So we’ve reached the end of our journey to Alcatraz. That season just flew by, didn’t it? And think of all the memories we shared. Nondescript white guys committing zany crimes. The clever dialogue like …um…. Remember the startling insight about Soto that he was kidnapped and possibly molested as a child?! That totally added nothing to his character, did it? Good times good times.
Although I give my overall thoughts on the series as a whole at the bottom of this article, I actually thought the season ended on a high note. Both episodes that aired tonight, Garrett Stillman and Tommy Madsen, gave the best impression yet of what the show could be. However, it accomplished this by drastically limiting the importance of the two leads, Sarah Jones as Detective Rebecca Madsen and Jorge Garcia as Doctor Diego Soto. I know it’s common for audiences to latch onto secondary characters as their favorites, but tonight’s episodes proved just how unimportant, if not detrimental, those two are to the overall possibilities of Alcatraz. Sure, Rebecca’s grandfather Tommy Madsen is the most important criminal to return, but the show rarely seems concerned about her journey; she’s a relatively static character. Then, when you throw in Lucy, Hauser, and some of the POTWs operating on a higher level of the conspiracy, you take away the mutual discovery element necessary for us to want to join these schlubs, because we’ve already made the crucial revelations through other characters.
But at least these two episodes remembered the importance of discovery, as another of the show’s biggest problems has always been its preference to operate as a stand-alone procedural. I’m sure I’m not the only person who tuned into Alcatraz expecting something different. I didn’t want CSI, I didn’t want Law & Order, I didn’t want Cold Case. While I was more than willing to accept some police elements, I was disappointed that this turned out to be nothing more than a standard procedural with a crazy gimmick. Although the procedural element still rears its ugly head tonight, it becomes less of a problem since the crimes of the POTWs play into the larger story by linking the present day with the events of the 1960s, and the first episode actually gives information followed up on in the subsequent one.
Tonight, we delve significantly into the relationship between Warden James and Tommy Madsen and learn that Madsen was specially chosen to be an “advance man” for whatever crazy experiment James is running involving blood and time travel. We see some of the prison black market system, how Warden James has sided with Tommy Madsen and Garrett Stillman, and how there is or was something of a turf war between Team James and Team Tiller. We also discover that the POTWs have a handler in 2012, who very well might be the Warden, whose whereabouts remain unknown. All of these elements were things that could be assumed, but once the show finally acknowledges them, it’s a good indication that it’s ready to begin moving on.
Speaking of the past, the 1960s is where the show has always been at its best. Even if many of the flashbacks seem kind of pointless, those scenes have a strength that is utterly lacking in the modern scenes. The prisoners, guards, and doctors have personalities. There’s a definite universe established within the walls of the prison. And the ambiance lends itself to a weirdness and allure that plays into the mysteries and makes it easier to look past some of the series’ flaws and logical inconsistencies. That’s the show with the ongoing plots, but it is hampered by the need to make the series primarily into a standard, modern day procedural. I’m not saying that Alcatraz: 1960 is a great series, but it definitely provides a lot of what Alcatraz: 2012 is missing.
Nevertheless, the return of Lucy did bring a sense of urgency and relevance to today, even if I did hate the “you adapt” explanation behind how one grows accustomed to the 21st century. Even if trial and error could work for her, it’s probably not going to work when committing crimes. Regardless, her interview with Ernest Cobb was relatively intense for this show, and her return let Hauser become more active. We even meet one of his government connections, so I guess I was wrong in assuming he was rogue. But, like I said above, when you can spend extended periods of time with people who are actually involved with the big story, it seems like a waste having to wait for the main characters to catch up to everyone else, including the audience. This isn’t always the case for every series/movie/book, of course, but it becomes more problematic when the two main characters are particularly bland.
In 2012, Soto and Madsen perform their investigations. There’s a pretty good Bullitt homage car chase/car commercial with Madsen in the Steve McQueen role that makes you wonder if they were saving their action budget exclusively for that one sequence. Lucy and Hauser make their way into the Warden’s Secret Door, which contains left over props from Dharma stations and a map of where the Alcatrazians will return. (Surprise! They’re coming back in more places than San Francisco!) And Tommy Madsen stabs his granddaughter, which leads to her flatlining in a hospital. The problem with this cliffhanger is that no one truly expects a show to kill off its lead, especially when magical healing blood is a plot element. Anyway, if this does mark the end of Madsen, the show will be all the better for it.
• We see the return of the Alcatraz IT Department. Robert Forster also returns for less than five minutes. If the show comes back, he needs to be more involved. Maybe if Madsen dies, he can take her spot.
• “Armored car heist, broad daylight, intricate timings, guards unharmed, police with no leads.” That was really enough to figure out a) that an Alcatraz inmate was involved and b) which Alcatraz inmate it was? It would be like hearing “trespassing” and knowing the perpetrator.
• I was also bugged by Lucy’s surprise that Soto added a police chatter scanner into the computer and her confusion over what he was referring to, considering how advanced the entire computer system is. And when did Soto become a computer programming expert? Did he ask the IT department to do it? What is Soto and Madsen’s relationship with those guys? For some reason, that interests me more than the other mysteries.
• Stillman keeps the armored car from his heist. Did he disable GPS? If so, how?
• Soto and Madsen said that by finding out whom the POTWs’ handler is, they can figure out out who got Cobb his rifle. My memory might be faulty, but didn’t the gun store owner say that he sold Cobb the rifle?
• While searching on the Alcomputer, Soto recognizes Tommy Madsen on a traffic light camera and says to Madsen, “It’s your grandfather, Tommy Madsen.” Why would he need to say his full name?
• The final episode starts with Madsen bleeding on the ground before we flashback to “36 hours later.” Isn’t this trick getting overused on television?
• I am very disappointed Beauregard smokes electronic cigarettes, but I did like his and Lucy’s scene together.
• I couldn’t believe Madsen actually did a “Police! I am commandeering this car!”
Prior to the final two episodes, my opinion of Alcatraz was almost uniformly negative. As I said in an earlier review, I don’t care much for the procedural genre, so it’s difficult for me to judge the show on how well it satisfied fans of that style. It certainly didn’t rise above what I expect from lower-level procedurals, which means that it failed on some level. For the most part, Alcatraz turned out to be a forgettable crime drama.
But the quality of the final two episodes has forced me to end the season with a hesitant “not terrible.” While the show has a lot of problems in many areas- writing, characters, plot-, if Alcatraz makes a commitment to be more about the ongoing story and less about the Prisoner of the Week, I wouldn’t mind seeing it return for a second season. I wouldn’t be disappointed if FOX canceled it, but I might stick around if it didn’t.