“Alcatraz” closed out its 13-episode season this week with a two-hour finale, the ratings for which were actually lower than the week before. Not a great sign for the Fox freshman drama, which hasn’t yet been renewed, though fans are trying to rally behind it.
The series, from J. J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Prods., has an intriguing-enough premise — that in 1963, when Alcatraz was shut down, the prisoners weren’t tranferred away but instead vanished only to show up mysteriously, without having aged, on the streets of modern-day San Francisco. But “Alcatraz” has struggled with what seems to be the bane of every Abrams-related show, which is balancing deep, fan-pleasing mythology with episodic arcs that are friendly to new viewers. “Alcatraz” has leaned heavily toward the latter — episodes are named after returned inmates, each of whom is then tracked down — while leaking out details about the mystery and the conspiracy behind it so slowly that it’s easy to just not care.
If “Alcatraz” does come back — and it contains enough promise that I hope it will — here are five things I’d love to see happen to make it more watchable.
Establish a Bad Guy
Who’s in charge of this crazy time-jumping scheme? Flashbacks and the finale indicate it’s got to be Jonny Coyne’s ominous Warden Edwin James, but the warden’s yet to make an appearance in 2012 — the closest we’ve gotten was a just-introduced co-conspirator (Matt Craven) who popped in from the past in the final minutes of the finale, asked the year and then started laughing maniacally. If someone’s steering this thing, it’d be nice if they raised their hand, because no one else seems clear on what’s going on. Tommy Madsen (David Hoflin), lead character Detective Rebecca Madsen’s (Sarah Jones) ’63 grandfather, knows more than anyone else, but even he appears to be more involved in some opposing faction or an independent agent whose loyalties are unknown. And while Madsen’s certainly no angel — he did stab Rebecca in the gut — he’s been revealed as someone who was made the subject of experiments and who regretfully traded in his family in exchange for the possibility of freedom. As the warden says, “In Faustian tales a devil is often needed, however misunderstood” — if he’s that devil, he could be a little more ominous and forthcoming. Speaking of…
Get a Plan
…with a capital “P.” The finale found Sam Neill’s Emerson Hauser and his tech Dr. Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra) opening the underground bunker that seems to be of great importance to the ’63s. And inside — not the rumored stash of Civil War gold, but instead early computers and a map of the country with pins indicating the locations at which the inmates were predicted or intended to return. So obviously a lot of time and thought has been invested in this time-travel adventure, but what possible reason could someone have to sending uninformed and violent inmates into the future to commit, for the most part, the same crimes they did in the past? If you figured out time travel, why would you use it to do the equivalent of an epic prank (with more death)? So little has been revealed in terms of motivation that I’m not convinced the show creators are that sure themselves.
Spend More Time on the Time-Travelling Girlfriend
Lucy and Hauser had a sweet, tentative romance back in the ’60s, which is potentially great dramatic stuff, given that he’s spent 50 years looking for her and she’s skipped straight to 2012. He is, as she observed, not the same man she fell in love with, both emotionally — he’s controlling, mistrustful and humorless — and physically, as he’s now got a few decades on her. Lucy spent half the season in a coma, but since she’s been awake the show’s at least hinted at the complexities of their new dynamic. “You feel obligated,” fellow ’63 Dr. Milton Beauregard (Leon Rippy) observes, and she answers “I feel a lot of things.” Where does Lucy live? How did she catch up to the present? I’d love to see more about her adjustment outside of the investigations too. And you know what?
Let Rebecca and Diego Have Lives
Rebecca’s a workaholic who jokes about having nothing pressing to get home to, while Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) is a geek and Alcatraz nerd who naturally leans toward spending all of his time at his super-secret new gig. But that fact makes these characters very difficult to latch onto, beyond Garcia’s natural likability. The pair seem like a rough copy of “Fringe” protags Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and Joshua Jackson (Peter Bishop) without the romantic chemistry, and while their sibling-like relationship is pleasant enough, it’d benefit from more background about who they are. Rebecca, in particular, runs a little bland, and given she’s the one with the dark family history tying her to the ’63s, it’d be nice to have a reason to be invested in her, presuming she wasn’t offed in the finale (I’d bet on the magic of colloidal silver there).
Have More Fun
To quote a property with no shortage of supervillains, why so serious? There should be plenty of joy in the central pairing of the driven cop and the obsessive fanboy. Just the fact that Soto gets free range and to see up close, personal and alive the objects of his study should be reason for more geek-out moments. And the “Bullitt”-homage car chase in the finale (Jones even got to wear a Steve McQueen-style turtleneck and holster) was a great time. Alcatraz was an actual place with actual famous prisoners, not Arkham Asylum, but this isn’t a show deeply based in reality. Why stick with boring bankrobbers and kidnappers — why not go weirder? “Fringe” eventually let its freakiness out to play — if “Alcatraz” returns, it’d be great if it got a chance to do the same.