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Alcatraz: The Complete Series(TV) (2012)
In 1963, all the prisoners and guards mysteriously disappear from Alcatraz. In the present day, they resurface, and a task force works to recapture them.
For more about Alcatraz: The Complete Series and the Alcatraz: The Complete Series Blu-ray release, see Alcatraz: The Complete Series Blu-ray Review published by Michael Reuben on October 23, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Sarah Jones, Jorge García, Jonny Coyne, Parminder Nagra, Sam Neill, Leon Rippy
Directors: Jack Bender, Nick Copus
» See full cast & crew
Alcatraz: The Complete Series Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Michael Reuben, October 23, 2012
Once upon a time, premature cancellation of a weekly TV drama didn't automatically make it a hard sell on video. Episodes were largely standalone, and fans could make do with however many they got. But then shows like The X-Files introduced season-long, and eventually series-long, plot arcs or "mythologies", and show runners got cold sweats as renewal time approached, because they never knew whether they'd have to pen a hurried and unsatisfying wind-up for the final episode of the season. When J.J. Abrams came along, he made the problem even worse by demonstrating that the show itself could be a mythology, and that you could change the mythology as you went along. Alias, Lost and Fringe redefined themselves season after season but still managed to keep most of their fan base. Nothing was safe and nothing was sacred.
Unfortunately for viewers, not everything from Abrams' Bad Robot Productions has been allowed to run its course. Alcatraz was a mid-season replacement on the Fox network that debuted on January 16, 2012, and was canceled due to poor ratings. Fox aired the initial thirteen-episode order, but that was all. (It probably didn't help that Fox was still carrying—and even renewed one last time—Bad Robot's Fringe despite weak ratings performance.)
Still, I disagree that Alcatraz ended on a "cliffhanger". All of the questions raised by the pilot episode were answered in one way or another, while leaving much open for further exploration, if the series had received a second season. And while the thirteenth episode does include events that would have to be revisited for the series to continue—I'm being vague on purpose—one cannot complain over a lack of finality, just a lack of satisfaction with the turns of events. Series creators Elizabeth Sarnoff (a Lost veteran), Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt seem to have understood the first rule of a thirteen-episode order, which is to plan something that's reasonably self-contained.
The premise of Alcatraz is simple: The closure of the notorious maximum security federal prison on Alcatraz Island in 1963 was a cover story. What really happened was that all the guards and inmates mysteriously vanished from the prison without a trace. Now, in 2012, these people are reappearing in San Francisco unchanged by the passage of time. The inmates are returning to their former criminal pursuits, which makes them extremely dangerous. A few have been appointed with specific tasks unrelated to any their former criminal enterprises. Presumably, whoever assigned these tasks is also responsible for the disappearance and return of the Alcatraz population (or "the 63s", as they come to be known).
In secure rooms beneath the guided tours of the Rock, FBI Agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) heads a task force investigating the disappearance of the 63s. Unlocking their mystery has been Hauser's life's work ever since, as an officer on the S.F.P.D., he landed on the dock at Alcatraz and found the prison deserted. An abrupt and secretive man, Hauser trusts no one, with the possible exception of Dr. Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra), a criminal psychologist who has Hauser's ear for reasons that are explored during the course of the series.
In the pilot episode, the task force is joined by a young S.F.P.D. homicide detective with the kind of fire in her belly that Hauser used to have: Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), who has a family connection to Alcatraz, because her adoptive grandfather, Ray Archer (Robert Forster), was a guard there. Madsen's own grandfather, who died when her father was a child, was also a guard at Alcatraz, or so she believes. Madsen and Hauser cross paths over the investigation of a murder victim, one E.B. Tiller (Jason Butler Harner as a young man; Jeremy Dangerfield as an old man), the former deputy warden of Alcatraz. For background on the deputy warden, Madsen consults the world's leading authority on the prison, Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia), a geek savant with a Ph.D. and a comic book store. (A classic Soto line has him terrorizing his assistant with the threat to tell Det. Madsen that he owns the entire Twilight series—on Blu-ray.) When Madsen and Soto realize that the killer is someone from Alcatraz who was supposed to have died years ago, Hauser is forced to tell them about the 63s. Besides, Lucy tells Hauser, he needs the help.
Each of the remaining episodes is named after an Alcatraz inmate (or inmates) whose trail the task force is following in 2012. The action alternates between present day and the period leading up to the disappearance of the 63s, in which we get a view of the harsh life on the Rock, as well as the often inscrutable power games being played between Deputy Warden Tiller and his boss, Warden Edwin James (Jonny Coyne). We also regularly look in on the infirmary presided over by Dr. Beauregard (Leon Rippy, a long way from Saving Grace's angelic Earl). He may just be a Nazi-style monster, even if he is only "following orders".
The creative team behind Alcatraz was partly inspired by documented instances from the Fifties and Sixties in which prison inmates were used as test subjects for physical and psychological experiments, often without their knowledge or consent. In Alcatraz, such experiments have become routine, and rarely is there anything therapeutic behind them. (An exception occurs in episode 11, "Webb Porter", which involves music therapy.) Do any of these experiments relate to the disappearance of the 63s? By the end of episode 13, enough hints have been deployed that one can construct a plausible explanation—and enough wiggle room has been left that the creative team would have been free to choose a different direction if the series had continued.
Jones and Garcia establish an entertaining rhythm despite the fact that their pairing has a pitch-meeting artificiality about it (short, spunky blonde spitfire meets stocky, reticent, dark nerd) and the limitations that the mythology imposes on them. (Their characters have to remain distant, or else they might exchange too much information.) What binds them together is Hauser's attitude, which is equally bad toward both younger colleagues. Neill's characterization of Hauser is one of the easily overlooked but best parts of Alcatraz, because Neill has the difficult task of playing someone who may or may not be on the same side as his co-workers. Half a century of dogged pursuit have changed him; as someone who remembers him from the old days remarks at one point, Hauser has lost the qualities that made him likeable as a young man. He now more closely resembles the ruthless government bureaucrat Neill played in Memoirs of an Invisible Man. Among other things, he fails to inform his junior colleagues about the "new" underground Alcatraz where he takes the recaptured 63s for imprisonment, study and maybe other things.
Alcatraz doesn't stint on showing the brutality of either the criminals who served time there or some of the jailers who supervised their stay. From that perspective, it's a vivid crime drama, separate and apart from its occasionally overwrought sci-fi mythology. As long as you're willing to accept a resolution of the latter that's less than perfect, the series is worth watching.
Alcatraz: The Complete Series Blu-ray, Video Quality
Shot on hi-def video, Alcatraz comes to Blu-ray in a 1080p, AVC-encoded treatment that neatly preserves the carefully delineated palettes distinguishing between the two timelines. There's never any doubt where you are in Alcatraz's fractured narrative. Even if the locations, costumes and haircuts didn't make it clear, the desaturated chill of the 1960s scenes—usually, but not always, initiated by the sound of cell doors and a translucent graphic of bars slamming across the screen—tell you instantly that the Rock is active and functioning. In the present, colors are warm and vibrant, fleshtones are natural, and even the caverns below Alcatraz appear to be alive, thanks to the huge array of lively computer monitors and other technology that bring all the hues of the rainbow into the task force's quarters. (In an episode where a downpour causes the power to flicker on and off, the temporary loss of those colors is even more shocking than the loss of illumination.) In both time periods, detail is excellent, black levels are strong, and artifacting and noise are de minimis.
Alcatraz: The Complete Series Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Despite the sci-fi premise, Alcatraz is primarily dominated by talk, but when the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track does get an opportunity, it shines. The attacks by a sniper in episode 2 capture the sonic confusion of a panicking crowd. A mess hall riot in episode 10 catches the melee and the havoc. The thunderous downpour in episode 8 echoes through the rear speakers. A Bullitt-style chase through San Francisco registers with appropriate force and impact. All of the prison scenes in the past and all of the scenes beneath the now-disused prison in the present have a subtle sense of ambiance supplied by the rear speakers. The dialogue, which includes an array of distinctive regional accents (since prisoners on the Rock came from all over the country), is clearly rendered. The score credited to Michael Giacchino, Andrea Datzman and Chris Tilton may occasionally remind you of Fringe, which is appropriate, since both Tilton and Giacchino work on that show as well.
Alcatraz: The Complete Series Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Alcatraz: The Complete Series Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Whether or not one wants to invest time in a show whose mythology was never allowed to develop to its full extent is a personal choice, but to those who insist that no prematurely canceled show can ever be worth anyone's time, I have a one-word answer: Firefly. Now, admittedly Firefly is the platinum standard that it's hard to imagine any other canceled show achieving (and Alcatraz certainly does not), but stop for a moment and consider what happened when Firefly's creator, Joss Whedon, bucked the odds to get his show's mythology to a point of closure in the feature film, Serenity. Not every fan was overjoyed with the outcome (and I'll say no more for fear of spoilers). Sometimes it's better to leave things to the imagination.
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Alcatraz: The Complete Series Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Alcatraz: The Complete Series Blu-ray - June 13, 2012
Warner Home Entertainment will bring Alcatraz to Blu-ray in the fall. Executive-produced by filmmaker J.J. Abrams (Super 8), this science-fiction procedural focuses on the mysterious time-displacement that transports Alcatraz's worst criminals to the present day. ...
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