‘Alcatraz’ Series Premiere Sets Up Good Cop/Bad Cop Scenario

COMMENTARY | In the wasteland of the post holiday TV schedule — before the new episodes of our favorite shows air but after most of the seasonal specials and bowl games — there is occasionally a nugget of new programming to excite the rerun-weary public. So it was with the much hyped and anticipated premier of the new sci-fi action series “Alcatraz” on Fox.

Preempting the ever popular medical drama, “House,” “Alcatraz” found a eager audience already trained to switch to Fox at 8 p.m. Eastern. Fox aired two separate episodes back to back in an effort to reinforce interest in the untried drama.

The premise is intriguing enough — when Alcatraz prison closed in 1963, all the prisoners and guards on the premises disappeared. The transport boat arrived to carry them to other facilities, and found all the cells and offices empty.

Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) was one of the officers who discovered the disappearance of the island prison’s population. Now an FBI agent, he and his mysterious assistant Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra) have set up shop under the prison, awaiting the return of the prisoners and guards, which he considers inevitable.

Hauser enlists San Francisco PD detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and Alcatraz historian and comic book author Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) to help him hunt down the prisoners who surface all over San Francisco.

There is a sense that Madsen and Dr. Soto are being used by Hauser, and in fact that he poses a danger to them. Hauser seemingly had to make a choice between “eliminating” them and inviting them to join the team when they uncovered sensitive information about the missing convicts (that for some bizarre reason was stored in a dank basement with only a simple tumble lock to protect it).

There are other nagging problems with the setup. For instance, in the first episode a prisoner confronts his brother, who obviously figures out that something is up when his supposedly dead brother shows up looking the same as he did 50 years ago. After recapturing the prisoner, Detective Madsen inquires about the brother. Hauser replies meaningfully, “he won’t be a problem.”

Madsen is supposed to be a “good guy (gal).” It doesn’t fit with her persona that she would be comfortable with killing or imprisoning anyone who has inconvenient knowledge, so it doesn’t sit right when she calmly accepts Hauser’s explanation.

The writers are going to have problems down the road with the conflict between Hauser’s sinister methods and Madsen’s heroic nature. While they clearly intend to create dramatic tension here, they need to be careful that they don’t ask viewers to suspend their disbelief more than even the most damped-down logic can manage.

The creators of “Alcatraz” have cleverly constructed a scenario which will allow them to add new characters to the cast and remove them at will. Recaptured prisoners are held in a replica of Alcatraz prison, where they can be brought out and put away as needed. They also seem to suffer some sort of transient amnesia which engenders them with plausible deniability regarding to those who “took” them and their undoubtedly sinister intentions.

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