Edit: A few folks reminded me that Abrams’ name is also on Person of Interest, which I totally forgot about. My points apply there as well, I think.
J.J. Abrams has learned to put his name above television projects that fit a very specific kind of mold. He understands that his name, the mention of Lost and even the Bad Robot logo evoke certain ideas in the minds of the audience: Suspense, mystery, mythology, etc. However, Abrams also knows that the realities of contemporary broadcast television* mean that anything he “works on” must balance those audience expectations with elements that can appeal to a larger, broader audience as well.
*I would actually love for Abrams to get a few of the Bad Robot heavy hitters together and do a series for cable. That would be interesting.
I would argue that Abrams has always done this – if you go back to the opening episodes of Lost or Alias, the plots are very straightforward despite the possibility for later complexity – but he’s likely being especially careful these days because when audiences think of or see Lost anywhere near the new series, they automatically think of the later, more obviously complicated and serialized season. Abrams cannot escape this and I think he knows it, and I also think that’s why the last three pilots he’s been directly involved in, Fringe, Undercovers and now Alcatraz, don’t entirely work. Undercovers is a bit of an aberration, but last night’s two-hour premiere of Alcatraz felt more or less exactly like the first two episodes of Fringe. Though not the most damning assessment in the world, Alcatraz’s similarities to Fringe give us an easy roadmap for how the series could and perhaps should progress moving forward.
Abrams tried his spin on a “procedural” first with Fringe, and we all can remember those early season one episodes that felt completely standardized and generic. Fringe was a typical contemporary “investigators” series, it just happened that the things Olivia and company were investigating were left of center. That was boring for most diehard television watchers (again, recall the expectations I mentioned earlier) and apparently for the creative team as well, but the ratings were actually pretty solid. Fringe ratings in season one nearly quadruple with the series does now.
Now, with Alcatraz Abrams latched on to a project that pushes the procedural elements to the forefront even more. The pilot script, by Steven Lilien & Bryan Wynbrandt and Elizabeth Sarnoff, has a few compelling details in setting up the premise, but the meat of the pilot and the second episode “Ernest Cobb” doesn’t differ from really any of the big procedurals that you would find on CBS or even on FOX with something like Bones. The missing, now returning inmates gives Alcatraz an obvious, easy story engine that by all indications, can remove any “supernatural” or “science fiction” elements if necessary, as to not totally alienate viewers who typically prefer NCIS or something similar. Alcatraz so clearly wants to be a populist bad-guy-catching series, which I think makes it a bit more accessible and mainstream than Fringe could have ever been (and the name recognition doesn’t hurt at all).
Unfortunately, while Alcatraz might have an easier time wiggling into the hearts of mainstream audiences, the first two episodes aren’t particularly engaging and it really does play like watered-down Fringe at times. I know people are going to compare Sarah Jones’ basic performance to the kind of work Anna Torv did in the first season of Fringe, but I think there’s a fundamental difference between the two characters that should shift our perspective on that matter. Torv’s Olivia was, from the beginning, supposed to be stand-offish and cold. Jones’ Rebecca has moments where she’s more obviously energetic and I also didn’t get the indication that she’s particularly haunted or damaged like Olivia appeared to be at the start. Sure, Rebecca’s partner died, but how clichéd is that? In that respect, I think Jones’ bland performance is more of a detriment to her series than Torv’s ever was to Fringe.
This is particularly true because Alcatraz’s supporting cast isn’t as strong either. I love Jorge Garcia as much as the next guy and his Diego is pretty fun. However, I’ve never really cared for Sam Neill and he’s in full growl mode here and Parminder Nagra is as blank as they come.
Perhaps most importantly though, Alcatraz is just kind of boring. The hook of the premise is enough for me to keep watching, but the way that the pilot and episode two dressed it up and tried to pretend it was even more mysterious than anyone who saw one single promo already knew it was bothered me. The final act of the pilot more or less powered the marketing campaign, so there were no surprises, which isn’t terribly problematic, but not great when combined with the big chunk of typical procedural fare and somewhat lackluster cast. I like that the series is committed to telling stories about the criminals’ time on the island, I think that’s a fun way to explore the “mythology” so that Sam Neill doesn’t have to explain it all. However, both flashback stories here were a bit on the boring side and the actors they cast to play the criminals were really tepid.
But of course, I’m going to keep watching Alcatraz. These first two episodes are in the C-range, but it’s possible that the producers had to work out some kinks and are still moving around in the dark trying to find the series.* There are compelling elements at play here, they just don’t fit together especially well in the first two hours. I might guess that the series won’t be in a hurry to get to a place that the fans want it to, as FOX has learned its lesson with Fringe, but it’s possible that Alcatraz could work.
*Of course, there have been all sorts of behind-the-scenes moves with this production that suggest it is a bit troubled. The two dudes who share script credit on the pilot with Sarnoff don’t have anything to do with the series itself and although she was supposed to be the showrunner, Sarnoff “stepped down” sometime in the fall. They also reshot certain elements of the pilot as well. I’m not saying this is a disaster, but.