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Alcatraz: Pilot/Ernest Cobb

“That’s not what happened.”

The latest offering from J.J. Abram’s production company, Bad Robot, Alcatraz tells the tale of federal agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), SFPD detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), and Dr. Diego Soto (Hurley!) as they attempt to piece together what happened nearly 40 years ago, when all the residents and guards at Alcatraz disappeared—and why they’re coming back.

Samantha and I both wanted to review this premiere, and I offered to fight her for it. I got in some impressive roundhouse kicks, but Samantha took me down with a Vulcan nerve pinch. Once I woke up, we shook hands and agreed to do a dual review:

Samantha's Take

There were some things I really liked about this two hour premiere, and some things that really didn't work for me. First off I like the cast. They are all good actors that are easy to empathize with. However, I think the very young and extremely cute female lead lacks the gravitas to pull off the tough-girl detective shtick. Jorge Garcia, who is easy to buy as a comic book nerd/genius historian, feels a little shoehorned in. He is literally dragged along and brought into the group as almost an afterthought. I do like the chemistry between him and Sarah Jones. It felt almost romantic, and if they went in that direction I would be thrilled. [Josie's comment: Me, too!]

Then there was Sam Neill and Parminder Nagra (as Lucy). I really like both actors, but beyond that personal favoritism I didn't really like either of their characters. Both are definitely intriguing, but other than that basic interest, they could be written out and I wouldn't really care. So what did I like? I think the idea of the mystery is cool, unless it becomes a cop procedural with time travel elements. I like the tone of the series, with the overlapping story set in two different time periods. I like the setting, and the inherent creepiness that surrounds it. The atmosphere and history of Alcatraz makes this plot work, and the obvious location shooting really elevates the entire production.

But overall I think this is just too familiar, and too J.J., if that makes sense. It was as if he was going down a checklist. Once he fulfilled his requisite details, then he came up with the meat of the idea. There is the beautiful yet strong heroine, check. The enigmatic older guy, check. The slightly odd yet brilliant sidekick or buddy, check. An unexplained mystery/conspiracy involving something vaguely supernatural, check. Now none of those are exactly detractors. In fact those are things I generally like about his ideas. But I am starting to wonder if maybe he is running out of steam.

Josie’s Take

Two episodes in, it’s safe to say that Alcatraz offers up mild thrills and milder mysteries. The pilot episode focused primarily on establishing the rules of the game: disappearance in ’63, reemergence in 2012, plucky heroes banding together, reemerged heroes stashed in underground lair, etc. Hauser is the mysterious fed who knows more than he says; Rebecca Madsen is loyal to those she loves and a good detective to boot, and Dr. Soto (Hurley!) has not one but two PhDs and has written four books on Alcatraz. He also owns what appears to be a Geek Store. They sell gaming supplies, comic books, and probably very few condoms.

“Ernest Cobb” gives us a glimpse of what to expect each week: a procedural “find the past-his-expiration-date baddie!” combined with driblets of mythology. So far, our questions are: Why did Hauser build a bat-cave under Alcatraz? (And how did he do so? It is a rock in the middle of the bay.) What is Rebecca’s connection to the returnees given her grandfather’s status? How does Robert Forester fit into all this? What’s up with the creepy Prisoner/Initiative prison in the woods?

It’s not, in other words, a life-changing, Lost-caliber premiere. But nonetheless I like it. Sam Neill is always fun, particularly when ambiguously evil. Sarah Jones impressed me in her work on Justified last season, and she has a nice combination of seriousness, sexiness, and innocence.

Above all, I adore Jorge Garcia. He was great on Lost and judging from his blog, he seems like a genuinely wonderful guy, too: smart, caring, and devoted to his girlfriend and pets. He even bakes! His character here is smarter than Hurley, and a bit less fun-loving, but just as fun to watch. As in Lost, he acts as something of a mouthpiece for all of our inner geeks, uttering lines like “I’ll bet you have a neat origin story.”

At the recent TCA press tour, J.J. Abrams (who seems to be mostly a figurehead for his TV shows these days) said Alcatraz wouldn’t be as “impenetrable” as Lost or Alias. However, he made the same claim about Fringe when it premiered, and that show now has me drawing diagrams. (In a good way.) Alcatraz’s potential depends, for me, on not trusting Abrams. Complexity, time travel, and impenetrability are all good things, and Alcatraz should be able to deliver what we really want. We’ll just have to wait and see if that’s what happens.

Bits and Pieces... of Rock?

• My family went to San Francisco quite a bit when I was young, and I’ve taken the Alcatraz tour at least four times. Once, my little brother got lost in the wacky maze of cells. There is nothing more boring for a teenage girl than to watch her mother panic about an annoying little brother lost in the one place in the entire world in which the phrase “he can’t have gone far” is actually true.

• My little brother turned out fine, by the way.

• Hurley’s wardrobe is awesome. You should watch “Ernest Cobb” just for the cool waistcoat and green velvet blazer.

• The pilot filmed over a year ago, and now shooting is taking place in, you guessed it, Vancouver. I will never stop considering this to be an utter failure of my state to support one of its only remaining industries.

• I wanted to call this section “Pebbles” but worried the joke would utterly fail.

Samantha’s Final Analysis: Alcatraz has the potential to be really original and really engaging, but I would only give this pilot 2.5 mug shots.

Josie’s Final Analysis: Yeah, that sounds about right. Duck!

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. Pebbles. LOL.

    I wanted to like it. But I kept thinking, is this going to be cops and robbers with a time travel twist and Lost accoutrements? That's not what I want. Although I honestly don't know exactly what I *do* want.

    Jorge is definitely a selling point ("Is anyone else's head exploding right now?") and I liked Sarah Jones as much as both of you did. Sam Neill is a big sell, too. I guess I'll hang in there for a few episodes and see what they do with it.

    Great review, guys.

  2. I liked it a lot - yes, in some ways it was kind of predictable - but I'd take predictable JJ over a lot of other TV these days. I did not analyze it yet, but I was intrigued, I was drawn in, and at the end of almost two hours I was marking my calendar for NEXT Monday.

    I'd think def better than Terra Nova, The Event, V, Ringer.


  3. I really enjoyed this too, myself. Of course... I'll watch anything with Jorge Garcia in it. :) Oh... something interesting I found out, cause I went looking for it myself.... the doctor, in the first episode? He was played by Leon Rippy, aka. Tom Nuttall from Deadwood.

  4. Update: There's an Alcatraz alternative reality game already:


    It actually makes me more nervous about the show's future plots, that this is being rolled out now before we even know there are mysteries to be solved.

  5. Every single time Sam Neill was on screen, I yelled out "WOLSEY!". I don't regret it. But then, I'm biased because technically Sam is Australian (Okay, Irish-turned-Kiwi) but I will watch anything that he is in. Except Jurassic Park.

    I'm going to keep watching ALCATRAZ as long as I can, or until I get bored. I didn't really care much for LOST or any J.J. things apart from ALIAS, so we'll have to see.

    Also, LOVED seeing Santiago Cabrera in something after MERLIN.

  6. Where was Santiago Cabrera in this???

    Was it a blink and miss it thing or is it that I have somehow completely forgotten what he looks like? Has it really been that long since Isaac Mendez has been seen on our TV Screens...

  7. I found it mildly intriguing. I zoned out a bit during some of the flashbacks and the case-of-the-week stuff, but I'm curious about the overall mystery. And I like Sarah Jones. She was a recurring guest player in S2 of Sons of Anarchy and had that guest spot on Justified last season, so I know she's got chops. She just needs some better, more 3D writing.

    I'm gonna hang with this for a bit, but worry that the procedural elements will wear me down before it finally goes all Fringe, really embraces the whacky, and suddenly gets really good.

  8. I liked it, although the pilot was "clunky" at times. When Rebecca finds out that her grandfather was a prisoner and not a guard her reaction was almost "so what" - and then he was the guy that killed her partner? Her reaction was just way too mild.

    And - don't get me wrong - I love me some Hurley - but Jorge was almost too Hurley - acting as the voice for the audience "Is anyone else's head about to explode?".

    I did really like the twist at the end of Part 2...so I will keep watching.

    As with all of you, I hope the procedural of the week doesn't turn me off before the mysteries start kicking in.

    Oh, and Anon - Santiago was on at the beginning as a cop at the scene...his hair is really short so I had to look twice too. I am hoping he gets more screen time in the future!

  9. I'm a pretty smart girl, and I have a one year old that I was tending to during the show. However, I kept getting lost and not in a good way. My teenager was like, are you even paying attention? And I was like, no I'm watching your baby brother. Anyway, too many things that confused me. I love Abrahms and loved, loved, loved LOST! However, this lost is not a good one. Someone on twitter said "I'm watching Lost: Prison Edition" and I wish that were so. However, I'm in it for Jorge Garcia, and will stick it out for as long as I can. There were way too many holes in their already flimsy premise. And I don't know who played Jack Sylvane, but I sure hope to see more of him!

  10. One last thought. I think the writing is what was slowing me down. I just didn't buy the way everything was unfolding and thought it could have been written better. As a writer, this is a problem for me. If a show has a great cast and wonderful premise but the writing is lacking, it will lose my interest.

  11. I liked it, was grabbed by it, and will continue to watch it. I was never bored.

    But what i really want is LOST,done the way it should have been done. Nothing will ever replace or be as good as LOST, for me.


  12. It may be me but Sarah Jones' run in the pilot episode killed the character for me. There was something off, too many arm movement and holstered gun. It didn't seem like a cop run. She somehow lacks that certain vibe people like Anna Torv or Emily Rose has.

    As much as I like Sam Neill as an actor they need to expand on him soon. Right now defining characteristic of Hauser is being a dick. Neither Sarah nor Jorge is readily identifiable for male demographic. And first convict would be a tough sell considering he murdered at least 3 people including an innocent police officer.

    But those things are fixable. And I'm intrigued enough to watch it till season ends.

  13. "It may be me but Sarah Jones' run in the pilot episode killed the character for me".

    Haha... great comment, Anon. I thought her run ridiculous, too. Her limbs were all over the shop. Not that it kills her character for me, but I wouldn't trust her to come running to my rescue. She'd likely knock me out with one of her flapping elbows.

  14. Finally got to see this as part two aired last night in the UK.

    I agree that JJ has redone a lot of the elements he has used to such great effect in 'Alias' and 'Fringe'. So much so, that the entrance to 'New Alcatraz' reminded me of the entrance to SD-6. And while I thought that Sarah Jones was all right in the role, she is too blah for me. Both Jennifer Garner and Anna Torv have more gravitas in their little fingers.

    I didn't feel the romantic vibe at all between Jorge Garcia and Sarah Jones. Frankly, I hope they don't go down that route, but knowing JJ, that is where they will go.

    There were some plot holes that seemed like lazy writing to me. How did Sylvane find a coat with a ticket and money? How did an SFPD detective do something as stupid as pick up a piece of evidence without gloves and then, even more stupidly, hand it to someone else?

    I do, however, like the premise and think that this could turn into a really interesting show. But (and it's a big but), the writers and producers need to decide what kind of show it wants to be -- mythology heavy like the other Big Three, or a straight up procedural. Until they do, they will remain stuck between The Rock and a hard place...



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