Midseason Television: Alcatraz
Because I am by nature a homebody, and because I am a cheapskate, network and cable television has become, aside from books and pirated music (not to be confused with “pirate music,” though I would be infinitely more interesting if I had a deep and binding interest in sea shanties), my main source of entertainment. That said, I’ve taken it upon myself to try and watch most if not all of the new shows of interest that’ve cropped up the past few weeks. I’ve kept my focus on hour-long dramas, and the pattern is clear: we’re still looking for the new Lost.
There will never be another Lost. I don’t really think we need one. If you’re really interested, watch Fringe, which is–and I’m going to get blasted here but I don’t care–BETTER THAN LOST. But, as you can tell from the trailers for Touch, Alcatraz, and The River, the creators at the networks are still hungry for a mythological, water-cooler-type show.
They’ve tried Invasion, V, Heroes, Flashforward, Bionic Woman, Grimm, Once Upon a Time and probably a score more, and while I am really happy that we are, to a degree, moving beyond all the reality crap (most of the most egregious shit has moved to basic cable: Real Housewives, Kardashians, Hoarders, Intervention, all the white-trash vs. nature shows), there is still the musty smell of flop-sweat and desperation; if you listen closely, you can here the muttered prayers: “please don’t let them notice how similar all of these shows are.
Basically you take a relatively high concept—prisoners disappear, autistic kid sees connections, scientist disappears, etc.—and drench that concept with pseudoscience and a blue wash. Flashbacks are good too. So are recognizable actors of questionable intent (Sam Neill, Kiefer Sutherland, Michael Clarke Duncan) Also, make sure there’s an overly complicated back story that has no hope of being resolved and keep piling on the twists.
On that note, my first three posts about midseason TV will be about the three most similar shows: Alcatraz, Touch, and The River.
I’ll finish up with The Finder, Luck, and though it’s not new, Justified, which is the best of the bunch.
So, to begin: Alcatraz.
What can you say? I really like watching this show with my kids, because I’m an asshole and I’m trying to emotionally deform them. We had a long talk about last week’s episode, when a very creepy Michael Eklund played a pedophile and child killer. They dug it. Great talk. I’ve got to say, the female lead, (Sarah Jones) is no-nonsense, sexy, and legitimately believable in the action sequences, and though I am a little soul-sick that Jorge Garcia will only take roles in which he plays a fat guy on a mystical island, he’s a pleasure as always. Sam Neill is great, like always (I’ve been a fan since Deep Calm and The Piano, and he scared the bejesus out of me in Event Horizon). Parminder Nagra, who I adored in ER, has been wasted so far (shot in the second episode, basically a walking plot contrivance).
For the most part, the show is a struggle between the overarching mythology (which is still not clear, even on a concept level—the Alcatraz prisoners all disappeared in 1962 and are now cropping up 50 years later? Why? What are there thoughts? Why are they all so comfortable despite the time-travel? Why do they immediately resort to their previous deviant behavior? Is this a comment on Pavlovian or Skinnerian Behaviorist theory or is it more about the Anthropological Psychology of Pinker and Judith Rich Harris? Am I reading to much into this?) and the episodic perp-of-the-week structure of something like The Rockford Files or more recently, one of the acronym-driven procedurals (CSI, NCIS, etc.).
Neither are really that interesting. The mysteries aren’t necessarily that puzzling (he just wants to see his kid! Pervs are pervs for life! Childhood emotional trauma leads to deviant behavior! Etc.) and the mythology is borrowed from better shows (X-Files, Fringe, Lost, etc.). It’s saved by the performances and the direction, which is tight and creepy and really takes advantage of the San Francisco locale. The episode with the sniper (whose motive—he was abandoned, his sister wasn’t, so he kills 16-year olds—makes perfect sense…) used the city especially well, whether it was the Golden Gate Bridge or a down-at-the-heel section of Haight-Ashbury. The pilot had an excellently shot rooftop chase that echoes the first scene in Vertigo (intentionally so, I’m sure).
It’s all pretty warmed-over, though. The creators—Liz Sarnoff was involved in Deadwood and Lost and Daniel Pyne wrote Fracture and the Manchurian Candidate remake–are solid, but I can’t help feeling like I’ve seen all of this before.
That’s how I felt about Fringe, though, so we’ll see.