California Literary Review

Alcatraz Recap: Cal Sweeney (Season 1, Episode 4)

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January 31st, 2012 at 1:34 am

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Eric Johnson as Cal Sweeney in Alcatraz

Smallville’s Eric Johnson as Cal Sweeney, the POTW on this week’s Alcatraz.

There actually might be a good show in Alcatraz. Unfortunately, it takes place in 1960. The flashbacks, which tonight featured a dinner party held by the Warden for top members of his staff with two prisoners serving as waiters, actually worked well tonight. Alcatraz came across as its own little universe with its own rules and only style. The Alcatrazians- prisoners and prison staff alike- generated some level of interest in me, and they even seemed to have some depth and complexity. Plots and characters reflected a possible continuity from both onscreen and off screen. There’s an attempt to give definite vibe to these scenes, for which I have to give the show credit.

Unfortunately, the flashbacks make up a small percentage of Alcatraz. The majority of the show has to do with the present, which is still a startlingly lifeless police procedural, and one more like a low rent version of The Inside than Law and Order. I know, I should give the show time to figure itself out, but you can’t help but feel that it should be smarter. Even if they still decided to do the procedural route until they get their feet wet, there’s a way to make the cases of the week interesting. Criminals from the 1960s aren’t interesting simply because they’re from the 1960s.

Maybe my issue has mostly to do with the lack of personalities exhibited by both Madsen and Soto both apart and together. In more successful shows featuring a couple investigating bizarre crimes, the relationship between the two main characters serves as the heart of the show. We need to want to see the core duo solve the crime more than we want to see the crime solved, and Alcatraz does not pull that off. There’s no chemistry, either friendship or sexual, between Madsen and Soto, and if the show is just about wasting time between flashbacks, then that’s very disappointing. While Hauser might have a greater screen presence than those two, he’s more a boss than a partner, and even he just seems to be coasting on Sam Neill’s professionalism. Lucy only appears in the flashbacks. At this point, I think it would have made more sense to kill her in the second episode.

Jorge Garcia, Sam Neill, and Sarah Jones in Alcatraz’ Cal Sweeney

Not Mulder, Scully, and Skinner

The Prisoner-of-the-Week is Cal Sweeney (Eric Johnson), a bank robber. He breaks into safety deposit boxes, takes stuff from them, visits the owner, asks about the items’ history, and presumably kills them. In the show’s simplistic view of the criminal mind, it’s because his family and everything they owned burn when he was a child except for a tin box.

While the show’s ridiculous idea of criminality annoys me, apparently it’s a genuine subplot to the series as a whole. In the past, we learn that Lucille’s theory behind the criminal mind is that all criminals are hardwired to act the way they do because of a bad memory, and if she can replace that bad memory with a good one, everything would be hunky dory. While that belief seems a bit outdated and especially flimsy in 2012, I am looking forward to Groovy Inception.

Back to the show. One of Sweeney’s modern day robbery attempts fails, so he takes a bank hostage. To keep Team Alcatraz alive, Madsen sneaks in and breaks him out in a very cheap, television-y way. See, luckily she apparently had a SWAT team uniform in Soto’s car so that Sweeney could wear it to blend in with the cops. After causing a distraction that leads to the police tossing tear gas into the bank, they walk out nonchalantly, seemingly unaffected by the gas, enter a cop car, and just drive away. Eventually, she knocks him out by driving really fast and slightly tapping a car on her passenger side.

The big plot “movement” happens at the end of every episode, and tonight it takes place in Alcatraz I. After capturing Cal, Madsen finds a key like the two in the first two episodes. Hauser asks for it back, and she initially refuses. I have no idea why she wouldn’t trust him, especially considering he has access to all the technology and could kick her out of Team Alcatraz and he has done nothing to warrant her not to trust him, but we need to build suspense cheaply. She relents when Soto tells Hauser that they’ll give him the key, but only if he tells them what it’s for. He agrees. After taking the key, Hauser says he will…but not yet, and he walks away.

Sam Neill in Alcatraz’ Cal Sweeney

Seeing this picture makes me imagine Ray Wise in the role, and how he’d most certainly raise the entertainment value of the series. Because that’s what he does. #Shrim

Here’s where the show got a bit odd for me. When Hauser leaves, Soto says, “Guess he trusts the scientists more than us.” I thought that was a joke about how Hauser is so mysterious, but the boss actually walks into an adjacent room and visits a team of scientists whom, to the best of my memory, we’ve never seen or even heard of before, and hands them the key to analyze. So were they working there the whole time and we never learned about them? What’s their relationship with Soto and Madsen? Are they ever let out of the room?

Anyway, in the past, we see that the three keys open a special cell, which might as well be another hatch. You’d think Hauser would have uncovered the door by now.

Additional Thoughts:
• What’s with this show’s antiquated view towards comic books and comic book fans? At the beginning of the episode, Madsen questions Soto about how a guy with two PhDs ended up owning a comic book store. Why is it so hard to believe that he might enjoy the medium or see the shop as a business opportunity?
• Soto also explains that he was blacklisted from criminology after the National Journal of Criminology published his groundbreaking article that used Gotham City as a statistical model. Being laughed out of the Criminology Academy for a piece like that seems a bit over-the-top. After all, a number of academic papers use pop culture as a jumping off point. Secondly, the NJC published it, so they must have seen some value in it? Unless he lied about all his data, in which case does the NJC believe in peer review? (He claimed he did it so he could stop being a criminologist, the field his parents pushed him into. It’s all very stupid.)
• When Cal was asking future victim Will about the history of the items, he reminded me of Bill Hader’s Dateline‘s Keith Morrison on Saturday Night Live.
• Does Detective Madsen come across as a sub-average cop to anyone else?
• When Madsen enters the bank, she actually crawls in through an air duct.
• I don’t know how police actually function, but the handling of the entire hostage situation came across as really false to me.
• I don’t care so much about solving the mysteries, but the criminals really need to express some amazement with the 21st century, or we need to learn why they don’t, or someone needs to ask, “why don’t they?” Similarly, I was bothered when Madsen explains to Cal that she knows him, and he doesn’t bat an eye.

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