcia are cardboard cut-outs. Initially, the series doesn’t feel moreish enough – the titbits offered up early on aren’t that tempting. It does its job. Just about.

However, the UK debut of Alcatraz on a niche channel underlines that expectations were diminished before the series began its run. If Lost hadn’t raised prospects that Abrams was a genuine oddball, one that had somehow navigated his way through TV and film to stake his claim as a maverick, it would be easier let Alcatraz off more lightly. As it is, it’s about as good, and about as diverting as the post X-Files conspiracy series Dark Skies.

Watch the trailer for 'Alcatraz'


'Alcatraz' doesn’t feel moreish enough – the titbits offered up aren’t that tempting

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