ALCATRAZ 1.01 & 1.02 ‘Pilot’ & ‘Ernest Cobb’

Episode Title: "Pilot"

Writers: Steven Lilien & Bryan Wynbrandt and Elizabeth Sarnoff

Director: Danny Cannon

Episode Title: "Ernest Cobb"

Writer: Alison Balian

Director: Jack Bender

Premise:

Decades ago, over 300 inmates and guards vanished without a trace from Alcatraz. Now in 2012, the worst criminals in American history are coming back and only one team can stop them.

Story:

In 1963, two guards arrive at Alcatraz and they are shocked to find the island completely deserted. In 2012, former Alcatraz prisoner Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce) awakens in his old cell, where he is mistaken for one of the tourists. Sylvane finds a jacket and a key, as well as a ticket for the ferry back to San Francisco. Flashback to the '60s, where Sylvane is mistreated by Elijah Bailey "E.B." Tiller (Jason Butler Harner), the associate warden of Alcatraz. In the present, Sylvane locates Tiller and kills him.

Homicide Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) is called to the scene of Tiller's murder, where she and her fellow officers are removed by the order of FBI agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill). Unwilling to let the case go, Rebecca sneaks out a broken photo with a fingerprint from the suspect; whom she is able to identify as Jack Sylvane despite Sylvane's reported demise decades ago. Confused by the Alcatraz connection between Tiller and Sylvane, Rebecca seeks out the guidance of Dr. Diego “Doc” Soto (Jorge Garcia), the world's top expert on the prison.
 
Rebecca takes Diego to see her surrogate uncle, Ray Archer; whom Diego recognizes as one of the guards at Alcatraz. Rebecca mentions that her grandfather was a guard at Alcatraz, but her uncle urges her to let the case go. At Diego's behest, Rebecca and Diego go to Alcatraz and sneak into a restricted area to look into Sylvane's files. They are soon gassed into unconsciousness and they awaken in the custody of Hauser and Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra); who are running a secret government facility beneath the fabled prison.

Rebecca and Diego convince Hauser to let them help track down Sylvane; whom they determine is being directed by someone else. On orders from his benefactors, Sylvane kills a man and he claims another key before hunting down his brother for stealing his wife while Sylvane was in prison. Rebecca and Hauser catch up to Sylvane before he can shoot his brother and he is soon whisked away. Back at Alcatraz, Lucy mentions that another empty prisoner uniform has been found and Rebecca accuses Hauser of knowing that this was going to happen.

In the past, we see that Hauser was one of the two guards that discovered Alcatraz was deserted back in 1963. In the present, Rebecca discovers that not only was her grandfather, Thomas Madsen (David Hoflin) one of the returning convicts from the past, but he also murdered her partner months ago. She agrees to transfer to Hauser's team to help track him down with the rest of the returning criminals. Rebecca also convinces Diego to stay on as her new partner in this endeavor. And in the end, Hauser hauls Sylvane off to a prison hidden in the woods, where he punches the man and tells him that Tiller was his friend. Hauser also tells Tiller that he won't be the only prisoner there for long.

In the second episode, a man named Ernest Cobb (Joe Egender) carefully assembles a rifle and he casually kills three people in the distance, including a couple on a ferris wheel. In the '60s, we see Ernest escorted naked into Alcatraz and led to Warden Edwin James (Jonny Coyne), who is attempting to practice long distance shooting in the way that Ernest had committed his killing sprees. At James' behest, Ernest reveals that he sought to serve his sentence at Alcatraz so he could get a private cell. However, Ernest soon finds himself driven to distraction by the nonstop chatter of the man in the cell next to him.

In the present, Rebecca and her new team determine that the gun used in the shootings was an antique and that several crows were also shot; matching a trademark of Ernest's previous shooting sprees. At the Alcatraz headquarters, Rebecca and Diego realize that Hauser has closed off much of the facility from them… and Hauser seems to only grudgingly accept their presence. However, Lucy warms up to Rebecca and Diego and she accompanies them into the field when they track down the hotel where Ernest is hiding.

However, Ernest's room is merely a trap as he watches from the building across the street. Lucy is struck in the chest before anyone can react. Ernest gets away and Hauser is incensed when he arrives in time to see Lucy off to the ambulance. He orders Rebecca to find Ernest. In the past, Ernest once again requests a cell in solitary from the warden, who seems to delight in keeping it from him. So, Ernest devices a nonviolent way of disobeying the Alcatraz role call which lands him alone in solitary. Unfortunately, the warden just can't let him win and he places the chatty prisoner into the cell with Ernest.

While Lucy fights for her life in the hospital, Rebecca investigates Ernest's cell for clues to his mindset. She and Diego find a letter to Ernest from the half-sister he never knew, who met him only a single time when he found his birth mother who quickly rejected him. Rebecca then realizes that Ernest always includes a young girl in his victims as a way of lashing out at the family that wouldn't have him. Using the view from Ernest's cell to extrapolate his preferred targets, Rebecca and Hauser search for Ernest on one of the two rooftops.

Rebecca distracts Ernest while telling him about his half-sister's attempt to reach him, as Hauser approaches him from behind and subdues him. Back at the Alcatraz headquarters, Rebecca convinces Diego to remain on her team despite his admitted fear and disillusionment about what they are tasked to do. Meanwhile, Ernest is escorted to the secret prison alongside Sylvane, before warning Hauser that he should have killed him. Hauser also learns that Lucy should survive her wound.

And finally, we flashback to the '60s where the lack of solitary drove Ernest insane. The Warden introduces Ernest to someone who should be able to help him regain his sanity: Dr. Lucille Sengupta , a woman who appears to be Lucy despite the passage of several decades.


Breakdown:

In a strange way, "Alcatraz" reminds me of the first season of "Fringe" with a little "Lost" thrown in there as well. For a series premiere, this was much better than I was expecting. But "Alcatraz" still feels like a genre series that's been sanitized just enough that it can appeal to a mass audience. It's a slightly sci-fi show married to a police procedural. And it might be a very strange marriage indeed.

The good news is that Sarah Jones is engaging as Detective Rebecca Madsen and she has the right mixture of toughness and vulnerability that keeps her from going too far towards one extreme or the other. Apparently there are a few scenes missing from the aired "Alcatraz" premiere and the original pilot, in which Rebecca was engaged to a fellow police officer and she learned why her grandfather was in prison. I didn't miss seeing Rebecca's fiancee, but the lack of follow up on her grandfather definitely made it feel like there were some important moments that were lost in this transition.

Sam Neill's Emerson Hauser was also fun as the gruff FBI agent with most of the answers. Although it's going to be tricky to make sure that Hauser's character doesn't quickly get stale. The second episode offered a nice change-up from his enigmatic tactics by allowing Hauser to show some real concern for Lucy. In fact, Lucy seems to be the only person that Hauser even slightly cares about; which is already attracting the dreaded "shippers" who believe that those feelings are romantically inclined.

But the most interesting aspect of Hauser is that he's got a cruel streak when it comes to dealing with the returning Alcatraz prisoners. Much like the Warden and the Assistant Warden before him, Hauser seems to like watching these condemned men suffer. And so far, that mistreatment has only made the criminals into bigger monsters than they previously were. If nothing else was learned from the Alcatraz incident, that should have been the main lesson.

Former "Lost" star Jorge Garcia is enjoyable enough as Diego “Doc” Soto, but the idea that he's Sarah's new partner is just not believable. As a consultant and recurring expert on the prison, that I can buy. Alcatraz inmates showing up after they mysteriously disappeared decades ago? Sure, why not? Just don't ask me to believe that when Sarah is putting her life on the line to chase down America's deadliest criminals that the dude who played Hurley is the best choice for her partner! Diego is not cut out for any field work and it just doesn't make any sense.

Another strange touch for this show is that the returning prisoners are apparently going to recur on the series as opposed to simply making one-off guest appearances. And with roughly 300 prisoners and guards still unaccounted for, "Alcatraz" has more than enough material for many episodes to come. However, I'm not convinced that this premise is sustainable over the long haul. These first two episodes were pretty good, but I think that at some point the idea that these inmates are reappearing from the past is going to get old and boring. At least "Fringe" has the ability to tell different types of stories on a week-to-week basis. But I suspect that a lot of "Alcatraz's" stories are going to resemble each other.

Here's what I want to know: if Hauser and company are set up in Alcatraz and the prisoners are returning there as well, then how on Earth are they not able to stop them? Is the tourism industry so important that the ferry to Alcatraz can't be shut down until all of the criminals are captured? Keep in mind, the island itself is a very natural prison and it would be difficult to get away from it even in normal conditions while swimming

Judging from the pilot episode, there has to be someone inside Hauser's operation who left that jacket and other objects for Sylvane. And whoever is behind the disappearances has an agenda that simply isn't clear yet. It may prove to be an intriguing mystery, provided that it isn't drawn out too long.

I did enjoy the reveal at the end of episode two that Lucy may be much more than she appears to be. At the very least, Lucy doesn't appear to have aged in nearly 50 years; which makes her the likeliest person to have helped Sylvane get off of the island. Lucy's gunshot wound was also an effective moment that set the right tone for the second episode. It showed us that the lead characters could be in real danger and die; which is something that too many of the procedural cop shows stay away from.

"Alcatraz" is far from perfect, but it was entertaining and I'd like to see where this show is taking us.

Crave Online Rating: 7.5 out of 10.