1963, Alcatraz. Two guards land on the island and enter the notorious high security prison. They find it completely deserted, no inmates, no guards, nothing. 2012, San Francisco. Somewhat shady FBI (or so he says) agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) recruits young police officer Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) to a special task force. The inmates that disappeared in 1963 are starting to turn up, they are committing crimes and seem to be following orders from someone else. Oh yes, and they haven’t aged a day since they disappeared 50 years earlier…….
As with a lot of recent high-concept US television programming, this has a great idea at its core. What if they didn’t really shut down Alcatraz and move its inmates to other prisons. What if they all disappeared and it has been covered up? Where did they go? Who did it? Why? How come they haven’t aged? What was going on in the sub-levels of Alcatraz? Why were so many inmates being experimented on? What was with all of the blood transfusions?
Unfortunately, the sense of the show Lost having cheated audiences with its endlessly delayed pay-off has put paid to the longevity of many similar shows. Either audiences won’t wait for the pay-off any more, or tastes have changed and we are looking for something different. Whatever the reason, just as intriguing shows like Flash Forward and The Event quickly died, so Alcatraz has suffered a cull and won’t be back, meaning that this first compelling season is all we have.
It is hard to see much wrong here. The characters could have been one-dimensional (young, driven cop, nerdy comic-book/Alcatraz historian, grizzled/mysterious former guard) but actually come off pretty well, with coherent, thought-through back stories and interactions that remain free of cliché for the most part. Each episode is named after the inmate (or in one case, the guard) that is being pursued and alternates between 1960 flashbacks that fill in the back story for that character (and also build and unfold the wider mystery of what went on and what has happened) and present-day efforts to find and stop the criminals in question, most of whom seem to be intent on returning to old ways.
We have serial killers, snipers, bank robbers, kidnappers and violent psychopaths, with intelligently applied camera-work helping us keep track of when and where we are. In the afore-mentioned nerd/historian Dr Diego Soto (Lost-alumnus Jorge Garcia) we have an excellent character who helps puncture and punctuate some of the show’s more far-fetched elements and posturings. He also gets to show his humanity and damaged background, especially in the thrilling but unsettling third episode.
None of the episodes are any sort of disappointment, though those that help unpack some of the over-arching mystery tend to be the most enjoyable. To its credit, the show doesn’t endlessly tease. From fairly early on, plenty of information is trickled down regarding what is going on, without the whole game being given away. Maybe we need to be more patient. Anyway, the final episode treats us to a fantastic and hugely enjoyable Bullitt homage, right down to the click of the seatbelt, the roar of Mustang engines and the constantly reappearing green VW Beetle. A compelling central premise, a well-handled mystery, interesting characters, decent plots and enough questions left hanging to bring people back for season 2. Yet, this is all we will ever see. Frustrating, but still very enjoyable as an isolated season, even though we would all like to know what was still to come.
You can rent Alcatraz from 15th October on either DVD or Blu-ray and you really should. It’s great stuff and I’m sorry to see it go. Alternatively, you might want to try your luck at winning the box set here.
Extras: Not much. Some deleted scenes which seem to have been excised due to time constraints, a gag reel and a 10-minute making of that will be spoilerific if you watch it before you’ve finished watching the show.