1963’s Alcatraz shares issues with Age of Telegraph

I know it’s a time travel show, but that doesn’t mean I should receive the whole storyline ages before it happens.

Having now seen 3 hours of Alcatraz,  the new J.J. Abrams-produced para-crime show, I’m a little concerned that the clumisiness of the backstory dumps and inconsistent characterization may not mellow with time the way I dearly hope. Here’s a smattering of gripes explaining why I worry they may be writing this promising premise for those who are not sharp or not paying attention (a bad assumption to make about crime or sff fans, IMO).

On March 21st, 1963, Alcatraz officially closed. All the prisoners were transferred off the island. Only that’s not what happened. Not at all.

They disappeared! Staff and prisoners alike, poof, and now they’re back, popping back up in 2012 like floating ducks in a carnival game. In this post, spoilers will pop too, so be warned. If you haven’t seen any of the show yet, you can go watch the first three episodes of Alcatraz online and come back.

Current-day Heroine Rebecca Madsen is a young SFPD homicide detective. To her credit, Sarah Jones doesn’t play the role of a tough girl so she’s inhuman or heartless. (That’s a big yay!) She’s damn young for the job—okay, I’ll allow for crazy TV aging where soap opera infants enter high school within a year of birth. No one seems to blame her for not holding onto her partner when he was dangling off that roof—though she will later blame the guy they were chasing, yes, while leaping across pitched roofs for her partner’s slip-and-perish. Further, in typical PD procedure (?!), she gets to pick her own replacement partner and will give her understanding captain, not played by Michael Keaton actually, a list of acceptable names by day’s end.

We are told and told she’s a Super Cop. So super, in fact, that she will be drawn into this Alcatraz business through another murder investigation, meddling in Agent Emerson Hauser’s (Sam Neill’s) secret reclamation project in the basement, a project begun sometime after-dun, dun, dun—he was one of the guards to discover the emptied prison!

Offense against cop show logic: In episode 2, Madsen quickly locates a rifle casing dropped by an OCD-seeming ’63 sniper who we’re also told polices his brass (collects his casings) and shoots victims in threes. Somehow, this freak who loves counting forgot how many three is and left 33% of his evidence behind. It wouldn’t be so bad if that casing was going to mean anything in the big picture. (It won’t.) But this pretzel twist out-of-true for the sniper’s character was only to confirm to the Alca-team the identity of the shooter they already suspected, so why bother making me grind my teeth?

And it’s not like they need the evidence for prosecutions—these guys have already been convicted. The only question once a ’63 gets caught is whether he goes into Agent Hauser’s replica prison (I think of it as AlcaTwo) dead or alive.

Now, the scenes in the past ARE interesting and cool to look at and beautifully produced, but they do keep bringing up characters and developing them just to shelve them in cells or comas.

Offense against historical logic: Lucy works with Hauser in the high-tech now. But I especially noticed her in 1963, a fairly-improbable young, ethnic, female psychiatrist practicing upon an extremely violent, male, prison population years before the Civil Rights movement or before people even began lying about burning their bras.  I just don’t think they need to wedge a contemporary Ugg in the historical doorframe quite that obviously. The character and actress are great—I loved when Sam Neill teased her about having been the one who wanted kids, meaning Madsen and Doc—but her role as a ’63 seems, well, overly TV-ified. I know it may sound offensive to suggest it would make more sense for her to have been someone’s wife, but she’s not the only spousal appendage I worry about. 

Offense to series logic: There are still more “major characters” coming, including a fiancee (Santiago Cabrera) for Madsen, a presumed love interest who we haven’t seen yet or heard mentioned? At all? You might be able to get a secret new job of non-stop danger and gone-ness past a casual boyfriend, but I’d think a fiancee might be involved enough in your life to notice. Then again, maybe he’s a traveling dentist or long-trail wilderness guide? Nope, he’s also SFPD, and she’s assisting a vague federal task force with no reporting hierarchy we can see, so that’s all fine, municipal budgets being endless and cops resistant to gossiping about stuff amongst themselves.

The 1963 warden, Edwin James (Jonny Coyne), is a cool cross between Ed Asner and J. Edgar Hoover, but my favorite recurring chracters from the past remain the most mysterious. Rebecca’s Grandfather Madsen (David Hoflin), for instance, is a man she discovers wasn’t a guard after all, but an inmate. Whenever we see Gramps Madsen in 1963, he’s always bleeding into big glass bottles, drained of vital juices like a ripe Valencia, and usually taunting some other incarcerated sad sack at the same time.  My other 1963 favorite is Dr. Beauregard (Leon Rippy). He’s weird, but intriguing. He can be sadistic, stitching you up without overmuch painkiller, but he’ll give you a cigarette if you’ll smoke his brand. Why I respond well to this conflicted nature and not to sniper-man’s temporary sloppiness, I can’t say.

Present-day hero Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) has “PhDs. in criminal justice and civil war history, [and] he’s also got a fascination with Alcatraz.  He’s written four books on the prison and its inmates, which line the shelves of Doc’s comics – a store he owns where he can indulge his other passion – superheroes.” That’s a lot of expertise to pack into one character, but mostly he’s working so far as a cheap encyclopedia of Alcatraz prisoner trivia because Sam O’Neill’s character doesn’t have “10,000 hours” to invest in developing another expert.

Offense against backstory subtlety: Rebecca Madsen recites all Soto’s degrees and credentials back to him—blurp— in his comic shop (whose coffee set-up I covet) while he lauds her awesome arcade fu. Too much. Doc later draws comics as a way to cope, recreating a traumatic recent event. Neat, but it would be cooler if they could somehow communicate other information rather than recap. (Again with the recaps and precaps.) When Madsen argues with Agent Hauser that she needs Doc because of his unique ability to use crime scenes and biographical details to figure out criminals, I wonder how good a homicide detective she really was.

Offense to honor and humanity: In this image, Doc’s calling Det. Madsen while over his left shoulder in that diner booth is a very bad man with a kinapped kid.  (I mean very bad, like the worst, so rotten that other inmates line up to kill him.) At one point, Doc is next to the kid-in-peril and 2 feet away from this guy who’s imminently going to do harm to the young boy. I don’t care what a gentle giant Doc’s character is, I can’t believe he wouldn’t accidentally put out a foot to trip the crapstain at least, especially since the man has no idea that Doc’s in pursuit.

Instead, Doc drops something and lets a tiny, tidying waitress get unconsciously in the way of the murderer, but not for long. I’m just not buying that Doc wouldn’t exert himself in the moment, especially when he loves superheroes and given his own traumatic history. In fact, the only thing Doc actually reproaches himself for is finally confronting the guy. By then, the monster’s too far away to grab. If you knew you could 1) put your hands on a child killer, 2) yell at the kid to run for help, and 3) hold the miserable creature until a cop, already en route with gun, showed up, I think a guy as smart and compassionate and physically imposing as Doc would figure the risk of intervention differently.

Tomorrow, we’re going to get episode 4 “Cal Sweeney,” and I will give the show a little more time to settle in. But if they want it to unfold as suspense, they will have to let me grab onto the mystery myself by not over-telling, repeating, and telegraphing every plot movement minutes ahead. I like being provoked by questions, and I’ll stop paying attention if I don’t need to. If they want it also to work like a real crime show, the processes and investigation need to make sense. In both cases, it’s far more important to me that the characters be coherent and/or complex than that I be data-dumped their backstories. I’ll figure out they’re awesome or evil by watching them, I promise!  The setting and premise are intrinsically interesting. For me, it’s enough to know as a starting point that all the characters are stuck in this strange and difficult situation, destined for collision with each other.

So have you watched Alcatraz ? Are these gripes the result of lingering sinus congestion and a picayune nature?  Let us know what you think, and whether you’ll be watching tomorrow.

Clare Toohey is Clare2e here and also blogs at Women of Mystery. She recently had a short, surreal crime story appear in Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. She prefers (and loathes) the prison of her own mind, and is afraid of being teleported to a time without Advil and ubiquitous coffee vendors.


  1. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    I watched every last stinkin’ minute of Lost. Five years running around in circles only to reach a series finale that the fan sites predicted the morning after the pilot aired. (Thank you for playing. Don’t trip over the loose ends on your way out.)

    I will never, ever watch anything from/by/involving J.J. Abrams, ever again. Ever. Your post just confirmed my decision. 🙂

  2. Becky Hantsbarger

    I have been watching Alcatraz and I agree with everything you just wrote. Does it bother anyone else that there are BOXES with the personal effects of the ’63 just sitting in the basement? This is almost 50 years later and nothing was done with the prisoners’ personal effects? Really? And the boxes aren’t water-stained or rat-chewed or even dusty. I do like the premise of the show, but I’m going to need a little more convincing that it’s worth my time.

  3. Clare 2e

    Good point, @BeckyIA! I hadn’t thought about those boxes.

    And what has Hauser been doing for almost 40 years if not digging into them and becoming as expert on the’ 63s as Doc is.

  4. Becky Hantsbarger

    And the boxes have cigarettes that are 50 years old and still in pristine condition? Bars of soap, razors and combs? Seems to me the boxes are a tad big for the contents. But then again, I live in Becky-land a lot and not eveybody goes there.

  5. Mary Saputo

    I’ve been watching from the get-go and I like it. I have a theory about Doc. I believe that some people are hero lovers because those heroes are everything they’re not. They want to be like them but are just too timid. I think that’s Doc. He doesn’t seem to be a real brave person and even though he’s intelligent, he looks down a lot when he talks which leads me to believe he’s not real confident. Besides which, wouldn’t you be scared if you saw blood and guts staring you in the face?

  6. Deborah Lacy

    It took me awhile to get to the three episodes and come back beyond the spoilers, but here I am. I have all the same issues mentioned above with one exception: I never watched Lost because of the Alias ending weirdness. I always thought I’ll want until the end of Lost and watch the whole thing, but I haven’t done it yet, and it is low on the list. But now I find myself oddly entertained by this show and willing to overlook quite a bit. I want to know why they all dissappeared and where they went, and who is pulling their strings now? Is the FBI team really on the side of good, or only on the side of we really messed this up and now we have to stop the bad guys we let back into the world. I also want to know more about super psycho killer grandpa. I’m hoping they really figured out this stuff before the show started. I realize it’s a lot to hope for, but I am in an optimistic mood.

Comments are closed.

The owner of this website has made a commitment to accessibility and inclusion, please report any problems that you encounter using the contact form on this website. This site uses the WP ADA Compliance Check plugin to enhance accessibility.