There's a compelling twist at the end of the two-hour premiere of J.J. Abrams' new series

By Joseph Brannigan Lynch
Updated January 17, 2012 at 07:39 AM EST
James Dittiger/Fox

The much-anticipated premiere of exec producer J.J. Abrams’ latest project saw the warm glow of prime-time television last night.

Blending TV’s most reliable genre formula (police procedural) with a sadly less-predominant genre (far-reaching government conspiracy), Alcatraz managed to squeeze the series’ premise, character exposition, two separate story lines, and a couple of legitimately awesome twists into its two-hour debut — not a bad haul for a premiere.

Seemingly not as ambitious as Lost but promising the same more-revelations-lead-to-more-questions type of setup, the series actually seems more akin to The X-Files — that is, if the good guys were recruited by the Cigarette Smoking Man instead of working against him. (Sam Neill is delightfully menacing as the morally ambiguous FBI agent Emerson Hauser who never reveals more than absolutely necessary.)

The series opens in 1963, when two dumbfounded guards discover that 256 Alcatraz inmates and 46 guards disappeared into thin air just before the prison shut down. Jump ahead to present-day San Fran, where Alcatraz is just another tourist pit stop between the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory and Golden Gate Bridge. As a tour guide explains how no one ever escaped from the Rock, a little girl wanders into an off-limits area and screeches upon discovering — gasp — a sleeping man!

Seemingly more confused than transient, the handsome fella stumbled around Alcatraz growing increasingly alarmed at what he found. In case you had somehow missed the Alcatraz advertising blitz and weren’t aware that this show was about 1960s convicts who inexplicably time travel to the present, the show spelled it out for you when he got on the ferry ride back to civilization. Flipping through a “Prisoners of Alcatraz” book conveniently left unattended, the man finds his own picture among the pages.

After 49 years, convict Jack Sylvane has returned to Alcatraz — seemingly unaware of what has happened to him — with nothing but a wad of cash and a locker-room key in a trench coat to guide him.

And in case you really, really needed verification, we jumped back to 1960, where we saw Sylvane as a prisoner, learned he had a wife, and found out that the Rock’s Deputy Warden E.B. Tiller seemed to relish tormenting him.

Back in 2012, two cops are engaged in a rooftop chase. The high-flying crook makes a spectacular jump from one ledge to another, but the first cop to follow suit wasn’t so lucky: He barely managed to grab onto the ledge, but the criminal doubled back to ensure that his near-miss turned into a fatal fall. Cop No. 2 — our series protagonist — made the jump but she wasn’t able to save her partner.

Still stinging from her loss a few weeks later, Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones, a purdy blonde you may recall as a recurring face on Sons of Anarchy and Big Love) tells her boss she’ll pick a new partner at some point, but she gladly uses a new homicide as an excuse to avoid choosing one.

The murder victim is E.B. Tiller, a former deputy warden at Alcatraz, who took a knife to the chest. But before Madsen could even dust for prints, an enigmatic FBI agent (Sam Neill of Jurassic Park and The Piano) descended upon the crime scene to arrogantly tell the local lawmen the homicide is a federal case. Unable to stifle her curiosity, Madsen grabbed a smashed photo from the crime scene on the way out.

NEXT: When Madsen Met Hurley… err, Dr. Soto

Running a print she found on the frame, Madsen matched it to a Jack Sylvane, whose file was restricted. Unfettered, a quick Google search brought local Alcatraz expert Dr. Diego “Doc” Soto (Jorge Garcia, a.k.a. HURLEY) to her attention.

Upon meeting him, Madsen learned that Doc has written several books on Alcatraz, knows every detail about the Rock and its inmates, and also writes comic books. A triple threat! (And probably quite the lady killer). Madsen told him she sought him out because Jack Sylvane’s fingerprint was found at the former deputy warden’s murder scene. “That’s impossible,” Doc told her incredulously. “He died over 30 years ago.” Ominous music was cued and commercials were taken.

The next few scenes were mostly expository, that necessary bane of many a pilot:

-We learn Sylvane was one unlucky fellow: He was imprisoned for robbing a grocery store — because it also contained stamps, it became a federal crime. After he killed someone in prison “for getting frisky in the shower,” he was sent to Alcatraz.

-Deputy Warden Tiller prevented Sylvane from seeing his wife by sending him to solitary, which looks a lot less fun here than it did in Stir Crazy.

-Back in the ’60s, Sylvane was one of several prisoners subjected to strange blood tests.

-We learned Madsen’s parents are dead: She was raised by her Uncle Ray, a former guard on Alcatraz who now runs a bar.

Madsen and Doc paid Uncle Ray, who seems to know more than he lets on. He warned Madsen to stay away from the Alcatraz investigation, but she couldn’t resist investigating after Doc told her about a secret room he has seen on the Rock.

Back on the Rock, the two broke into the secret room and started rifling through boxes of the former prisoners’ belongings before a gas canister rolled down the stairs and knocked both of ’em cold.

As the two segued back into consciousness, we overheard Hauser talking to a colleague, Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra of ER and Bend It Like Beckham) and learn that while he doesn’t want them around, she believes they could be useful.

After they fully came to, they learned they had been taken to a secret hi-tech bunker Doc immediately dubbed “the bat cave under Alcatraz.” Lucy brought Madsen and Doc up to speed on what we already know: Sylvane, who should be 85 years old, has reappeared un-aged and murderous. Which is a problem.

An urgent phone call interrupted their powwow: an old Alcatraz uniform had been found at a fitness center, where an employee was just assaulted. In one of those “let’s excuse it because it’s the pilot” moments, Hauser allowed Doc and Madsen to accompany him to the scene. She argued he “owes her one” after gassing her, but one would think that off-the-radar FBI agents don’t subscribe to the “tit-for-tat” rulebook.

At the fitness center-crime scene, Hauser questioned the assault victim, who appeared to be dressed for an American Apparel photo shoot even after being assaulted. He confirmed his attacker was Sylvane, who had opened a locker using a mysterious key. The contents were a mysterious black bag and not-so-mysterious gun.

NEXT: The body count rises as Sylvane confronts his wife-stealing brother

Although he had been clocked on the head with the gun, the plucky youth had managed to jot down the cab number Sylvane got away in, which conveniently allowed the SFPD to intercept Sylvane at a fancy-looking residence.

Sylvane — heretofore a sympathetic character — gunned down the police officers without hesitation, Terminator-style (he had much better aim than you would expect from a guy sent to jail for robbing a grocery store). Inside the house, he forced the man inside to open a safe and hand over yet another enigmatic black bag, which contained yet another enigmatic key. Bags and keys… more please!

Sylvane gunned down his third victim and left the scene just as Madsen, Soto, and Hauser showed up. She gave chase but lost him while an overwhelmed Dr. Soto tended to the one half-alive officer.

When Madsen returned to the scene of the new murder, Hauser was ready to offer her a sliver of information: Although he wouldn’t explain why this man was killed, he suggested someone else was using Sylvane as a hit man.

In another one of those “excuse it because it’s the pilot moments,” Doc Soto (who had been tending the police officer) rushed into the room, suddenly privy to the knowledge that Sylvane’s wife remarried Jack’s brother — she was dead, but he was alive and therefore probably Jack’s next target. How he learned this didn’t really make sense — did the dying cop tell him? Was he on his smartphone while dabbing up the officer’s blood? — but maybe I missed something.

Finally knowing something Hauser doesn’t, Madsen and Doc ran off to catch Sylvane on their own.

But alas, they were too late: Sylvane had already confronted and kidnapped his incredulous elderly brother and tied up the now-adult son of his wife and brother (and Hamlet thought his family was messed up).

At this point, however, jealousy and loss had clouded Sylvane’s judgment: He went to his wife’s grave where Madsen and the SFPD caught him easily — but not before a tense showdown involving Madsen and Sylvane pointing guns at each other’s head. She begged him to tell her where he’d been while he begged her to kill him, not unlike many married couples I know.

When a police sharpshooter wounded Sylvane and broke up the showdown, Hauser arrived just in time to snag the con before Madsen got any answers out of him.

After that came what you knew was going to happen at the outset: Madsen and Doc join Hauser and Lucy’s secret task force, but to the show’s credit, the requisite “team comes together” scene managed to pack an awesome plot twist.

Hauser told Madsen and Doc about the 300 or so prisoners and guards who went missing in 1963 and we learned that Hauser himself was one of the fresh-faced guards who discovered the shocking disappearance (the casting director did a great job finding a young actor whose icy eyes matched Neill’s).

Since then, Hauser has been waiting for their return, although what he knows about their whereabouts or method of return remained cloudy.

NEXT: The mind-exploding twist that shakes Det. Madsen

While Madsen perused the files of the 302 missing men, she made a discovery that should certainly make future episodes emotionally complicated: Her grandfather was an inmate — not a guard — on Alcatraz. Furthermore, he’s already reappeared in 2012: She knows this because he was the long-leaping criminal who killed her partner at the beginning of the episode during the rooftop chase.

Now motivated by a vendetta against her unnaturally young, time-traveling, murderous grandfather, Madsen demanded that Hauser bring her on his team; he whipped out her pre-approved transfer papers, apparently having intended this all along. What he didn’t approve of, however, was her choice to bring on Doc as her partner — but it’s probably for the best, since Hauser menacingly half-joked he would have “hated to kill” him otherwise.

With the cop and the comic-book geek now part of Hauser’s force, it seemed all the exposition was out of the way until a rather odd scene wrapped up the first hour. Hauser took a handcuffed Sylvane to an exact replica of the Alcatraz interior, located in an underground compound in a forest.

Apparently, Hauser intends to catch all of the returning inmates and re-imprison them in a bright, sterile version of Alcatraz that looks more like THX-1138 than the gritty visual palette that characterizes the rest of the show.

The second half of the premiere was a separate case entirely, involving a much more sinister escaped convict and a much chillier, mind-bending twist than anything in the first hour (more on that later).

NEXT: A sniper shockingly nails a main character

Ernest Cobb is the next crook on the loose in 2012: He is a bespectacled sniper — resembling a cross between William Sanderson and Where’s Waldo? — who picks off three randoms victims each day for three days. Basically, he’s an OCD version of the D.C. sniper who chooses a carnival as the backdrop for his first killing spree (which darkly enough included two teens on a Ferris wheel).

When Madsen and Doc arrived at the scene, they managed to find some of Cobb’s leftover shotgun shells, which is super-convenient because they come from an old, rare gun. That knowledge brought Madsen, Doc, and Lucy to a gun shop where Madsen muscled the owner into revealing Cobb had recently purchased a gun there.

Thanks to security-camera footage, Madsen’s eagle eye noted that Cobb was carrying around a hotel-room key on a sizable key chain. Another fortuitous stroke of luck, since most hotels use swipe cards now. Yep, everything was coming up Milhouse.

Madsen, Doc, and Lucy tracked down the hotel in no time and broke into a room Cobb had checked out. But like any self-respecting serial killer, Cobb was two steps ahead of them. Perched in a room across the street from the hotel he had rented, Cobb set his sight on the window and shockingly gunned down Lucy when she opened the drapes.

Anyone worrying thatNeela wouldn’t live to see the rest of Alcatraz can rest easy enough: at the hospital, we learned that Lucy was in a coma. This obviously tore at Hauser, and Doc confided to Madsen that he didn’t know if he could take this kind of stress anymore. (After all, he is on the cover of a Weezer album. Who could want more excitement than that?)

Hauser then returned to the alternate Alcatraz, where we learn that even his knowledge has limitations. Holding up a picture of Lucy, he asked Sylvane if she were a target. Sylvane plead ignorance but Hauser implied that he would be tortured by “Dr. Beauregard” anyway, just to make sure.

Additional flashbacks to the early ‘60s reveal more about what makes Cobb tick: Apparently, he was so distraught by having to live, sleep, and eat around other people that he deliberately got himself sent to solitary. Knowing Cobb desires solitude but unwilling to let an inmate beat the system, Warden James — whose sadism seems a shade more more benign than Tiller’s — let Cobb keep his new cell but forced him to share it with an obnoxious chatterbox.

Back in the present day, Doc and Madsen had discovered there actually was a pattern to Cobb’s seemingly random kills: He always shoots a teenage girl. Additional sleuthing revealed that Cobb, abandoned as a child, eventually found out that his mother was alive and living with a teenaged daughter. Doc opined that was the reason Cobb targeted teen girls: He was releasing his aggression against the sibling his mother actually bothered to raise.

NEXT: Stopping Cobb and the excellent twist that capped off the premiere

With that bit of soft psychology to explain his rampaging, they were off to stop him once and for all (after a bizarre bit involving a magazine spyglass led them to ascertain that his next shooting spree would be on a nearby rooftop).

Just as Cobb had his next victim in the crosshairs, Madsen arrived on scene: She distracted him with some revelations about his mother and sister while Hauser snuck up behind him. After cuffing Cobb, Hauser shot him in the right hand, just so we remember that Hauser isn’t exactly a “good” good guy.

After Madsen once again sweet-talked the emotionally rattled Doc Soto into staying on as her partner, Hauser dropped Cobb off in the same THX-1138 version of Alcatraz that houses Sylvane. The look of surprise and recognition that the two inmates shared revealed they actually do know each other, even if Sylvane had previously denied it.

But before the two-hour premiere wrapped up, Alcatraz had one final twist. Back in 1960, Warden James told Cobb he had brought in a special doctor who might be able to assuage Cobb’s mental problems.

And who might this doctor be? MAJOR SPOILER: It’s Lucy Banerjee, looking exactly the same as she does in 2012 — meaning it wasn’t just the 302 prisoners and guards who inexplicably time-traveled to the present.

If most of the premiere was an enjoyable, intriguing but unsurprising affair, the twist at the end was a genuine thrill. Like in Lost, it’s the kind of reveal that opens more questions than it resolves. Unlike Lost, however, one gets the sense that the enigmas on this show will be actually explained at some point.

The compelling thing about this twist is that it implies Lucy is privy to part of this mystery that even Hauser isn’t. After all, if he knew Lucy had been around in the 1960s, he wouldn’t have been surprised that Cobb was trying to kill his former doctor at Alcatraz. This also implies she may be part of an organization Hauser is working against. (Presumably, he never ran into her while working as a guard on the Rock.)

As for Sylvane — who Lucy interrogated at one point — it’s possible he never saw her on Alcatraz given he was in solitary much of the time. Then again, perhaps he does know her. Although he didn’t say anything to that effect when they spoke, he gave the surveillance camera in the interrogation room a significant stare before answering her. Perhaps their conversation would have been different if he knew no one was listening.

Even if premature, questions like these are half the fun of a show like this. Does anyone else have any nascent theories about what’s going on so far? And overall, what did you think? Did Alcatraz capture your attention? Sound off below!

Advertisement

Comments