Review: Alcatraz / Cert: 15 / Director: Jack Bender, Paul Edwards / Screenplay: Steven Lilien, Elizabeth Sarnoff, Bryan Wynbrandt / Starring: Sarah Jones, Jorge Garcia, Jonny Coyne, Parminder Nagra, Sam Neill, Leon Rippy, Jason Butler Harner / Release Date: Out Now
Executive produced by J.J. Abrams, Alcatraz looked set to be a monster hit when it debuted on our TV screens. But dwindling ratings led Fox to cancel the show after only one season, a fact which lends an air of melancholy to this boxset. Such a shame, because while it lasted it was a very decent exercise in Twilight Zone-style spookiness.
Back in 1963, the Rock's 302 inmates and guards mysteriously vanish without a trace, only to start popping up in San Francisco in the present day. Tasked with tracking them down is a small team comprised of enigmatic black suiter Emerson Hauser (Neill), SFPD cop Rebecca Madsen (Jones) and Alcatraz expert Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge).
Each episode consists of the team's pursuit of one or other of these inmates (known as 63s), each more deadly and cunning than the last. As a setup, it's way random (although not so random that it doesn't bear a striking resemblance to CBS' beam-of-white-light show The 4400). But the creative talent handle it with considerable skill. Crucially, the baddies are, for the most part, impressively scary – a child murderer, a sniper, a poisoner. Regular flashbacks to 1960 provide humanizing backstories, but these only serve to make them seem even more chillingly hard-wired for mayhem.
Looming over everything, exuding Gothic gloom, is Alcatraz itself. The team operate (somewhat unbelievably, but it makes for good TV) out of a nifty high-tech HQ under the prison (cuing a nail-biting episode wherein two particularly thuggish 63s suddenly materialize in their midst). Meanwhile, in 1960, the well-spoken but deeply sinister Warden (Coyne) is using the prisoners as guinea-pigs in secretive experiments.
Weird science, brainwashing, locked chambers, hidden treasure… You just know that, had the show continued, these story arcs would have eventually gotten out of hand. But here, in the first season, their B-movie vibe is the perfect complement to the part-period setting. Adding weight are some intriguing themes and subtexts. The 63s, with their smart haircuts and deep neuroses, read like unwelcome visitations from a repressive period of American history. This chimes in with a peculiar dynamic among the leads. Soto is an awkward man-child, Madsen a glib, heartless tomboy – both seem to be suffering from a kind of traumatic arrested development. And reining them in like a tetchy headmaster is Hauser, a one-time romantic dried up by his long acquaintance with Alcatraz.
What exactly did happen to the 63s? What was the Warden up to in his secret cellar? And how can Madsen be such a crack marksman with her fringe constantly flopping over one eye? Chances are, these and other questions will never be answered. But let's be grateful for the series that raised them.