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Obsessive, Compulsive, Procedural #8: ‘Alcatraz’

Obsessive, Compulsive, Procedural #8: ‘Alcatraz’

2012, USA, imdb
Created by Steven Lilien, Bryan Wynbrandt and Elizabeth Sarnoff

Episode 1.01 “Pilot”
Directed by Danny Cannon
Written by Steven Lilien, Bryan Wynbrandt and Elizabeth Sarnoff

Episode 1.02 “Ernest Cobb”
Directed by Jack Bender
Written by Alison Balian


Alcatraz is a procedural built on the unstable grounds of a conspiracy. The show boasts an interesting premise, and an engaging cast. It also hints at the possibility of good writing, but the show is shrouded in so much mystery it is hard to tell if the show will properly pay-off what it seems to be setting up. In many ways, reviewing Alcatraz is like judging how sea-worthy a ship anchored in San Francisco harbour is, while the ship is obscured by a bank of fog.

The premise of Alcatraz is that the official history of the prison is a lie. The official history says that the then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered “The Rock” closed on March 1st, 1963 because of rising costs and the deterioration of the prison caused by the salt air. According to the show, what actually happened is that on March 1st, 1963, everyone on the island vanished. (256 prisoners and 46 guards, 302 people in total.)

Investigating the mystery is San Francisco Police Department homicide detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones). We first meet Rebecca as she loses her partner in a very Vertigo type accident while they pursue a criminal across the rooftops of San Francisco. Rebecca blames the mystery criminal they were chasing for the death of her partner, although the circumstances are a little bit more ambiguous. (Her partner slips while jumping from one rooftop to the next, the mystery criminal tries to kick his hands off the edge of the roof, fails and then runs. When Rebecca tries to pull her partner up, the pipe he is hanging on to collapses and her partner falls to his death. It is entirely possible that her partner would have fallen even if the criminal had fled immediately.)

While resisting attempts by her lieutenant to choose a new partner, Rebecca is assigned to investigate the homicide of an elderly man who turns out to be E. B. Tiller, the former deputy warden of Alcatraz and a former FBI agent. Rebecca is kicked off the case by Federal agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) but on her way out the door, she swipes a framed photograph disturbed by the killer. The print matches the name Jack Sylvane and while his records are sealed, Google matches the name with a former Alcatraz inmate.

Rebecca recruits historian Doctor Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) author of several books about Alcatraz to help her explore the connection to “The Rock”. In the process, she reveals her own personal connection to Alcatraz: after her parents died, she was raised by her “uncle”, former Alcatraz guard Ray Archer (Robert Forster) who told her that her grandfather Tommy Marsden was also a guard there.

Rebecca and Doc travel to Alcatraz to examine a hidden file room that Soto had discovered during his previous research, but whose locked door he had never been able to open. When Rebecca opens the door with a skeleton key, they are both gassed, waking up in a secret facility under the old prison, run by Emerson Hauser along with his assistant Lucy Bannerjee (Parminder Nagra). After catching Jack Sylvane for Emerson, Rebecca argues her way into his unit, dragging Doc along to be her partner.

It is more than a little TV Tropish to do, “She’s a cop! He’s an historian! Together, they fight crime!” but damned if it doesn’t work, at least for now. Since the show will be following around criminals who were last seen fifty years before, having an historian around, especially one who is an Alcatraz expert, will actually be useful. It also makes emotional sense that since Rebecca’s last partner got killed outrunning her, that she would want a partner that would never be able to do that.

Jorge Garcia is excellent as the bemused historian who is “smarter than he looks”. The dust jacket of one of Soto’s books boasts that in addition to writing three books on Alcatraz (Alcatraz by the Numbers, Guards of Alcatraz and Alcatraz: Families and Friends) he also holds two doctorates, one in Criminal Justice and one in Civil War History, “but his proudest achievement by far is holding the North American high score in Galaga.”

There were two false notes related to his character, both in the second episode. Soto writes comic books based on his Alcatraz research and owns a comic book store. When Rebecca goes to his comic book store, Soto’s young Asian store manager immediately gives the clichéd horrified nerd reaction at a girl walking into the comic book store, a comedy bit that should stick to The Big Bang Theory.

The more serious false note relates to Soto’s inability to keep a secret, as the episode starts with Soto threatening to spill the beans to his store manager. This runs completely contrary to Soto’s character in the pilot when Soto knew that Rebecca’s grandfather Tommy was an inmate not a guard, but kept his mouth shut about it. The truth about Tommy is only revealed when Rebecca sees a picture of Tommy on the prisoner side of Emerson’s hallway of the disappeared at the end of the first episode. She also realizes that Tommy is the criminal that she was chasing when her partner was killed.

Beyond the character issues, there is a greater structural concern about the second episode during which Rebecca and Soto try to catch the sniper Ernest Cobb. There is no explanation why the initial crime scene is automatically assumed to be an Alcatraz case, beyond the deus ex machina that they were summoned to the crime scene by Emerson Hauser. Once they know that the crime was committed by one of the “63”s, it is child’s play for Soto to identify Ernest Cobb as the perpetrator, but the show needs to earn the leap from regular crime to Alcatraz crime.

While it is hard to call it a trend after only two episodes, it seems like the show will be modelling its criminals after (in)famous criminals from U.S. history. Ernest Cobb is obviously based on 1966 Texas sniper Charles Whitman. Jack Sylvane is based on Henri Young, a 1940’s Alcatraz prisoner whose story was told in the movie Murder in the First.

At least, Jack Sylvane shares the sad story of Henri Young that was invented for that movie, namely that he stole $5 from a corner store, but was tried as a federal offender because the store also sold stamps – making the store a post office. (The real Henri Young was a bank robber.) The real Henri Young was an inmate at Alcatraz during WWII and long gone from the prison by the time it closed. Oddly, Young disappeared after being released on parole in the 1970s and has never been seen since. If still alive, he would be 98.

Since the show is based on a mysterious island, stars Jorge Garcia and is produced by Bad Robot, J. J. Abrams’ production company, comparisons to Lost are inevitable. What makes Alcatraz interesting is the way that it structurally deals with the biggest complaint thrown at Lost: the lack of answers. The two main characters are both devoted to getting answers and learning the truth. Their frustration at the larger mystery is our frustration, making it easier for us to connect and identify with our heroes.

At the same time, that same frustration drives our dislike of Emerson Hauser, who knows more about the central mystery than he has told Rebecca and Soto, beginning with the fact that he was one of the first two guards to find Alcatraz deserted. The end of the second episode also reveals that Lucy Bannerjee (or her identical twin) was working at Alcatraz as a psychiatrist or psychologist in 1960, under the name Doctor Lucille Sengupta. This reveal at least makes the odd, present-day relationship between Lucy and Emerson somewhat less creepy, since it may be a continuation of something started in the 1960s.

Sam Neill is wonderfully creepy and dickish as Emerson Hauser. While ostensibly on the side of the good guys, he is a throwback to the bad, old days of Alcatraz as featured in Murder in the First, and he is secretly building his own underground version of Alcatraz deep in the woods, stocking it with the prisoners that Rebecca and Soto catch. He has an old school attitude towards violence, head-butting Jack Sylvane right after uncuffing him and shooting a defenceless Ernest Cobb in the right hand so that Cobb will never snipe again.

The most disquieting idea that Alcatraz presents, when it shows Emerson Hauser malevolently mistreating prisoners in his bright, clean, anti-septic, state of the art, secret prison, is that the systematic brutal mistreatment of prisoners, that Alcatraz both excelled at and was the symbol of, is not a relic of the past that we have left behind, but a disease that continues to plague us.

Michael Ryan