Welcome To The Island. No, Not That Island, A Totally Different Island. Seriously.
Hey, folks, have you missed having JJ Abrams burrow inside your head with maddening questions that he has no intention of answering? Have you missed the long, lonely nights of wondering what a number means, or the significance of a certain date? Have you missed wacky characters and prolonged, tragic background stories to go with them? Of course you haven't, but that doesn't mean that Mr. Abrams is going to stop tormenting you! Welcome to Alcatraz, or: Lost 2.0.
The midseason premiere started with a two-part episode, much as its totally-not-the-same-thing-at-all-we-swear predecessor Lost did. In this respect, they're best treated as one episode, but for the sake of clarity and my sanity, let's address them one at a time.
The Pilot episode begins with Sam Neil leading us onto the mysteries of Alcatraz in an eerie voiceover. Stop right there. Does anyone remember Unsolved Mysteries with Robert Stack? Because I do, and I demand that (since Mr. Stack has passed onto the ghost realms he so eloquently explained to us) we reinstate the show with Sam Neil instead. Very few people have the power and tenor and dash of gravel to give such a creepy monologue, though I concede Michael C. Hall comes close. Rambling aside, all the monologue really sets up is that on March 26, 1963, Alcatraz was closed for good, but- dun, dun dun!- not all the prisoners really left. Where did they go? To the present day, of course, because it isn't an Abrams ™ adventure without time travelling! Which means I'm not even bothering to do this review in chronological order, get over it.
In the present, we are introduced to Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), a spunky pixie of a homicide detective. She's having a flashback (ugh, do you see where this is going, ex-Losties?) of her partner being killed. Incidentally he's black, because JJ Abrams hates black people. She promises to choose a new partner, and then promptly gets called into a murder case. The first problem with this case is that the victim was E.B. Tiller, a federal agent, which means it's not her jurisdiction at all. The second, she learns after swiping the prints anyway (because we're establishing her as clever and determined, you see), is that the perp was an Alcatraz inmate who died nearly 40 years ago.
This information is acquired from Hurley Hugo... erm, Diego Soto (i.e. Jorge Garcia), who is the world's leading expert on Alcatraz, but also, a nerd. Because we have to appeal to the nerd demographic with video games and comic books. (Yes, I'm aware that this is the wrong forum to air that grievance, but it is just so... predictable.) After she establishes that she, too, is a nerd (because, you see, she likes Pac-Man and food, which is so dorky and adorable! If you're a hipster, anyway) they join up to try to track down this inmate, Jack Sylvane, because- wait, Jack? Really? You named the guy Jack? Dammit, Abrams.
Sylvane is on the hunt, tracking people down and killing them. We don't know why. He also has a back story that we continuously flaskback to, which can be summed up as: people were doing weird experiments on him and his blood, and also his wife left him and married his brother instead. (Which is a huge violation of the bro code but whatever.)
As Madsen and Soto try to dig up more information on Sylvane at Alcatraz, they eventually get gassed and run into Sam Neil, who is I guess is actually named Emerson Hauser on the show. Between the flashbacks and some cryptic hint-dropping, we figure out he's a government agent in charge of wrangling up escaped these Alcatraz convicts lost in that final day before closing. They are dubbed "the 63s" because JJ Abrams has a boner for numbers that seem to mean something but then really don't. And also because that's the year they disappeared.
In the end, we discover that Sam Neil Hauser wanted to get Hurley Soto and Madsen on the case. Well, Madsen, anyway, I don't know if he really cared about getting Soto, it's not clear if that was set up or not. We also discover that Madsen's grandfather was not a guard like she believed, but rather an inmate- and his time travelling self was the bastard who killed her partner! Drama guys!
Soon after, we find Hauser transporting a captured Sylvane (Jack managed to kill another dude for some vague reason alluding to a conspiracy and also one and a half cops) through the woods of the Pacific Northwest, to a knock-off Alcatraz that looks like they let IKEA design a prison. Hauser gets a few gut punches at Sylvane (for killing his friend I guess), then tosses him in a cell, vowing to fill up the rest as well.
Meanwhile, it's been one episode and I already feel like I'm watching Lost again. This worries me because I know where this is headed- JJ Abrams thinks of really awesome situations, sets them up, then doesn't go anywhere with them. This has all the time-travel/flashbacks of Lost combined with the government conspiracy of Alias, combined with hopefully the Cloverfield monster because I want to see Sam Neil fight dinosaurs. But alas, we're only halfway through the night, so let's see where this takes us.
Next up, we have episode two, titled "Ernest Cobb," which is also the name of the prisoner they're trying to catch. From what I can tell, that's going to be the general trend, which is fine with me, as it makes it easier to remember their names. And good news, everyone, this episode manages to make you really ask, "What the hell, man?"
Ernest Cobb is an escapee who specialised in long-range, assassination-style shootings with his trusty Winchester rifle. Through a combination of flashbacks and Madsen's detectiving, we learn that he 1) has abandonment issues 2) hates people 3) is an awesome sniper despite having the thickest glasses I've ever seen and 4) can MacGyver a mean telescope. He expresses this all by randomly assassinating people in threes, where one of the three is always a 16-ish-year-old girl, since he hates his mother for keeping his sister but not him. I guess that makes sense? I don't know how much we're supposed to care about these people's backstories. Cobb kills people by having a nice relaxing picnic, then reciting some weird counting thing (the number 47 keeps showing up, in case that's ever important...) and then offing a bunch of crows and his three victims. He then lays low for a few days before repeating.
In the process of Cobb killing all these people, he shoots Hauser's associate, Lucy, which Hurley does not react to very well. Blood never was his thing. Anyway, don't worry, she doesn't die, she just goes into a coma (the show can't handle having only one female character in it), but we do learn that Hauser obviously cares about Lucy, at least a teeny bit. He attempts to find out from Jack whether she was a specific target for some reason, as her murder didn't fit Cobb's usual MO, but Sylvane insists he "doesn't know."
Turns out Rebecca Madsen actually knows how to detective, because she sits in Cobb's cell all night (aside: weirdo) and figures out where he's going to kill from next because he made a telescope out of newspaper, rubber bands, and his eyeglasses, and she figures he's going to use one of the buildings he always watched as a good vantage point. And for some reason he didn't pick those locations for his first two sets of kills. And also Hurley helps her figure out which ones with computer science magic, because he's got to do something.
Madsen and Hauser race to the building, and find Cobb perched out, ready to shoot again. Madsen guilt-trips him a bit about the sister thing, causing him to rashly shoot at her. (Aside: who goes BY THEMSELVES up to a rooftop with a sniper waiting? Who?!) Meanwhile, Hauser sneaks around the other side of the building and distracts Cobb so that Madsen can tackle him. Then, just to show Sam Neil's a badass, he shoots Cobb in his trigger hand and scolds him like a child. Awesome.
At the hospital they all reconvene to worry about Lucy, and Madsen reassures Soto/Hurley (can I please just call him Hurley?) that being a detective is rough work, but he'll learn to handle it, because having a dual PhD in historical topics and playing COD (their reference, not mine) totally prepares you for that. Hauser takes Cobb up to his secret Alcatraz 2.0, and it becomes clear that Cobb and Sylvane have some sort of connection.
And then, in our tour-de-force of dramatic exposition, we flash back to 1960, with Cobb all straight-jacketed up, and the warden threateningly lecturing him about his (successful) attempts to get placed in solitary confinement. But it's okay, because the warden has a new plan to fix him. He's got a special doctor. And that doctor is- wait for it- Dr. Gupta, aka LUCY!
So what have we established after these episodes? Well, for starters, Abrams definitely knows how to come up with a good premise- I know, I know, he doesn't do the writing or the details, tonnes of people are involved, but the general idea just reeks of his influence. And the idea is totally rad- who can pass up a good conspiracy? Especially one with time travel? There are definitely a few good directions to work in- Lucy's role, obviously; Sam Neil's role, since it seems he's not as in charge as Rebecca thinks he is; why Jack (ugh, why did they name him that?) is so key; and why Madsen's grandfather killed her partner, because I just know that there's something going on there. But I can just see this devolving into Lost- a huge mess of dangling threads cut too short and never revealing anything. I want it to be good, I do, I want to get sucked in, but JJ Abrams already burned me once, and, well, "Once Bitten, Twice Shy."
TL; DR- premise is there, atmosphere and drama is mostly there, but proceed with caution
Written or Contributed by: DrImprobable, Outhouse Contributor
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