This week saw the premiere of the new Fox TV show, Alcatraz. What is Alcatraz, exactly? Well, I could regurgitate the Fox tag for the show, or I could skip all that and tell you that it’s a J.J. Abrams mystery crime show. Everything about this show seems to scream, “Hey, you know that critically acclaimed show Fringe that you probably haven’t been watching? Well this is just like that show, only we won’t nerd it up with any science shit. That should make this crazy popular, right?” How similar are Alcatraz and Fringe? Well, let’s run down a basic premise checklist.
1. Surface Crime Show
2. Main Character is a Female Lead
3. Main Character works for the FBI
4. Main Character’s Partner is a familiar face
5. Main Character’s Partner is a civilian before being roped into helping FBI as a “consultant”
6. There is an ethnic female assistant helping the older male lead
7. Older, established actor as the older male lead
8. A conspiracy that is staggering in its implications
9. A force on the side of the protagonist seems to be evil, or at least have ulterior motives
10. Paranormal or Parascience at the core of the show
We have a list of ten items that if you glanced at briefly, you would be hard-pressed to tell me if this was a list about Alcatraz or Fringe. For the purposes of full disclosure, I feel it is necessary to mention that I am not only a Fringe enthusiast, but I am an active advocate of the show, and have harangued others into watching the show, which they subsequently won’t stop talking about. In short, I’m a grassroots campaigner for Fringe. I love the show. Alcatraz also has something going for it in a very big way.
That’s right. This show has Sam Frickin’ Neill. So we have a show by J.J. Abrams that’s about paranormal crimes, features a real world place of fascination, and is, basically, Fringe (I am fairly certain they just used the same soundtrack to score it, as well). So why don’t I like it more? Sure, you could point to the obvious answer that I already have a show like Fringe in that I watch, you know, Fringe. That’s not the actual reason that I don’t like the show. I don’t even have a problem with the acting. A lot of people have questioned the casting decisions of Sarah Jones as the lead and Jorge Garcia as the “every man” sidekick, Dr. Soto. I find Sarah Jones very similar to Anna Torv, in that a lot of people wouldn’t consider her to be the classically beautiful TV lead, and they both feature very distinctive voices. Jorge Garcia does a fine job of being both a subject matter expert and a geek culture inhabitant. I find the idea that a doctor who has written several books on Alcatraz also owns a comic book store to be not only believable, but something that resonates strongly with my formative years. My high school English teacher was not only a teacher, but owned a successful comic and gaming store, and was extremely wealthy due to his job as an editor for such literary figures as Stephen King. So, what is it that makes me apathetic about the show so far? To go further, why did I mention the Misfits in the title if I haven’t brought them up yet? Through absolutely no coincidence, the reason ties these two things together. The problem with the show is the writing.
Is it fair for me to judge after seeing only the pilot and an additional episode? After all, Fringe didn’t hit its stride until around six or so episodes in. Fringe never had a problem with its writing. Instead, Fringe had a problem with its world. The mythos of the universe was so extensive that the pilot show came with a full blown backstory for a character that dies in the pilot. Part of the next near TWELVE episodes were resolution of that backstory and how the backstory impacted the actual ongoing mythos of the Fringe universe. This was the beginning of the engagement with the story of the show that would then span the first two seasons, and it’s the point that eventually hooked many people. The point I am doing a poor job of illustrating is that the writing quality never suffered at the beginning of the show. Alcatraz, on the otherhand, suffers from not only a heady case of “pilot logic”, but from whimsical procedural correctness. Of course the sniper is on one of these two buildings, those are the only options! Except that the reason this occurs is never fully explained. The brief computer imaging doesn’t seem to lead to this conclusively, that’s for certain. It’s a quick, breezy answer to a problem that should require a bit more work and analysis. This is to say nothing of one of the most ridiculous scenes in the show thus far. The lead, Det. Rebecca Madsen, figures out the place that the shooter begins his spree. Then, despite commentary from the noted historian that indicates the crime scene should be clean, they find a bullet casing. Ok, you might say, this is a little far fetched, but it helps move along the plot. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. The fact that she finds a bullet casing does nothing at all to further the story, characters or atmosphere. They’ve already established that the gun being used is a bizarre one, and would be hard to procure. The bullet casing scene does what? Show that the partner’s knowledge of Alcatraz isn’t that useful? Shows that people who end up in the here and now are differen than they were fifty years ago? This is the type of scene that does absolutely nothing useful for the arc, mythos, or characters. Why include it at all? This leads me to the show Misfits.
Misfits is an incredible show in so many ways, and not just the obvious ones. It’s an ensemble cast show about disreputable youths in England that all acquire super powers as a result of a singular event. So right away, Misfits encounters four staggering problems to solve in its writing. First, you have an ensemble cast, which is always a challenge to write in such a way as to give equal screen time and importance to all of the characters. Second, you have a cast of characters that are almost exclusively teenagers. This means that the dialogue has to sound as if its spoken by the appropriate age group, and not written by someone who thinks that’s what teenagers sound like. In this case, the problem is compounded due to the fact that they are all delinquents, which is an entirely different language all together. Third, it’s a show that’s core premise is the discovery of super powers. As we all know from watching Heroes, Smallville, and No Ordinary Family, just in recent years alone, this is no mean feat. Finally, the show is one that obviously has an underlying mythos to it, but applying that to the show format, which is exceedingly character driven, encounters some interesting issues How does the show handle these problems? Well, over the course of twenty one different episodes, only two of them were not written by Howard Overman. The two that were not were written by his friend, Jon Brown. That’s right, there is no collaboration of writers here. It’s simply one guy doing all of the writing to make sure that the tonality of the show is something that he wants it to be. If that’s not enough, he’s also writing episodes of Merlin, because he wants you to feel worse about what you are doing with your life.
The reason I picked Misfits to compare against Alcatraz is because these show are both shows that leave things out. Misfits completely leaves out any explanation as to the source of their super powers, any sort of pretense that limits who might or might not have super powers, and really any sort of conspiracy, cover up or traditional governmental involvement that one would normally expect. It’s not as if this is cursorily examined, it simply just doesn’t come up. This might seem like a tremendous oversight, but I submit that it’s not for one very important reason, it’s not important to the characters. They simply don’t care about any of that stuff, so the audience doesn’t need to see it. If the main characters don’t have a vested interest in the greater mythos of the world, then why should the audience? In fact, the times a character brings it up, the rest of the group laughs it off. This sort of tongue-in-cheek handling of the situation makes the viewer realize it’s ok to not worry about these things, and to just let go. This isn’t because the episodes are crunched for time, or they think that their viewers might not be able to handle it or follow it or any of the usual justifications that one might come across. It’s because leaving those things out leaves more room for the stories that Overman is interested in telling.
Contrast this for a moment with Alcatraz. What’s left in is almost as confusing as what’s left out. How did Dr. Soto know about the guy’s wife? I assume he researched it, but the way he just saunters up and delivers the information? Way to be cool in a crisis, I guess? That’s all well and good, but why does Dr. Soto show up during the staredown with the guy’s brother? That guy was kidnapped, how did Diego find him? Did he use Dora’s map in some sort of bizarre crossover no one saw coming? These aren’t mere trivialities, these are things crucial to the actual story being told. These are key points that let them resolve the case of the week. You begin to see what I mean about writing. Sure, these are only the first two episodes, but each episode features elements that I have outlined here, and I don’t see why they would change if it that’s not the focus of their attention. This makes me sad, because I genuinely like everything else about the show. It’s just the writing is doing a disservice to the built-in audience that it could otherwise have. There is a lot of potential here, but my hopes for seeing that realized are rather low at the moment. I will stick with it the requisite six episodes I always give shows, but I’m not holding my breath.
What does this have to do with video games? Nothing. I just like television and visual media.