Non Spoiler Review:
Alcatraz is the newest series from producer J.J. Abrams (Lost), featuring none other than Hurley himself, Jorge Garcia as Diego—trying not to be Hurley. Also starring is Sarah Jones and Sam Neill. The premise centers on the closing of Alcatraz on March 20, 1963, which we quickly learn did not happen as history records. The entire facility is mysteriously empty, while in the present a former prisoner abruptly appears in his old cell. The shadowy government agent Hauser (Neill) seems to know the prisoners will be returning, and his agenda crosses path with detective Rebecca (Jones) and Alcatraz expert Diego as they must deal with the arrivals of the lost criminals.
This was a pretty decent and entertaining introduction for a new genre show. It certainly bears the weight of Lost's legacy by presenting a group of characters we get glimpses of through flashbacks, as well as an overarching series of questions, so it's ripe for comparisons. However, this was not as amazing as Lost's movie style premiere, and the greater mysteries of who or what caused the Alcatraz disappearances is what really drives the plot over the characters for the moment. I didn't find them entirely compelling yet, but it is early to make a judgement on that. I'll stick around to see how things begin to gel, as already it appears that the stories of each prisoner returning will blend between episodes, rather than fall into the trap of murderer of the week.
In 1963, Alcatraz officially closed, with all the prisoners transferred off the island. But that's not what really happened. On March 20, two guards arrive to find the dock empty, and the entire facility abandoned. Three hundred and two men (guards and prisoners) have disappeared.
In the present, Alcatraz is a tourist destination, and a man, Jack Sylvane, wakes up in a cell. Given the facility is no longer a prison, he walks out, albeit confused. He finds cash and a ticket, so is able to take the ferry back to the mainland. On the way he peruses a book on the inmates, remembering both his time at the prison as well as the nasty deputy warden, Tiller, who made life miserable for him.
Detective Rebecca Madsen is about to be assigned a new partner given she lost her previous one in persuit of a felon. She's called in to investigate a murder (the aforementioned warden Tiller, who had since become a federal agent). But government man Emerson Hauser shows up to shut her down and take over.
She leaves, but does her own private investigation, learning the fingerprints belonged to a Jack Sylvane, and the murder victim was the former deputy warden. Dr. Diego Soto, an author and owner of a comic book store, also comes up in her search, given he wrote the Alcatraz book, so she goes to meet him.
Jack Sylvane was a WWII vet who robbed a post office. He later murdered a prisoner in the shower and was sent to Alcatraz. Given Jack died thirty years before, it's impossible that his fingerprints are showing up now. She then visits her sort of uncle Ray who knows a lot about Alcatraz and the dead deputy warden, given he used to be a guard. Sylvane's transfer and death are all signed off on and confirmed by official documents.
Diego and Rebecca team up and go to the island to do some investigating, and pretty easily rummage through a records room until the lights go out and they're both knocked out. They wake up to Hauser and another woman, Lucy. They're still at Alcatraz, but in a fancy control center deep beneath.
Hauser runs a special division dealing with criminals of particular interest to the government. He shows them camera surveillance of the murder, and a very young looking Jack Sylvane. Lucy explains he disappeared from Alcatraz in 1963. Gasps! The official documents are all bogus.
Hauser brings them along in pursuit of Sylvane, who has retrieved a gun from a locker and knocked out the attendant. He goes to the house of Barclay Flynn to take a mysterious key, then shoots him and manages to get away before Hauser shows. Hauser seems to think Sylvane is being used by someone.
In a series of flashbacks, Sylvane endured the abuse of the deputy warden Tiller, and while in the infirmary, was told by a fellow prisoner that something big was about to happen. He also got dumped by his wife, who ended up marrying his brother. In the present, Jack shows up to see him and meets his nephew. His brother nearly has a heart attack when he sees him, and Jack learns his former love had died four years earlier.
Rebecca later arrives to find the son tied up, who explains Jack took his father to find his wife. At the cemetery Rebecca catches up to him and he's brought in. Hauser warns there will be a next victim, given Jack Sylvane was just the beginning. Rebecca realizes Hauser knew this was going to happen. He's been waiting a long time for it, he explains.
Hauser brings her and Diego into a room that shows photos of 246 prisoners and 46 guards. The official story of Alcatraz is a fabrication. And we see that one of the guards from the prologue was a young Hauser.
All the criminals are coming back and no one will be able to find them because they no longer exist. Rebecca then sees a photo of her grandfather (who she'd thought was a guard, but turns out to be an inmate). And the criminal she pursued who killed her partner? That's him. Hauser apparently knew this and wanted her in all along, but she'll have to prove herself. She wants in. Rebecca wants Diego as her partner. He's eager to join. It's all top secret, of course. Their task is to find the men, as well as who took them.
Hauser takes Jack Sylvane to a facility in the wilderness that houses a new, high tech Alcatraz. Hauser is eager to throw him back into prison given Tiller was his friend. And he won't be lonesome for long.
Prisoner Ernest Cobb, responsible for 16 shooting deaths, is now in the present enjoying his freedom, and his passion for shooting people randomly. He manages to kill three at an amusement park.
Tommy Madsen, Rebecca's grandfather, got life for murder, but Diego's book only has one paragraph about him. That's all he could find, he tells her. They're called in to investigate the shooting and rendezvous with Hauser. Diego pegs Cobb as the culprit, and he usually does three shootings in three days before going underground. Rebecca finds a shell casing from Cobb's vantage point to start their investigation on finding the weapon.
Lucy interrogates Jack about where he's been for fifty years and if he might be working with Cobb. But Jack doesn't know. He just woke up at Alcatraz. She wants to know about the key, but he claims he doesn't know about that either, and their body scans show he's telling the truth.
Rebecca attempts to track down the rifle Cobb used, and manages to find him on the security footage from a gun store. They identify a room key in his hand so trace the hotel, but it all turns out to be a ruse, given Cobb is in a room across the street waiting for them. Lucy pulls open the curtains and gets shot. She's in a coma. Rebecca is upset, given she relates it to her previous partner dying. Hauser is furious and lays on the heavy to get Jack to come clean about what he might know.
Diego and Rebecca continue their investigation and rummage through the Alcatraz records and find a letter from Cobb's long lost sister that he never received. She's been dead for years, though, so can't be his next target.
Cobb carries out his second attack and kills three people. Rebecca figures he's going to use a building downtown to shoot from, and one he could only see from his cell back in 1963. They find him and manage to take him in (though Hauser shoots him in his trigger hand to be sure).
Hauser takes Cobb to the new prison where both he and Jack recognize one another. In a flashback, Cobb's penchant for insubordination and getting thrown into solitary prompts the warden to bring in a doctor to treat him. It's Lucy, looking exactly the same.
Alcatraz managed to avoid a pitfall of becoming a prisoner of the week show, given it looks like the storylines will intermingle as more return. For the moment, the secrets are more interesting than the players (yes, I'll compare it to Lost again, which had both awesome characters and intriguing mythology). Rebecca is rubbing me the wrong way, just in the way she appears to want to be the cool detective, and poor Garcia looks like he might be stuck as Hurley forever. There's nothing in his character that couldn't pass as him.
I don't find the flashbacks particularly effective at all, save for the final one with Lucy (which did end the episode on an exciting note). Certainly not all the returning prisoners can be kept as ongoing characters, but Jack Sylvane elicits oodles more empathy than Cobb. He could very well become a major character himself, given the mysteries surrounding the experiments during his internment.
The plot did seem to glaze over some elements—Hauser's constant exposition explaining everything to Rebecca and Diego, and the ease with which both Jack and Cobb get rounded up. Did all the prisoners return at different times? It seems odd that every one could appear back at Alcatraz and leave the island without arousing any suspicion from the tourists and authorities.
All that said, there was nothing in the premiere that wasn't the normal growing pains of a new series, and Alcatraz certainly beats out a lot of other series premieres for quality (um, Terra Nova, you listening?).