Alcatraz: First Look
koppie — Tue, 01/17/2012 - 23:39
For once, I'm not talking about the island; I'm talking about the new show. The premise: In 1963 the prison closed and all the prisoners were transfered. "Only, that's not what happened." Now, they're coming back, and the team dedicated to finding them is made up of one corrections officer, one inexperienced-yet-plucky cop, and an overweight comic book nerd.
I've been in love with the island for a long time. I work there as an NPS volunteer twice a year. I've seen pretty much everything there is to see on that island and I know most of its dark secrets. (I can't say I know all its secrets, because I learn something new every time.) So naturally I'm excited by anything to do with Alcatraz.
But is the show worth watching? I'll start with the complaints, because I'm me.
What I Don't Like: Historical Inaccuracies
Because I'm such a history nut, I care about the little historical details. In some cases it doesn't matter, like the warden eating dinner in the prisoners' mess hall (he had his own house, literally right next door). But in other cases it does matter, like the made-up room that's supposedly the command center for this new crime-fighting team. Let's look at each one.
Warden Eating in the Prisoners' Mess Hall
Why I don't like it: The warden had a large, beautiful house literally next to the prison. When he ate dinner, he would have eaten it there. There's absolutely no reason for him to eat in the prisoners' hall, except to let him have a confrontation with a prisoner while he's eating.
Why they did it: It's an old device to show the antagonist eating; it makes him seem more aggressive and animalistic. See The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, where The Bad makes his appearance by eating another man's meal (and then shooting him). And the prisoner would never have been taken into the warden's house; prisoners were sent to Alcatraz precisely because they were dangerous and you couldn't give them chances like that. But I think if you're a skilled enough director (or screenwriter), you don't need to rely on cheap tricks like "I'm going to gnaw on this bone."
The "Bat Cave"
Hauser has set up a "command center" in an unused room underneath Alcatraz.
Why I don't like it: I've seen all the unused rooms, and none of them look like that. In fact, there's a crafts shop under the main cell block where tourists never go. It would have been an awesome place to set up a secret command center, and looks a lot cooler than the dressed set on a sound stage in Vancouver. Props for reusing the window bars from inside the main cell block, but I'm not fooled. I'm going to call this a missed opportunity.
Speaking of missed opportunities, why set up the command center on the island? The Bureau of Prisons closed the island precisely because it's a pain in the butt to get to. Everything has to be shipped in, even water and electricity. When they re-catch these prisoners, they put them in a brand new underground facility (more on that later). Why couldn't they put the command center there too? Better yet: how about a snazzy office on the 14th floor of some office building in San Francisco, with a beautiful view of the island? That would have been cool.
"Maybe they put the command center there because it's 'ground zero,' where the mysterious event occurred." That would make sense, except the very first prisoner to reappear did so right there on the island, and they didn't catch him. Rick Perry would say "oops."
The Records Room
Why I don't like it: In an earlier scene, Plucky Young Cop walks into a dark, dingy records room. It looks like it's under the guards' barracks, but made out of old brick, which would date it to the Civil War era. Cool, except it's not there.
Why they did it: I've seen the real records room. The NPS has reused the old casemates over the dock. During the Civil War, the island was protected on all sides by large cannons. Over the dock there was a row of cannons in bomb-proof shelters called casemates. It's now the ranger's office. They have a library, meeting room, even a couch where you can have a comfy nap. Only two problems:
(1) The door has a modern code lock, which you can't pick with a detective's "standard issue" lock-picking kit, and
(2) It's filled with park rangers. You can't just wander in there and look at records - unless you're me, of course. ;-)
Escaped Prisoner #2 is a sniper. To introduce this fact, they concoct a scene where the warden is playing with a sniper rifle and asks the prisoner for tips. This scene takes place in the exercise yard.
Why I don't like it:There is a shooting range on the island. I've been there. It's awesome. Also, there was a strict rule against allowing weapons on the floor of the prison, because there was too much of a chance that a prisoner could overpower a guard, and then they'd have an automatic weapon. Almost every prisoner there had shot someone, and most of them had shot guards. So armed guards were placed on elevated catwalks behind bars.
Why they did it: You wouldn't take the prisoner to the warden's dining room, and you sure as hell wouldn't take him to the shooting range. Besides, the range is only about 10 yards long, maybe 15. Nowhere near long enough for a sniper rifle. And once again, showing the warden with a rifle makes him seem more intimidating.
What I Don't Like: Narrative Flaws
The Plucky Team
When Alcatraz was transfered from the Army to the Prison Bureau, it was the highest maximum security prison in the United States. Let's put it this way: Alcatraz's successor is San Quentin. The one time some prisoners escaped, there was a massive manhunt all over the Bay Area. (The escaped prisoners were never found; I think they drowned in the freezing water.)
My point: if maximum-security prisoners were coming back, the FBI would be all over this shit. And the Federal Marshals. And half a dozen other government agencies. Yes, you don't want word getting out because it would cause a panic and blah blah blah. But there's plenty that the FBI does that is secret. They sure as hell wouldn't let a major law enforcement operation be run by an old, washed-out corrections officer, and they sure as hell wouldn't leave the investigation up to an inexperienced-but-plucky young detective from the SFPD. Especially in today's age of inter-agency cooperation, I could see this easily being an inter-agency task force involving 20 officers from half a dozen agencies.
Let's Not Use Gloves
Again, these are some of the worst criminals our country has ever known. Most of them were on the FBI's Most Wanted List; some of them were #1. You'd think CSI would want to get in there. But when our plucky heroes visit a crime scene, they never wear gloves. You'd think that would cause a problem for someone at some point.
Okay, I know, it's a show about prisoners who disappeared 50 years ago, time traveled to the future, and are now reappearing. Clearly this show expects some major suspension of disbelief. But for me, the world shatters altogether when the homicide detective (who should know better) smears her fingerprints all over the bad guy's spent shell casing.
The New Alcatraz
I don't want to spoil too much, but you already know the premise is finding old Alcatraz inmates and recapturing them. The natural choice would be to put them in a supermax facility; there are four in California alone. But no, they've created a new facility. The only thing I'll say about it is that it has guards with guns. On the floor of the cell block.
Why I don't like it: Alcatraz didn't do that because it was too dangerous. Even in 1933 they had this figured out. And Hauser would know that; he worked there. So why is the new prison less secure? Because it's a TV show, that's why.
What I Liked
The comic book nerd mentions Alcatraz's Civil War history. This is a little-known aspect of the island, and (in my opinion) the coolest. There might have been another reference where one prisoner warns another, "you haven't seen under the prison." Underneath the prison are the remains of the original Civil War citadel. In fact, they stuck bad prisoners down there, sometimes for a week at a time. I've seen Al Capone's chicken scratches on the wall from when he was down there. I'm not sure if the prisoner meant that literally or metaphorically, and in the pilot the guards were certainly creative in torturing the prisoners (making you wonder who was the real bad guy), but we haven't caught a glimpse of the citadel yet.
Another nice moment: when they lead a prisoner out of the main cell block, and they have to drop the key to the guards on a string. Not only is that real, but in fact that key on a string played a major role in the prison riot of 1946.
One of my favorite scenes was the mysterious night scene when the prisoners disappear. Two corrections officers arrive at the dock at night, and the place is lit up but deserted. I've seen that island a million times, although never at night, but as far as I can tell they got it perfect. Even the empty truck sitting down by the docks; that truck is really from the island. They got pretty much every detail correct, and the result is thrilling.
Other things they got right:
- The guard control room
- The visiting area
- The ferry to and from the island
- Endless scenes of the island: The exercise yard, the prison block, the old brick corridor, the hospital wing, the dock. All done to perfection.
Finally, my favorite moment was when Plucky Young Detective and Comic Book Nerd agree to go visit Alcatraz. "Pier 33, first boat out."